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Battle Royale on the Govt Corridors

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DQI Bureau
New Update

While open source versus proprietary might be old news; it still

manages to raise sufficient dust to effect debates and discussions from

boardroom to parliaments. So, when CPI (M) Rajya Sabha MP Sitaram Yechury

declared his unstinted support for open-source, not many eyebrows were raised.

After all politicians are known to be ficklefriend today, foe tomorrow.

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Yet, the sand indeed seems to be shifting. Not many would have

been surprised at seeing West Bengal and Kerala canoodling the penguin. Simple

logicthe Left was influencing the way governments went in the Left-run

states. But the biggest surprise of the year has been the state of Tamil Nadu.

With no real ideological baggage, Tamil Nadu is indeed a surprise victory for

open source enthusiasts. Could it be that finally, business case is prevailing

over dogmas? If indeed that is so, the Giant from Redmond has a thing or two to

fret over.

Over the last many years, Microsoft has enjoyed complete

monopoly in the government space, much like it does in the consumer space. Yet,

dynamics between the two are quite different and can be gauged by the way

Microsofts stance has evolved over the years. A couple of years back, Steve

Ballmer, CEO, Microsoft, had threatened that Asian governments using Linux could

be sued for IP violations. He had claimed that Linux violated more than 228

Microsoft patents, and governments would have a tough time. Not many took him

seriously. So, the company took a reverse track and literally shook hands with

the devil, by aligning with Novell. After all, if you cant beat them, co-opt

them.

It is still time before a winner is decided, but as of now,

Microsoft has taken a blow or two from the Penguin, especially in India. Though

the current penetration is lowand not as rosy as in the US where Linux is

breathing down Windows 2000s neckit is estimated that Linux will have

substantial growth in India, and the government is expected to be the key

driver.

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While at present Microsoft clearly rules, the penguin has

managed to churn increasing interest at the state level clinching some major

deals. State governments have begun to seriously consider Linux as an option

(and these are not Left-aligned ones).

The year saw three states charting out a roadmap toward

migrating to the Linux platform. The year was also significant as the first ever

partnership between an open source company (Novell) and a proprietary software

company (Microsoft) came in to existence, leading critics to believe that

Microsoft finally is recognizing the growing prowess of the free and open

software.

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Left Rhetoric



As the only two Left-ruled states, Kerala and West Bengal, have been the
early votaries and adopters of Linux, the India story has spice in it. Not to

mention the Left parties, the largest allies of the UPA-led alliance at the

center, would like to put things in a different perspective as opposed to the

commonly held notion of the Left being on an ideological war with software

behemoth, Microsoft.

"We expect the

government to be our biggest customer in the domestic market"

"The message is to go

for open source, but doors are not shut for Microsoft"

Nandu Pradhan,

MD, Red Hat

Rohit Kumar,

country head, Public Sector, Microsoft

CPI (M) Member of Parliament and the partys central committee

member Nilotpal Basu, clarifies, "It is not a question of policy. Microsoft

might have to be used at some places, but our position is clear on this. The

push has to come from the government as open source provides plenty of

flexibility." Basu adds, "we do not favor any particular corporate, as

what ultimately matters is satisfaction of the users, and the fact that software

should be available abundantly."

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Nevertheless, overtones of ideological skirmish were visible as

Kerala announced its unequivocal migration to Linux last year in government run

schools. While announcing its plans to migrate to Linux, the state government

clearly stated that its aim was "to break the US software giant, Microsofts,

dominance in these schools." Ironically, the move had come after two weeks

of rattling investors by banning Coke and Pepsi sales. The education minister of

Kerala, MA Baby had said that his government would promote the use of

open-source Linux operating systems along with Microsoft in high schools.

"We are against monopolies of multinational companies in any sector,"

he was quoted as saying. But "ideologically I support Linux and free open

operating systems for IT-enabled education in schools," he added.

Underlining the importance of the Kerala market for open source

companies, Red Hat had signed an MoU with the state government for supporting

Keralas development of open-source software.

On the other hand, West Bengal too seems to be excited about

switching applications on to Linux. Vivek Bharadwaj, special secretary,

government of West Bengal says, "Whatever new applications we build, are

going to be on Linux and the others too will be migrated to Linux. There are

going to be some areas where proprietary software will still be in use, but now

most of the purchases are being done on open source. So yes, we are encouraging

vendors to go for open source."

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Bharadwaj, however, chooses to call the state governments

decision "practical and not populace." He adds, "This is not

about ideology, it makes more sense to go the Linux way, and its not just

cost but also security, apart from viruses, which will be an added

advantage." West Bengal has set up an institution with funds allocated up

to the tune of Rs 2 crore to promote building open source applications.

