Mr. Umashankar, IAS, MD of ELCOT, Interview on OSS by Hindu Businessline dated 19th Feb 07
Meet C.Umashankar IAS, Managing Director of Electronics Corporation of Tamil Nadu Ltd (www.elcot.com) . He is a guest lecturer at IIM-B (the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore) for the e-governance training program targeted at senior Government officers, and a post-graduate diploma program titled `Reinventing government’. Also, he lectures at the National Productivity Council, New Delhi, on transformation of administration using e-governance.
A native of Tirunelveli, the 42-year-old bureaucrat had served in three nationalised banks before joining the Indian Administrative Service (IAS).
During his two-year tenure as the District Collector of Tiruvarur (1999-2001) all the seven Taluk offices could achieve over 85 per cent paperless automation. They use an ERP (enterprise resource planning) called Taluk Automation Software, which has modules for HRD (human resource development) , land record administration, national old age pension scheme, distress and accident relief scheme administration, agricultural labourers’ insurance scheme, community certificate issue, income and solvency certificate issue, birth and death registration and issue of certificates, etc,” explains Umashankar.
He is founder member and moderator of India e-gov group on Yahoo (groups.yahoo. com/group/ egovINDIA). “As on date this is the most vigorous group in India which focuses fully on implementing true e-governance solutions in India,” says Umashankar. Here, even as he is busy with IT park-related work, Umashankar takes on a few questions from eWorld, on a different passion of his: OSS.
A brief description of Open Source (OS), for the lay reader.
Open source software (OSS) means the source code of the software is open for viewing and editing. The users have the freedom to edit the source code, rename it and use it as they wish. This is contrary to proprietary software, which does not allow the buyers/users to look at the source code.
Open source should not be confused with free software. Open source software can be priced too. Free software is not priced at all. The similarity between the two is that both OSS and free software enable the users to view and modify the software code. Commencing mildly with the Linux operating system in the early 90s, today OSS controls major systems in the world. This includes the day-to-day use open office software on the desktops to the operating system for the most powerful mainframe computers of the corporate world.
It all started with the Finnish software engineer Linus Torvalds (born on December 28, 1969) throwing open the Linux kernel for open review and development during 1991. Linux has grown into a reliable operating system of the masses and the enterprises in the last 25 years, thus occupying 75 per cent of the servers in the world. Though OSS started with Linux, today for every requirement there is almost a free version of the OSS (Free/Libre/ Open-Source Software or FLOSS). For example, http://brlcad. org speaks about `a powerful Constructive Solid Geometry (CSG) solid modelling system with over 20 years development and production use by the US military,’ offered as a project on http://sourceforge. net, `the world’s largest Open Source software development Web site’.
Which is better, OSS or the closed alternative? Why?
OSS is always the best-suited choice for all class of users. Because the user/consumer has the freedom to view and modify the code to suit his/her convenience. As the source is open, one can be sure that there is no hijacking of the data by unknown elements. Yet, for certain applications open source alternative may not be available. For such uses, one has to necessarily go for proprietary or closed source software. Certain computer companies specialise in proprietary technologies alone. They need to use proprietary software to run their businesses.
For normal businesses, OSS is definitely the better choice, though users have to consider their comfort level. The latest OSS distributions such as Novell’s Suse have broken the user interface barriers thus giving a good run for the proprietary packages. Wherever businesses have looked at the OSS alternatives, they have started migrating. Wherever they have not looked at the OSS alternatives, their comfort level would continue to be with proprietary software packages. The fear of the unknown can be conquered only by venturing to test the OSS versions. As of now, the comfort level of the users and also the ability to explore new packages, notably the OSS alternatives, decide the options between the OSS and the proprietary packages.
For Governments all over the world, which use mostly the operating system (desktop and servers), database software and office productivity software, open source provides more than the best alternatives. OSS and governments are like made for each other. Governments can run their entire applications on OSS itself. That is the power of OSS today.
Would business purposes also be better served by OSS, than the closed system?
Yes, for a normal business house including giant business companies located in all parts of the world, OSS is the best choice. They can save huge investment on IT infrastructure and also can save billions of dollars in servicing or upgrading the software systems.
Are security issues a cause for concern in OSS?
Security issues are better addressed in OSS than in proprietary systems. I have personally tested the security systems in OSS. I was not able to intrude into the system as long as the default firewall was on. Once I brought down the Linux default firewall, the system allowed remote access.
Over 75 per cent of the world’s servers are on OSS today because of the robustness of security in Linux. The beauty is that organisations successfully use old PIII machines as firewalls to protect their systems. Linux firewall using old machines is very popular among system administrators all over the world. Linux OS does not require any anti virus software nor does it require constant security patches. It is unbreakable.
