Linux: Finding a New Role in India

LINUX: FINDING A NEW ROLE IN INDIA, AS ENTHUSIASTS GIVE IT A BOOST

By Frederick Noronha

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Talent-rich but resource-strapped businesses in countries like India are finding different models for creating and utilising the potential of computer software. Volunteers of the innovative Linux operating system demonstrated how this decade-young wonder in computing holds out immense promises to the business world, and others in the computing field, says FREDERICK NORONHA.
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Linux can power your software development, help boost your e-commerce plans and also play a great role in web-development. This is the message of volunteers of Linux-India, an active nationwide network that is slowly but surely making , who made their presence felt at the recently-concluded IT.Com mega-expo of computer-related items held in Bangalore in early November.

Best of all: all this promise comes at a price anyone can afford.

Not just that, Linux also has the ability to increasingly play a role in home and multimedia computing. In addition, it has its own role in education, as was pointed out. Young engineering students, mainly from the newly-formed Vishweswaraya Technological University (VTU) of Karnataka, worked hard and explaining patiently the power of this new OS (operating system) to visitors.

Besides the volunteers, there was a growing number of business firms – from India and abroad – that see business opportunity for themselves in the spread of Linux, or GNU/Linux as it is sometimes called.

Some of those making their presence felt were SuSE the Germany-headquartered commercial company offering its own distribution of Linux at far-lower than proprietorial software prices. So was Caldera, another Linux distribution. Caldera says it has trained giant companies including MCI WorldCom, Ford Motor Company, the National Weather Service (US), the Boeing Company and IBM.

Competing for the attention of the crowds were Bangalore-based Peacock Solutions, which is offering the power of Linux-computing in Indian languages. This promise has immense implications for businesses across India too.

Even research labs, like the Bangalore-based Aeronautical Development Establishment (under the Defence Research & Development Organisation) were demonstrating how the apt use of Linux was saving lakhs of rupees both in software and hardware costs.

In a parallel track, speakers spoke on various aspects of Linux, at a seminar held at the Indian Institute of Science, a short drive from the Palace Grounds venue of the IT.COM exhibition. Showcased here were special events that looked at the ‘technology’ aspect, others that looked at Linux’s implications to the corporate sector, and still more that allowed enthusiasts to get into heated debate with one another over what were the best options under Linux.

“Our corporate tracks are aimed at clarifying concepts, and explaining the relevance of Linux to decision-makers in firms,” said Atul Chitnis, a prominent supporter of Linux, whose initiatives through magazines like ‘PCQuest’ have seen this operating system proliferate on lakhs of computers across India.

Some of the speakers on the ‘corporate tracks’ included Raj Mathur (’Linux for Internet Service Providers/ISPs’), IBM India Manager Charles Manuel (’The IBM Linux Initiative’), Prakash Advani (’The Economics of Linux’), Krishna Kumar of PCQuest (’Linux - An Industry Perspective’), Nikhil Datta (Linux and Windows Interoperability’), Kartik Prabhakar (’The HP Linux Initiative’)

Some of the speakers explained how and why their companies were throwing their weight behind this operating system has totally changed the perspective that a UNIX-like operating system has to be intimidating and scary to many people.

At the ‘corporate tracks’, Biju Chaco also spoke on ‘Support Services for Linux’. Atul Chitnis and Kishore Bhargava were elaborate in explaining the relevance of ‘Linux for Small Businesses and Schools’, while Gopi Garge who was with the Educational and Research Network (ERNET) spoke on ‘Corporate Directory Services’.

What is Linux? And what makes this UNIX work-alike so different?

This OS (operating system) was developed by Linus Torvalds in the early nineties, when he was still a young university student in Finland. It has continued development under his guidance. There are thousands of people worldwide who contribute to the Linux development effort.

What makes this different from other operating systems is that these people work on Linux because they want to, not because it’s their job and not because it’s expected of them. The result is an operating system that is a labour of love. Above all, it’s entirely free. Both to further work on, and this is almost-true in price terms too.

Bangalore has a very-active ILUG (India Linux Users’ Group). So do some other cities. But, in India’s Silicon Valley, the activity is at a far higher level and much more organised.

At the stalls, a whole lot of interesting demos were put up by Bangalore Luggers (Linux group members). But there were also participants from Nagpur, Calcutta, Delhi, Goa and other centres.

Kartik N, a student of RV’s Final Year Electronics, was showing off the power of Open Source mathematical packages like Rlab, Scilab and Octave. There was mention of PCB-design software.

Other Linux fans were showcasing the power of 3D animation and rendering through Linux tools (http://www.blender.nl). This application can be used for TV commercials, animations, or cartoons.