"We certainly want to

adopt open standards"

"Open source provides

plenty of flexibility"

R Chandrashekhar,

additional secretary, DIT, ministry of IT & Communication

Nilotpal Basu,

CPI (M), Member of Parliament

Meanwhile, all that Microsoft wants is a fair chance.

"While the message from the state government in Kerala is clear to go on

the open source platform, but doors are not shut for Microsoft," says Rohit

Kumar, country head, Public Sector, Microsoft. He claims that more than 75%

applications in Kerala still run on the Windows platform. However, he says,

"Microsoft does not have updates on which all applications are being

migrated to Linux of the total applications run on the Windows platform

currently. All we ask for is a fair chance to prove our worth. Nothing

more," states Kumar.

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Tamil Nadu Closes the Window?



Electronics Corporation of Tamil Nadu (ELCOT) has opted for open source and
is rolling out SuSe Linux Enterprise across 30,000 desktops and 1,880 servers in

the states schools. ELCOT itself migrated its entire IT infrastructure from

Windows to SuSe Linux Enterprise Server and SuSe Linux Enterprise Desktop from

Novell.

Tamil Nadu has already dispatched 6,100 Acer desktop systems

with SuSe Linux. It is deploying 32,600 Linux desktops and training 30,000

government officials for the same, along with 43 open source-based servers

supporting government applications. "Linux has become a way of life for

us," says C Umashankar, MD, ELCOT.

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Cost is the big question. "Undeniably, SuSe has made IT

affordable for us by reducing cost. We were able to get the SuSe Linux at a cost

of Rs 300 per desktop license. Training was carried out using our own resources.

The cost of switching was negligible," says Umashankar. "Apart from

the fact that it offers complete security, specifically for all our e-Governance

initiatives, it has also given us complete freedom to choose any type of

operating system," he adds.

Microsoft might be down but is not out. There are still a number

of projects that are running on proprietary platform, like eKaruvoolam, an

automated treasury bill passing system; Tamil Nilam, an e-Governance initiative

of the revenue department to computerize the land records system; Vaahan and

Sarathi applications that process all transactions related to vehicles, and for

driving related activities; and Patram, a postal accounts software.

"Clearly, Tamil Nadu is a place of high momentum driven by able and astute

leadership. ELCOT has taken the decision to shift to open source without taking

in the total cost of ownership over a period of 5-7 years, which is usually how

long the application lasts. The total cost of ownership will be much expensive

over this time-frame because of the support and servicing costs involved,"

says Kumar.

Spreading North



The Linux camp seems happy for now, so long as the government plays a

neutral role and remains a facilitator of its growth. "We expect the

government to be our biggest customer in the domestic market. Creating more

opportunities in terms of projects, and proliferating the governance projects

(like the Mission Mode projects), and increased transparency are things to watch

out for," says Nandu Pradhan, MD, Red Hat.

"Decisions on purchases

are purely going to be made on solutions offered"

"This is not about

ideology, it makes more sense to go the Linux way"

Sanjeev Gupta,

Himachal IT secretary

Vivek Bharadwaj, special

secretary, West Bengal Government

Red Hat is at present implementing close to seventy e-Governance

projects, of which eight states have treasury applications running on open

source. Among some other important projects, IRCTCs mission-critical ERP

application is also on Linux, and a number of Panchayati Raj applications are

running on Linux. Further, the company has standardized Linux in eleven local

languages. After consolidating their position in the southern states, the open

source companies are looking northwards. Red Hat India is closely working with

the states of Maharashtra, Goa, West Bengal and Uttaranchal on various

applications. "In the northern states, the pie is huge. So we are working

with state governments, including Haryana and HP, where adoption is smaller in

size," says Pradhan.

Its Windows for India



All said and done, India is still a country of Windows and Gates. Microsoft
rules the market and even the government sector. While Linux is indeed making

inroads, it will still take a big shove to budge the giant. Statistics more or

less speak for themselves. The previous year saw Microsoft implementing major

contracts spanning over fourteen states. Some of the major projects that they

implemented include the Punjab land records project, e-DharaGujarats

Online Land Administration project, instant money order digitalization project,

MP online, Bihar online, eDhartiGovernment Urban Properties Management, Food

Corporation Indias food grain management project.

Rohit Kumar said, "When you talk about governance in India,

it is a distributed model, spread across cities, state, district, and block

level. Today we are on multiple cities and at state level." Kumar points

out that 11 out of 12 states land records are on Microsofts platform.

