Indian state goes for open source

Citing cost and security issues, Tamil Nadu rejects Microsoft's Windows XP offer and chooses Novell's Suse Linux.
Written by Aaron Tan, Contributor

The Indian state of Tamil Nadu is making a move to adopt open source software, due to concerns over security and the high cost of Windows systems.

According to C. Umashankar, managing director of Electronics Corporation of Tamil Nadu (Elcot), government departments across the state will switch from Windows desktops to Novell's Suse Linux and OpenOffice from this year. Elcot is Tamil Nadu's state-owned IT supplier.

"The first attraction of open source software is cost," Umashankar told ZDNet Asia in a telephone interview this week. "It's also very stable, and free of viruses," he said, noting that the move will slash the local government's IT cost by 15 to 25 percent.

Just recently, two Windows servers running in the state's IT network were infected with viruses, Umashankar revealed. He added that this situation was unlikely to happen in a Linux environment. "I had to send people down to fix the servers," he said.

According to Umashankar, 6,500 Linux systems have been sent to villages and another 6,100 are on their way. About 20,000 desktop computers running Suse Linux will also be procured for schools across the state.

Sandeep Menon, director of Linux business at Novell West Asia, said: "The Tamil Nadu government's announcement of adopting SUSE Linux is indeed a significant announcement for [the] Linux [community] as a whole.

"The government sector is a key vertical with a lot of potential for growth," Menon added. "So we continue to work closely with the Tamil Nadu government in a comprehensive partnership model."

The Indian state is not new to open source software. The local government is already running Red Hat Linux on some backend servers, together with a slew of open source software including the JBoss application server and PostgreSQL database.

In addition, Umashankar said an open source financial application has been procured for a new system that will support 10,000 cooperatives in Tamil Nadu.

He expects the move to Linux to be seamless, since the migration process will be undertaken by Elcot's Linux support center, with the help of Novell.

Over the next six months, more than 30,000 government officials will receive training on using Linux and the OpenOffice word processor. Meanwhile, Windows desktops will continue to be available for use, but Umashankar said officials will be encouraged to work on the Linux platform instead.

Sunil Abraham, manager of the International Open Source Network (IOSN) at the United Nations, said that apart from cost and technical benefits, free and open source software can enable governments in developing countries such as India, to quickly respond to changing requirements.

Should a natural disaster like a tsunami occur, Abraham explained, governments can quickly assemble a team of open source engineers to piece together software tools that can be used to manage a disaster situation.

However, he noted that the current lack of expertise for open source software in India could impede the technology's adoption in the country.

"This problem exists all across India because more and more colleges and engineering institutions have started teaching proprietary technologies, rather than general computing concepts," he noted.

But this may change in future, Abraham said. Since last year, Anna University together with India's Center for Development of Advanced Computing in Chennai, have been offering two new modules in open source software. "This has been introduced to 300 engineering [students] in Tamil Nadu," he said.

Microsoft reacts
Not surprisingly, Microsoft is not resting on its laurels. Umashankar said an official from the software giant's Indian office offered Elcot a discounted price for Windows XP, at 7,000 rupees (US$157) per copy. However, the deal fell through when Umashankar was only willing to shell out 300 rupees (US$6.73).

"[Microsoft] has been in touch with us but they didn't accept our offer," he said, but added that the discussion with Microsoft is still ongoing.

In fact, a Microsoft spokesperson told ZDNet Asia that over 300 e-governance applications in India are running on a Microsoft platform today. The software giant is also engaging with close to 14 state governments in the country.

"We have been actively engaged with the state government of Tamil Nadu in various capacities, and will continue to do so in the near future," the spokesperson added. "In fact, currently, 80 percent of state government applications are running on Microsoft platform, [such as] registration, land records, treasury, transport, to name a few."

Microsoft said it delivers a "clear value proposition" to its customers vis-à-vis Linux. "The unique selling proposition of the Microsoft platform and our range of offerings is our end-to-end stack of offerings, and our focus on integrated innovation," the spokesperson said. "Microsoft continues to focus on providing better value through lower total cost of ownership, higher reliability and better performance, better intellectual property indemnification than any other software provider, and security."

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