There is a misconception that once Linux is popular, it would get viruses. This is false propaganda, as Linux kernel does not allow executables the way proprietary system allows. Nothing can be hidden in a Linux system. A virus operates on its strength to hide from the users. Such hiding powers are not there in a Linux system. So Linux would continue to be free from viruses not for now alone but forever.
Is advertising a constraint for the popularity of OSS, as compared to the competition?
No, it is not advertisement that decides the popularity of OSS or its spread. The lack of policy from Governments hampers the spread of OSS. When Governments start using OSS, the spread of OSS becomes faster and its acceptability among corporates becomes open. Currently, many business houses, including certain large ones use only OSS to cut down cost and improve the reliability of their systems. But they are hesitant to share their successes for fear of the unknown.
Once the Governments take a clear stand, things would change drastically. The least the Governments could do is to declare that all their applications should be built on cross platform systems thus providing them the freedom to migrate to OSS in future. I have been using OSS for the past three-plus years. It is a great experience. I am convinced that OSS could transform India’s economy and also its e-governance effectiveness.
How expensive will a changeover to OSS be? Will adoption of OSS translate to substantial savings? What are the economics involved?
The switchover from proprietary system to OSS depends on the current software environment. If an organisation has just begun its IT quest, then the switchover can be done instantly with a huge cost saving. If an organisation has already invested on client server architecture using proprietary systems, then the migration takes a little time and investment. The existing proprietary client server system has to be migrated to OSS compliant (JSP/J2EE/PHP) based Web-server centric system. Once this is done, the switchover is total as the client systems need not have any software to run the OSS based system except the popular browsers such as Mozilla Firefox.
If an organisation is careful enough to develop the application software in a cross platform environment such as JSP/J2EE/PHP environment, then the switchover to OSS can be done overnight. World over, business houses and the Governments have realised that it is futile to configure systems on client-server architecture as it involves more expenditure in commissioning and maintaining the systems. It is time they started configuring their Web-based systems using platform independent software tools. That is the key to cutting down the cost when they take a decision to migrate to complete OSS driven systems.
As a thumb rule, I can say that at the low end the saving could be between 15 and 25 per cent. On office productivity suite, the saving is 100 per cent. On software development tools, the saving could be close to 100 per cent. As one moves to the higher level of architecture, the saving could reach up to 75 per cent.
Servicing of an application software takes equal outlay on OSS as well as proprietary software as long as the code is owned by the user. But if it is a closed code system, then the cost of servicing a proprietary system is much more prohibitive than the OSS.
OSS gives freedom to the user to choose a vendor for servicing the system. In the case of proprietary system, the choice factor is completely missing. The lack of bargaining power is the reason for the expensive nature of the proprietary systems.
Do we have the skills needed for creating and adapting OSS applications?
Yes. OSS does not require complicated skills. It needs leadership to own the OSS during the initial period. Thereafter OSS would take off on its own strength. All the computer science engineering students are taught Unix as part of their curriculum. So, supporting OSS is no issue at all.
Moreover, today the OSS is fully GUI (graphical user interface) compliant, or at least 99 per cent of it. So, the users do not require any special skillset to run the OSS system. The first time user hardly finds any difference between a Linux system and a proprietary system on the one hand and the difference between the open office software and the equivalent proprietary software. To that extent GUI is so much user friendly in the OSS system.
Should there be policies and tax sops that promote the use of OSS?
Only policy is needed. OSS does not need tax sops as it comes mostly free for the users. OSS-based application software may pay the usual VAT (value-added tax), which is not prohibitive, and so tax incentives may not promote OSS. But policy decision would definitely promote. For example, the IT hardware supplied by many of the vendors/manufacture rs does not come with OSS drivers. This is against MRTP (Monopolies and Restrictive Trade Practices) Act. If the Governments lay down a policy that all the IT hardware should be sold only with OSS drivers then the acceptance of OSS as an alternative system would pick up like wild fire. This sort of a policy initiative from the Government of India and the State Governments is the need of the hour. Similarly, the Governments have to take a decision to build their application software packages in platform neutral coding system such as JSP/J2EE/Php etc. This would give tremendous freedom to the Governments to switch over to OSS, the day they take the decision. To retain such a freedom, Governments have to issue policy directives to the departments. This has not happened yet, anywhere in India.
What can be a starting point for OSS in businesses?
Business is all about profits. Every penny saved is a penny gained. OSS offers tremendous advantage to the business houses. It all requires the top management to issue a policy directive to use OSS in their day-to-day use. The cost saved in the short run and long run would put them ahead of their competitors. The EDP wing has to be populated with at least one OSS specialist. The cost saved on an existing EDP specialist would compensate this. The existing EDP manpower can be trained at a nominal cost and redeployed. It all requires leadership.
http://www.thehindu businessline. com/ew/2007/ 02/19/stories/ 2007021900130400 .htm