FLOSS Gives India A Boost In Many Markets And Endeavors
pavan • onIt & Systems 11 years ago • 12 min read

A recent conference in India offered examples of how FLOSS affects everything from education and health services to internal software markets.

From banks and hospitals to software houses and prestigious technological institutions, the charm of free/libre and open-source software (FLOSS) is casting a spell in India that is pushing many here to venture into uncharted fields.

Stories of unanticipated efficiency, innovative solutions and slashed costs surfaced at a two-day seminar titled "Enterprise GNU/Linux Implementation: Evaluating Non-Proprietary Software for the Enterprise", held in mid-June in India's commercial capital of Mumbai (formerly Bombay). The seminar was presented by global business information company MarcusEvans.

Participants at this most recent meeting included techies and executives from banking and finance, including Canara Bank, ING Vysya Life Insurance, Kotak Securities, Syndicate Bank; IT corporates, such as Blue Star Infotech, Micropro Software of Pune; giant Government of India companies, including Hindustan Petroleum, Bharat Heavy Electricals Ltd; academic institutions, such as KReSIT of the IIT Bombay; and others.

"Once big names like IBM, Oracle and Sun started supporting Linux in a big way, confidence levels of the industry grew", said Neeraj Bhai, the chief technical officer of India's young private-sector, technology-driven IDBI Bank. It has 98 banking offices and 274 ATMs across the country. Linux is used in IDBI Bank for e-mail servers, Internet messaging, intrusion detection systems, Oracle-based applications on human resources and finance and even an IVRS (interactive voice response system). "We've saved both on hardware and administration cost. This is not the beaten track. Linux has not been widely tested in the (conservative) finance or banking scenario (in these parts of the world). We are among the first in Asia-Pacific to do it", Bhai added.

Linux also is being used at the prestigious Mumbai-based Breach Candy Hospital. GNU/Linux has stepped in as a solution for some 70 or so desktops, being used by doctors and clerks. "Our doctors are happy, very happy," said Dilip M Desai, manager of information systems at Breach Candy Hospital. "It is being used for our hospital administration. It captures data from the central server and displays it on PCs and desktops. Our uses [of Linux-based solutions] include showing how many hospital rooms are vacant and what's the charge for each room", Desai added.

Of late, the hystopathology department of the hospital is looking at using a Linux-based solution to track reports of cancer patients that need to maintain records over long years of the disease. Desai said, "Linux has resulted in a considerable cost reduction for software. There is a high level of security, and it adds to the longevity of legacy systems. It is also very stable and needs little support, besides being less vulnerable to various attacks."

On the negative side, Desai concedes Linux is "still not too user friendly" and lacks trained software professionals. Sometimes, peripherals are not compatible, says Desai.

From the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, another prominent region in the IT field, officer N.C. Nagarjuna Reddy stressed how a department with a tough job--preserving land records, some of which trace back centuries--is deploying GNU/Linux solutions. Despite the teething problems, GNU/Linux solutions were taken to 103 locations in 2001, another 136 in 2002 and an addition so far this year. "Since Linux is very mean in using resources, we started using desktops as servers", said Reddy. "An entry-level server with UNIX could have cost about Rs 200,000. We got a desktop server with Linux for just Rs 45,000. You may multiply the figure by 387", he said, proudly pointing to the money saved.

Meanwhile, Dr. Gautam Shroff, head of architecture and technology practice for Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), said, "I am not an evangelist but definitely a fan of open source." TCS calls itself Asia's largest global software and services company. Shroff said the "TCO (total cost of ownership) is definitely lowered by Linux adoption, which improves the RoI (return on investment. There is a big decrease in the perceived difficulty of using Linux. The number of security threats on Linux web-servers is dramatically lower too."

Shroff also said enterprises are shifting from using Linux for "traditional" roles to more "contemporary" and "evolving" purposes. Previously, FLOSS was seen as good for firewalls, print/file servers, web servers and e-mail. Contemporary uses have included deploying it for superclusters, software development, e-commerce, embedded devices and branch automation, said Dr Shroff. Evolving uses for FLOSS in India include deploying it for database servers, ERP, CRM and SCM.

On the topic, Shroff said,"I build proprietary software myself. We invest huge amounts of money in that. But if you got limited resources and a great idea, then open source is the best way to make it happen."