Amongst these projects, Gujarat governments eDhara project was widely

applauded, for the share service delivery it enabled in the rural sector. Under

the eDhara project, land records acquired by the state were computerized and

available online. The state government had further planned to computerized land

records in 24 districts, 225 talukas and 18,526 revenue villages, using G-SWAN.

Similarly, Himachal governments online land record system,

HimBhoomi, too is on a Microsoft platform. The HimBhoomi computerization of land

records is in all 110 Tehsils of HP. Himachal IT secretary, Sanjeev Gupta says,

"As far as choosing technology is concerned, Himachal Pradesh will go with

vendors who give technological commercial solutions. Decisions on purchases are

purely going to be made on solutions offered. We would not like to bind

ourselves to any one technology, and would like to follow open standards. At

present most of the applications run on Microsoft."

Another significant win for Microsoft has been the Lokvani

project in Uttar Pradesh, a single window e-Governance solution providing

transparent, accountable and responsive administration for grievance handling,

land record maintenance as well as an eclectic mixture of essential services.

"Linux has become a way

of life for us"

C Umashankar, MD,

ELCOT

"All customized development that is taking place on

standalone applications might have shifted to open source. Majority of front-end

management, word processing, accounts, small databases are still on the Windows

platform," says VS Kundu, special secretary & director, Information

Technology, Haryana. A senior official from the Maharashtra IT ministry tells DQ,

"Initially, some projects were launched on Linux but the support is poor

and expensive. Open source is no different from proprietary software. If at all

we would go for open source it should come at a better support and minimum

cost," says the official.

Dual Standards



The government seems to be still playing it safe. While there is no definite
policy regulation in this direction by the government at the center, what has

come as a positive push for the open source faction is the fact that the

ministry of IT and Communications has affirmed its role as a facilitator for use

of open standards in e-Gov projects.

R Chandrashekhar, additional secretary, DIT, ministry of IT and

Communication, government of India points out, "The stated policy of the

Government on this is to adopt open standards. We want to remain technology

neutral, and do not want to regulate use of any one technology."

"We certainly want to adopt open standards as far as our

e-Governance projects are concerned," he adds.

The governments attempts to push open standards, however, did

reflect not only in the increased adoption of Linux in critical applications by

some of the other state governments, but also in the move which saw its

technology and research wings, National Informatics Center (NIC) and Center for

Development of Advanced Computing (C-DAC) sprucing up their open source

infrastructure.

"Clearly, open source is going to be very crucial when it

comes to e-Governance projects. So, it makes lot of sense for us to have a

center devoted to building open source applications," says a senior

official at NIC. C-DAC too has set up a center totally devoted to open source.

"The government is realizing that to uplift the masses in

India, it is essential that India leverages its IT prowess. IT can provide the

uplift through better citizen services, improved and easily accessible

education, jobs creation, and enhanced ability to export IT services. Open

Source software with its favorable economics and community-based development

model is ideally suited to address these challenges," says Zia Saquib,

executive director, C-DAC, Mumbai.

It is in this scenario that IBM, in partnership with IIT-Mumbai

and C-DAC, established the Open Source Software Resource Center (OSSRC), with

the aim of developing, adopting and disseminating solutions, education and

content that use open standards in support of Indias economic development

plans.

Gopakumar Thampi, executive director, Public Affairs Foundation

highlights a different perspective here. "Overall, technology choices in

all e-Gov or ICT roll-outs in India seem to be a victim of a "unipolar"

choice. The need is to actively encourage alternatives."

The Road Ahead



Thampi makes an interesting observation: "A major boost to the advocates of
open source software is the growing presence of "technocrats" in the

Indian bureaucracy. The large number of engineers who enter the civil service

are conversant with the technology choice issues unlike their predecessors a

decade back who mainly came from the humanities and had very little hands on

knowledge about technological issues and choices."

While the competition is visible in the Left-run states more and

Tamil Nadu, so far, what needs to be seen is the pace at which Linux is adopted

by other states. And thats where cost and support will become crucial.

"Governments are cost sensitive organizations, and therefore future

decisions will be made on cost effectiveness," says DC Misra, ex-IT

secretary, Delhi Government. "In fact, we would see Microsoft also mould

and expand into the Linux framework," adds Misra. Trained manpower on the

Linux too is going to be another issue.

The battle between open source and proprietary software will not

die down anytime soon. It will continue to simmer. Definitely, the penguin needs

to do more. The big question is not whether it can but how t?

Urvashi Kaul



urvashik@cybermedia.co.in

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