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Alumnus Sunil Adapa  

When crusader for free software, Sunil Adapa gets on his soapbox and talks about FreedomBox in a murky cloud where our private data is bartered for a few crumbs of free-of-cost proprietary services, whether for entertainment or convenience, you see a visionary that needs a larger audience.   

Big business spying and data piracy are modern-day bogeymen, elbowing for space in our collective fear of an AI-driven future. That makes Sunil Mohan Adapa’s work on free software very significant. The 2003 graduation batch IIITH alumnus has been working relentlessly on FreedomBox for a decade as a core contributor. The downloadable software is a pure blend of Debian (operating system and distribution of free software), making it easier for users to host servers and data at home.

Social media today is a fertile unfiltered territory for active psychological manipulation. Elections and the fate of large nations have been influenced and people have lost a lot of control in their lives by using proprietary software and services. He believes that decentralisation of the Internet, data ownership and protection of our digital rights are the most pressing concerns for the software community.

Igniting a lifelong passion for societal good at IIITH 
Adapa’s intense passion for free software was a direct consequence of the ecosystem nurtured at IIIT Hyderabad. Listening to guest lectures by Dr. Richard Stallman, lauded as the Father of the ‘free software movement ‘, would seal the deal for him. “Back in the day, we had Jeevan Vidya that helped future engineers delve into issues like the meaning of happiness and the use of engineering skills for societal good. I was mentored by professors like Rajeev Sangal, Jayanthi Sivaswamy, PJ Narayanan, Kamal Karlapalem and Govindarajulu and started pursuing simplicity as a life goal. For the first time, we had the choice of exploring and taking ownership of our projects, which brought a big transformation in my life,” comments the engineer.

It takes a lifetime to grow an old friend
“IIITH taught me good engineering, gave me a big circle of friends and taught me to be independent”, observes Adapa. In the early days, the unused ground floor of the present Library block was converted into makeshift hostel rooms with 4-foot-high partition walls. If the dormitory environment was a happily chaotic space, the laboratory, packed with over 50 students at any given time, had an altogether different vibe. Along with sharing music, videos and playing games, there was a tremendous amount of learning happening. “My circle of friends I built during my IIITH days are close even today. We meet regularly for a game of volleyball and celebrate various occasions and they are a big source of comfort for me”, he muses.

From the Banyan Tree to beyond
After a brief stint at Wipro, Adapa joined TCS Advance Technology Center where he worked on Indian Language Computing for GNU/Linux and free software operating systems, including supporting features like fonts, Unicode, keyboard layouts, text-to-speech systems, dictionaries, spell checkers etc. He would later join Synovel Technologies, a start-up based out of Hyderabad, that built an open-source collaboration suite called SpiceBird.

When he moved to independent consulting, solving hard technical problems, and creating big architecture designs for large teams was especially exciting. “Because I was troubleshooting hard problems, I was also paid very well and got to build a small nest egg for pursuing my passion in free software. When IIITH offered me a guest lectureship, I jumped at the chance”, says Adapa who found the post-lecture sessions particularly gratifying, when students would hang back to discuss various topics.

Around that time, his plans to move to the USA took shape. He was concurrently pursuing his passion in free software, as a core contributor for FreedomBox. “That’s when I met like-minded people like Roy Singham, Chairman of Thoughtworks, a big proponent of social work through free software. He encouraged me to join them and work full-time on FreedomBox and for six long years, I had the opportunity to work on open-source projects”. When economic changes led to a new direction in Thoughtworks, Adapa resigned last year to devote his full attention to the FreedomBox project. Today, Sunil and his techie-wife Varsha Lavu, who is also an alumnus of IIITH live in Redmond near Seattle in Washington state.

FreedomBox and saving privacy in the cloud  
FreedomBox is the brainchild of Prof. Eben Moglen, an American legal scholar at Columbia University. Moglen’s seminal talk called Freedom in the Cloud in 2012 spotlighted the looming threat to our digital rights in today’s world. Our devices are glorified shells to access remote services and we have entrusted our digital lives to large conglomerates that capture our data and manipulate us with nuanced information that has demonstrably affected even the elections of large nations. Prof. Mogen believes that if the Internet is owned by 4 or 5 large corporations, we are headed towards technological doom.

The solution he presented was FreedomBox, a private server at home that would allow us to take back control over our computing.  Instead of storing our data and receiving services from Google et al, we can do that at home, using compact hardware such as the Raspberry Pi or Open-Source Hardware (OSHW) like Olimex’s Lime2, about the size of a Wi-Fi router, which is a series of low-cost, versatile, open design small single-board computers (SBCs) and is popular with computer and electronic hobbyists.

The software provides various services like file sharing and synchronizing files across all devices, emails, the ability to host a website instead of using a cloud-based service provider, several tools to circumvent censorship and a whole bunch of applications like Zoph for photo-sharing software. “Our focus is to make hosting server applications accessible for those who are not technically savvy”, he adds. The software serves individuals and their family/friend circles and is geared towards organizations like law firms or journalists that require high levels of privacy.

Pre pandemic village gets connectivity
In 2017, when free software activist Siddhartha Malempati set up FreedomBox in Gangadevipalli and Surappagudem villages near Hyderabad, it was in the era before internet connectivity was available. Assisted by a volunteer force from engineering colleges, specialized antennae were mounted on tall poles across the village to create a free Wi-Fi network. For another village, a 2.6-kilometer Wi-Fi link was established using dish antennae strapped on the water tower and telecom tower of the villages. FreedomBox would act as a router to provide local instant messaging service, but the biggest hit was the internet connectivity feature via Wi-Fi, that got good coverage in local newspapers. Their techniques were documented in the Wikibook: FreedomBox for communities.

What fires his imagination?
Adapa’s free time is spent on home improvement projects in their fifty-year-old Redmond house. Along with plumbing, electrical and painting, the engineer particularly enjoys woodworking. “We spend a lot of time in the garden and even simple things like weeding, planting or watering the garden give me a lot of joy”, he observes. “I also escape into science fiction and OTT content, especially Anime. I love listening to music with a good tune or uplifting lyrics, whether it is Telugu movie songs, Indian and Western classical or Metallica. I might sound clichéd, but I enjoy programming”.

“Growing up in Guntur, my brother and I were always tinkerers, dismantling devices to see what makes them tick”, he comments. One cherished tradition was the youngsters’ visits to computer institutes to watch programmers at work since they were too young to enroll. “The programs that we wrote during those days amazed people much older than us. We were raised by my mother, a published author in Telugu folk literature and Reader at a junior college, who was the first Ph.D in her village. My brother and I were always in the early experimental batch of every institution that we studied in”, chuckles Adapa who was in the founding batch of both Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan’s Vidyashram and Wisdom junior college in Guntur. He joined IIIT Hyderabad in 1999, a year after its inception.

“My most enjoyable moments are when I am amidst Nature. In my travels, I love the culture of Europe and have met some of the nicest people in Finland. These days, we stick to the Washington area that has some of the prettiest scenic experiences and within hours, I can reach a beach, snowy mountains or thickest of forests”, says the social media phobe who has been very successful in staying hidden. “That said, my dream is to see FreedomBox being used by a million users, which would be time well spent”.

December 2023