Shroff gave hints that TCS has plans to launch an open-source Lab in the Indian capital of New Delhi, possibly involving IBM and Red Hat along with TCS, which is a division of India's giant Tatas business house. "If the campaign against piracy gets too strict, it could drive Linux. In some sense, Microsoft recognizes that very strong anti-piracy drives against SMEs (small and medium enterprises) will not pay", added Shroff.

Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) provides R&D support to India's nuclear power reactor programme, which has an installed capacity of 2,000 MW and plans for a ten-fold increase by the year 2020. Kaura hinted at the pressures that arose in the field of technology transfer following India's nuclear blasts in 1998. This type of transfer problem doesn't afflict FLOSS users. BARC associate director Harish Kumar Kaura said, "Up to 10-12 [ago], every system we got from abroad required [us] to be supplied with the source code... Now, everything (we buy) is a black box. We have about 2,500 scientists, mainly using FORTRAN, and their main requirement is computational speed."

Kaura added, "It was known that nobody [read, the US] would give supercomputers to BARC. We are now using open source for our Internet and e-mail servers, computing clusters, supercomputers, advanced graphics systems, specialised database systems; we now are looking at it for computing grids."

BARC has an Anupam series of computers, with a Linpack benchmark speed of 72 GigaFlops and 2-D scalable coherent interfaces. Its applications include molecular dynamics simulations, crystal structure analysis, neuron transport calculations, gamma ray simulations, 3-D electromagnetic plasma simulations and first principle electronic structure computations. Anupam computers also work on laser-atom interaction computations, computational fluid dynamics, finite element structure and weather forecasting, Kaura said.

The computers' scalable graphics systems use a number of Linux-based graphics workstations to achieve a display resolution of over 100 million pixels and a rendering speed of over 100 million polygons per second.

"Ours is the latest stock exchange to be set up in India [in 1993-94]. Earlier, all were localized and regional stock exchanges. Ours covers 360 cities and towns" said National Stock Exchange's NSE.IT senior vice president G.M. Shenoy. To meet their high reliability requirements, the Indian APEX stock exchange uses parallel processing techniques with the MPI (message passing interface) standard on GNU/Linux-based Intel clusters. Its application software is developed in ANSI C, runs on all favours of UNIX/Linux and deploys a Java-based user interface. "This is a highly scalable solution, offering total fault-tolerance, able to handle large processing loads and offering a highly cost-effective solution", said Shenoy.

IIT Mumbai computer centre head Dr. G Sivakumar, from the prestigious technology training temple of western India, says, "We have 5000+ nodes on our campus. When we talk of users and management, the nightmare begins. GNU/Linux is the sine qua non (of our smooth functioning)."

Professor "Siva" explained how one of India's best factories for engineering brains uses GNU/Linux for its firewalls, load balancing, traffic control, domain name services, LDAP, e-mail services, web-browsing issues (blocking out "bad stuff", such as pirated entertainment and pornography), network and user management, virus detection, mail usage statistics, web proxies and much more. "Spam-assassin is very good [to block spam]. Squid is the best proxy server in the world. You'll see I'm not very guarded about my statements" said the engineering don with a twinkle in the eye.

Sivakumar argues that IIT-B is not only a "consumer" of GNU/Linux but is also contributing back to the community. He points to Varta, which offers authenticated access to IIT-B newsgroups for alumni and a sophisticated HTTP to NNTP gateway, apart from solutions for secular on-line polls and surveys.

Students have worked on streaming audio/video based on ffmpeg, Palnatir and mplayer. MTech projects include HyperSuit, a document object model, and Arrowsmith, for network discovery and performance measurement.

Narayanan Subramaniam, technical head for R&D of Benz Infotech, an Indian firm based in the southern city of Kochi, points to the "cost effective nature of GNU/Linux-based super-computing for the enterprise. It can be used in applications ranging from movie animation to computational fluid dynamics and astrophysics", he said.

Sachin Dabi, head of enterprise sales for Red Hat India, said their product was going onto 6,000 desktops in schools in North India. For the Tata Share Registry, two Linux-based servers could do the same job as ten in a "pre-Linux environment", he said. In addition, in the western Indian state of Maharashtra, a land-records system was saving money on OS licenses and offering results in Indian language solutions.

