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How open source software can be used effectively for Operations Research

By Prabhakar Deshpande, Open Source Evangelist
Prabhakar Deshpande

Prabhakar Deshpande

Operations Research(OR) is the use of advanced analytical methods to make better decisions. It is a subfield of mathematics. Operations Research(OR) is the science and technology in running complicated systems efficiently. For instance, OR would be used in managing the logistics of Supply Chain Management.

Wherever there is complicated system and you want to run it efficiently you would use Operations Research(OR). Railways would be a good example. There are passenger trains, goods train and there is scheduling and to run it efficiently you could use Operations Research. Optimising is one of the goals of Operations Research. There could be other goals of Operations Research. For instance goals of Operations Research(OR) could be to make sure that the system is safe and robust or can handle uncertainties in demand. Running system smoothly could be another goal of Operations Research.

Of course, anything such as Operations Research lends itself well to use of software. This could be Open Source Software. A part of the FOSSEE(www.fossee.in) project, at IIT Bombay, is trying to evangelize use of Open Source Software for Operations Research. The FOSSEE project – Free and Open Source Software for Education – is funded by Ministry of HRD, Government of India.

There are several reasons to use Free and Open Source Software for Operations Research such as :

1. With Open Source Software, it is possible to modify the code according to the need. Every problem is different and if you can’t modify the code, you are stuck. With proprietary software one cannot modify the code.

2. Free and Open Source Software is free and one does not have to pay the license fee. There is lot of freedom and one does not need to go back to the software provider asking for permission on when and how you can use the software.

3. Problems are challenging. With proprietary software one does not know what is happening within. With Open Source software one can point out the location of a bottleneck. One is able to customize.

The FOSSEE Project is trying to do two things to evangelize use of Open Source Software for Operations Research :

1. The FOSSEE project tries to popularize Open Source Software for Operations Research. This involves creating documentation and tutorials. Students develop text book companions by solving problems in various text books. Tutorials are being created explaining various Open Source Software for Operations Research.

2. Second thing that is being tried is to optimize using environments such as Scilab to be able to call Operations Research Solvers. There are many Operations Research Solvers. For instance, COIN is a large repository of Operations Research Solvers, such as CBC, Symphony etc. The FOSSEE project is trying to enhance existing tools for calling various Open Source Operations Research software. The FOSSEE project is developing a tool box in Scilab for calling Open Source Operations Research software. The FOSSEE project is creating better interfaces for calling Open Source Operations Research Software.

The goal is to train as many professionals in Open Source software for Operations Research as possible so that when they join the industry they are able to use these Open Source Operations Research software without cost to employers and with proficiency. The other goal is to enhance the capability of software – better interfaces and so on – so that it is able to meet the demands of the industry.

Currently three staff members within the FOSSEE project are working on developing tutorials and developing tool boxes within Scilab for calling Open Source Operations Research software. Four students from IIT Bombay are working on text book companions. There are some achievements. Around four or five text book companions have been written. Some audio video tutorials have been created. The team is close to finishing tool box in Scilab, which can be downloaded and installed. This tool box can be used for calling Open Source Operations Research software.

Several SME large organisations are beginning to use Open Source software for OR. Proprietary software is charged per computer. Purchasing proprietary software for many computers could be a very large investment. Many large organisations are not sure if they want to invest in proprietary software for Operations Research. Open Source is very good option to start using Operations Research tool.

Operations Research is picking up in India. Government and large organizations are realizing importance of OR. Hence there is scope to start with Open Source software for OR as the first choice. There could stick with Open Source software for OR and that will pay in long run. It is not as if they have made choice in proprietary software and invested in it and it is difficult to convince them to not use proprietary tools. Hence India is set for a big leap in area of adopting Open Source software for Operations Research.

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