Among those present with their varied exhibits was Nagpur-based Swati Sani, and her husband paedetrician-turned-software guru Dr Tarique Sani. Tarique and team have built WAPpop, which the doctor claims is the first “email client for WAP enabled phones… and one hundred per cent free”.

Odd though it may sound, this couple uses the ‘free’ Linux platform to earn a living, and more, in the software field. “We have shown that even people sitting in smaller cities like Nagpur are capable of bringing out good products,” says Dr Tarique. One of their web-based products offers a complete secure hotel-booking system.

“When we started, we were only into HTML (hyper text mark-up language, used for writing web-pages). All our development is today done in PHP (a Linux product). For instance, we are working on an intricate golf-league site for US-based clients. We have also worked out a portal site for the sugar trade, where text or HTML files can be uploaded and it gets updated immediately. This is at http://www.sugartrade.com,” says his wife and CEO Swati Sani.

See their youth portal http://www.klubq.com (runs entirely on Linux’s PHP, with flash-based games, etc) Today, the firm has undertaken work for parties in the US, UK, Andora (”we didn’t know this country existed”), Bangalore, Bombay and … of course… Nagpur.

Why did they opt for Linux as a tool for software development? Not just its power, but also its cost, say the Sanis.

“We were a small company to begin with. We didn’t want to use pirated software. Windows NT would have been very expensive. Portability and usability of Linux is very good. In addition, its source code is open, so you can modify it as per one’s requirements,” says Dr Tarique Soni (35).

From a user’s point of view, one of the most interesting exhibitors was Uddore Malappa Taranath’s G.T.Enterprises’ one-stop-shop for Linux. From working on minesweepers to working on submarines, former Navy-man Taranath (42) completed
15 years of pension-able service and then shifted to Linux in keeping with his “passion to do something unique”.

His stall at IT.COM drew crowds, and was stuffed with useful books and low-cost CDs. Today, he supplies low-cost Linux and other Open Source software across India and beyond. Because the price is affordable, there’s no problem with ‘piracy’ either! Check out his web-site at http://www.gtcdrom.com

Ramesh Kumar K.G. of the Bangalore-based Linux Learning Centre, calls his the first of its kind in India. This former Ham-turned-electronic-buff and engineer, said he bumped into GTCDrom’s Taranath, and was ‘converted’ to Linux. “Today, in the past fifteen months, we have trained over 600 people,” Ramesh Kumar says.

e added that people are “coming from all parts of the country” and beyond! Some turning up for Linux training at Bangalore are coming from Singapore, Bangladesh, Kuwait or Dubai. Some of these were expatriate Indians. “So far, we’ve been focusing on the Linux administration side. Now, we intend to look at how it can be used in e-commerce applications,” he said.

His training centre offers courses for Linux System Administrator (20 hours; Rs 1950); Linux Network Administrator (24 hours; Rs 2950); Database Programming and Administrator (64 hours; Rs 7950); Linux Administrator four-day full time fast-track course (Rs 3600); Advanced Linux Administrator three-day full time (Rs 4600). For further details check the website
http://www.linuxlearningcentre.com

Linux is playing its role in the defence sector too.

G-Grade Scientist Dr K. Soundararajan of the DRDO’s (Defence Research and Development Organisation) Aeronautical Development Establishment in Bangalore demonstrated how Linux could build an effective low-cost flight simulator. What would cost Rs 10 to 20 million, could now be made within Rs 200,000, he pointed out.

Linux in India is also helping in building low-cost data acquisition systems. Sashidhar, also of the ADE, said this research establishment was able to replace “very costly proprietorial systems costing a couple of tens of millions” to those that dented the budget by just a few hundred thousand rupees.

But, often, one just sees the tip of the Linux iceberg in terms of what it can
do.

Syed Khader of IBM-Bangalore tells how Linux had been put on a watch at the IBM’s Bangalore research centre. He was also demonstrating super-computing with Linux. Khader showed how computers could be linked in clusters. Such tools have immense applications in fields like weather forecasting, unearthing the genome code, or coping with powerful web-servers. Linux could thus be used to support web-server processors that could take upto one million hits per second, he said.

Peacock Solutions Private Limited, which calls itself ‘The Bangalore Linux Company’, says it has localised Star Office for Indian and regional languages like Hindi. ‘Star Office’ is a popular office suite, available in open source for individual users.

In the next year, it hopes to have Indian-language solutions for 11 Indian languages, having potentially huge spin-offs for computing in India.