Interested enterprises were prompted by Government of India's Department of IT senior director S. R. "Ramki" Ramakrishna: "GNU/Linux has matured to a stage where you can put your money on it. It's a very serious contender for you to look at. I've had corporations coming back and say, 'We want to present a business case to our board (on the adoption of FLOSS), so what should we do next?'"

Ramki argued that while statistics showed there were 470 Indian companies working on software products, the strength of this region lay more in services.

To this end, India's government has launched the Linux India Initiative, though Ramakrishna admitted this has taken time to get off the ground. Linux India Initiative is aimed at creating resource centres, special interest groups, pilot sites, localization of FLOSS products and commissioning research studies. It also helps introduce FLOSS into the curriculum of engineering colleges.

Ramakrishna said that the government could help to identify areas of opportunity in free software, work with all stake-holders and take a leading role in promoting free software for e-governance, tens of thousands of schools, rural computerisation projects and SMEs (small-and-medium enterprises). In addition, Ramakrishna said, the government needs to "disabuse everyone of the notion that being pro-open source or pro-GNU/Linux is being anti-any vendor [read: Microsoft] in any way.... Everybody talks about GNU/Linux as a great opportunity. If we ignore it, it will be at our own peril."

Without over-estimating local strengths, Ramakrishna believes India and South Asia could play a role in "influencing GNU/Linux's fortunes. But we should not over-estimate our strengths. We need to work with other countries, and watch developments in other parts of the globe", he added.

Recalling the statements made by Indian President APJ Abdul Kalam, a former top scientist himself, which strongly favoured FLOSS, Ramakrishna said: "I was with three very senior colleagues. The first said he (the President) shouldn't have spoken. The second man said, in any case, it didn't matter what the President said because the government of India is not run by the President. Personally, I can say that the President's statement inspired me."

Participants at this most recent meeting included techies and executives from banking and finance, including Canara Bank, ING Vysya Life Insurance, Kotak Securities, Syndicate Bank; IT corporates, such as Blue Star Infotech, Micropro Software of Pune; giant Government of India companies, including Hindustan Petroleum, Bharat Heavy Electricals Ltd; academic institutions, such as KReSIT of the IIT Bombay; and others.

"So far we have been wondering whether GNU/Linux is ready for the Enterprise. But now I think we should wonder whether the Enterprise is ready for GNU/Linux," quipped Prof G. Nagarjuna. Nagarjuna, an educator and articulate free software evangelist from Mumbai's Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education, was referring to the feet-dragging and visible reluctance, especially among Indian IT majors.

In general, smaller Indian firms and end-users have been more bolder in experimenting with the FLOSS model of software. But bigger, export-oriented firms that have made their millions from a services model apparently harbor fears about the way free sharing of code could impact their abilities to earn from overseas contracts.

Prof Nagarjuna egged on software firms, saying

Software is like knowledge. The more you sell, your stocks don't get depleted. Software is not to be treated like a (scarce) commodity. The only business model that follows from here is the service model. Don't use any technology which you don't have the rights to repair. Enterprises should have control over what they do.

Nagarjuna challenged the view that India was earning significantly from software exports. He said, "This is a myth. We export services, not software [products]. But we do import software [products]." He said he had approached the big players' software body NASSCOM (National Association of Software and Service Companies, which has traditionally been seen as a pro-proprietary software organisation) for details to "prepare a balance sheet" of the costs of proprietary software products India exports and imports. "If we start paying for all the software we use [a lot of software used in India is illegally copied], will the balance still be positive? I'm not so sure", he argued.

India also is developing tools that business can use, such as the spreadsheet program Gnumeric, which is available in Hindi and Malayalam, two languages spoken by millions. The Malayalam language endeavor was done by volunteers who received support from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), which offered funding worth Rs 600,000 (less than US $13,000) to volunteers who put the solution together in nine months flat.

Furthermore, India is a "strategic region" for one of the world's most popular alternative databases, MySQL, which is promising firms "superior and affordable" software. "India traditionally has developed software for other countries. Right now, we see an increasing trend of developing software for the internal market. It is a strategic market for us", said MySQL spokesperson Gerardo Narvaja.

Some here have coined a new label for code that gets packaged as free or open source--"Swatantra Software", an evocative term that implies freedom and harkens back to India's historic anti-colonial struggle.



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