Mahesh Jayachandra, MD, PhD, the US-returned CEO of Peacock, said he also shortly hoped to have the Gnome Desktop in Devangiri (the script used to write a number of North Indian languages). “There are some fantastic coders in India,” he said.”All our solutions are based on GNU/Linux code. We simply don’t have the money to buy proprietary code,” he added. One could also hope to soon use the editor Abiword or spreadsheet GNUmeric in Hindi, using Peacock’s keyboard. Check out http://www.peacocksys.com

Something else that Peacock has done is to incubate other Linux companies. “We have successfully incubated CDC Linux Pvt Ltd, the development centre of California Digital Computers, a US-based company. Peacock’s ISP and number-crunching solutions are being implemented on CDC’s commodity hardware,” says the firm.

Peacock calls itself “Bangalore’s first 100% GNU/Linux company”. It says: “We have evolved rapidly from a startup company, to a full-fledged R&D unit committed to science and super-computing solutions.”

Currently, this company primarily focuses on Linux clustering super-computing solutions, technology transfers, incubating other Linux companies, and creating Linux awareness.

Based on its Linux parallel supercomputer models called ‘Maya’ and ‘Peacock’, which were released in January 2000, it says it has developed high-end solutions in areas requiring powerful number-crunching capabilities. Its “ready-to-go” solutions include bio-informatics, molecular modelling, rendering, weather modelling and single-point-of-sale ISP (Internet Service
Provider) solutions.

“Science awareness and education is one way to ensure that India overcomes technological ‘cooliedom’ and marches ahead into the 21st century. Peacock, along with Linux enthusiasts, will be approaching schools and colleges to expose students to the benefits of the operating system of the future,” says Mahesh Jayachandra.

From SuSE, the German-origin ‘Linux Experts’ came Jasmin Ul-Haque. She’s located in London and is Commercial Director of the company’s operations.

Says she: “As you know, Linux was launched in 1991. SuSE was created in 1992. We’re older than Red Hat (another popular Linux distribution, put out by a commercial company, and sold at relatively low-cost). And recent IDC figures say ours is the leading Linux distribution in Europe.”

SuSE is keen to get a greater market-share in India. “We want to target the educational market too. We’re keen to promote SuSE in universities and schools,” says Jasmin. And SuSE is looking out for dealers across India. Just in case you too were wondering what SuSE means, Michael Burghard, the CEO who has just taken over the India operations, says it’s German for Systems & Software Development. Check out their home page at http://www.SuSe.co.in

Many software gurus are increasingly turning to discover the real power of Linux, and how it can help them at their work and business.

Said Madhu Kurup, a technical yahoo at Yahoo India R&D, speaking at one of the corporate tracks of Linux: “One of the primary myths associated with Linux is that there are no software (that run on Linux). This is particularly untrue for programming. Remember that Linux was put together by programmers around the world.”

He went on to give many examples: serious industrial-strength compilers like GCC; Perl, shell programming tools like Bash, Csh and Ksh; editors like Vi and Gvim and the ‘complex beast’ like Emacs; debuggers like gdb/xxgdb, Ddd, Kdevelop; tools like gprof (time-analysis for optimising code) or Make (that handles dependencies and compile options) or CVS (or Concurrent Versioning System, used to manage versions of your software).

For Rapid Application Development, some of the very useful tools are GTK/QT for libraries, Glade, Delphi-like tools, Tcl/TK etc.

Component-based development is becoming very popular, and for this there are tools like Bonobo (incidentally named after an African tribe!). “Companies across the world are embracing CORBA big time, including Infosys,” said Kurup.

Some of Kurup’s useful listing of sites for programmers were:
Linux Programmer’s Bounce Point http://www.ee.mu.oz.au/linux/programming
Linux India: http://www.linux-india.org (Check Linux Programmers list)
Freshmeat http://www.freshmeat.net Large no of open source projects listed
http://www.delorie.com/djgpp/ A DOS port of GCC
http://members.tripod.com/~potm Programmer of the Month Contest

FREEOS.COM’s CEO (someone said it should be translated ‘Chief Evangelising Officer’) Prakash Advani said Open Source software could reduce the total-cost-of-ownership by hundreds of thousands of rupees in a medium 50-user size firm. It could be used for networking, Internet, email, webservers, proxy-servers, Internet servers, firewalls, routers, application servers, database servers and fax gateways, he pointed out.

“Linux reduces hardware costs, and requires less maintenance. It involves no cost for upgrades. There are also savings on add-ons like anti-virii programmes,” he said. Advani also informed that there were attempts underway to make computing relevant to the millions of India, through the Indlinux project. His view was that Red Hat, SuSE and Debian was most suited for servers, while Corel, Caldeira and the Mandrake distributions (or ‘flavours’, as they are sometimes called) were better suited for desktops. Check out the site working to make Linux even more relevant to millions across India, http://www.indlinux.org

IBM’S India Manager for its Solution Partnership Centre and PartnerWorld for Developers, Charles Manuel, promised to help Linux on its forward march.

“Linux is one of the best things that has happened. It is projected to do to application development what the Internet did to networking,” IBM’s Manuel said enthusiastically. IBM was a “very strong and aggressive supporter of open standards,” he argued. He said IBM plans to invest a substantial amount of effort and money into Linux. “What we’ve done so far is very little of what we’d like to do,” he added. Since 1998, out of the 42 ISPs across India that had been IBM clients, Linux had been the opted for system by 38, he said.

LINUX MEANS BUSINESS: HOW BUSINESSES CAN USE LINUX

For many users the attractiveness of Linux software stems from its (affordable) price. But, for any business, the total cost of software is naturally more important that just the price of a software license. So firms need to consider other factors like the developments costs involved (adapting the software to the company’s own specific requirements), support and training.

Business units also have a different set of requirements. Software must be compatible with industry standards. Companies need to issue reports in a format their clients or principals can understand.

One widely held misunderstanding is that Linux applications cannot challenge Microsoft applications in a commercial setting. But, says the Linux promotion site linuxlinks.com, the strength of this OS (operating system) really comes from factors other than its low cost – such as stability, ease of use, and high quality commercial applications.

Besides, a growing amount of Open Source software is already invaluable to commercial organisations. With full access to source code, companies can easily develop extensions to the software, tailor made to their own specific needs and requirements. India, with its enormous software pool, is in a much better position to do such work.

There are also a number of applications that are useful to people in industry and the business world. Take the case of the humble, but much used, word processor.

Word processing represents one of the most frequent uses of a computer in a business environment. The preparation of documents, brochures, memos and articles is a cornerstone of computing today. Therefore, any operating system must have a wide selection of word processing tools if it is going to appeal to the corporate market.

Only a few years ago Linux was found lacking in this department, having a very limited choice of tools to use; with only the historic UNIX tools being available. The situation has changed; there are a number of quality office suites that include word processing facilities which are a match for the popular Word.

Sun Corporation’s StarOffice is more than just a word processing package. It is a complete, feature-rich office productivity product available free of charge to end users. It offers a word processor, spreadsheet, presentation software, calendar, e-mail, graphics program, database and Mathematics formula software. Above all, it is comparable to Microsoft Office, intuitive and easy to use.

For a word processor to appeal to the corporate market it must have a wide support for industry standards. Star Office currently supports ODBC3, Active Data Objects (ADO), HTML, and RTF import/export support, IMAP4, XML ICAL, and CDE import/export support.

More importantly, a word processor in a corporate setting must have quality import/export filters to read widely-used Microsoft’s Word documents. The latest version of StarOffice Writer has vastly improved filters to read Word documents. In addition StarOffice Writer does support Microsoft Office 2000 features, OLE objects, Visual Basic for applications script preservation and more. Complicated Word documents are well handled by StarOffice Writer.

WordPerfect is another option that has been around for years, and is popular in some European countries like the UK. It too is now shipped as a complete office suite, and comes in standard and deluxe editions. WordPerfect for Linux however needs a powerful workstation to run on – 64MB or RAM and 450MB of hard disk space is the recommended.

Yet another word processor is Applix Words. It too is bundled with complementary office applications. Applixware suite includes Applixware Words, Applixware Spreadsheets, Applixware Presents (a presentation application), Applix Data (a powerful database client, that enables easy access to ODBC database information without having to know SQL commands), Applixware Mail,
Applixware Builder (lets you create custom applications). Applixware 5.0 Standard Office Suite for Linux retails for $99.00 for a single license.

LaTeX is yet another program that is Open Source and available without charge. LaTeX is intended for typesetting especially for technical documents including books and manuals. It is better than StarOffice Writer, WordPerfect or Applix Words for equations.

Other Linux-based programs include Pathetic Writer (PW), which supports PW (native), plain text, HTML, RTF, Word Postscript and PDF. Maxwell is another word processor available under the GNU GPL licence, with full source code. It is a good WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) word processor, available at no cost. (ENDS)

NOTE: THIS ARTICLE WAS COMPLETED AROUND 1999-2000.


Frederick Noronha : http://www.fredericknoronha.net : When we speak of free
Freelance Journalist : http://www.bytesforall.org : software we refer to
Ph 0091.832.2409490 : Cell 0 9822 122436 : freedom, not price.

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