<!--skip--><!--skip date-->When open source comes marching in

Open source is gaining traction in the public sector, as Asian governments look for alternative software that meet business needs and offer more bang for the buck.
Written by Ong Boon Kiat, Contributor on
Open-source trends in Asia

While Linux has undoubtedly carved inroads into the IT systems of regional governments, a series of roadblocks are still standing in the way of wider user adoption.

It's all about patents: In the last few years, intellectual-property protection of open-source software has become one of the most pertinent issues in the IT scene. The legal hoopla surrounding SCO's charges that some Linux codes are in violation of Unix patents continues to have the open-source industry up in arms, and has even resulted in several attacks on SCO's Web site.

A controversial study last year also added weight to these alleged copy claims. According to a report by U.S.-based startup Open Source Risk Management, Linux could have infringed as many as 283 patents. Of little surprise, Microsoft is leveraging such doubts to drum up the merits of its Windows operating system. To safeguard its customers against intellectual-property risks, the Redmond, Wash.-based software giant is now offering indemnity against any patent claim.

Not to be outdone, companies like Sun Microsystems, Red Hat and Hewlett-Packard have also sought to reassure Linux buyers with similar warranty schemes. While protection plans are now offered by these multinational vendors, regional Linux distributors like Red Flag in China and Korea's HaanSoft have yet to make a clear stand when it comes to intellectual-property assurance.

It's all about interoperability: Prior to Red Hat and Novell's aggressive expansion into the region in the past two years, multiple flavors of the Linux operating system have been and are still being offered by a host of smaller local players around the region.

The fragmentation in regional Linux distributions and the resulting lack of standardization is a bane for third-party software and hardware vendors. Unlike the "certify once, use everywhere" proposition of Windows, fragmentation means companies will have to repeatedly certify their products with different Linux distributors.

In a bid to resolve this issue, three leading Linux sellers from China, Japan and Korea--Red Flag, Miracle Linux and HaanSoft--joined hands to develop a standardized Linux server operating system called Asianux. By using a shared Linux core, the companies said Asianux will ensure interoperability among the three open-source hotbeds in North Asia.

In what is widely perceived as yet another Linux victory in Asia, authorities in China, Japan and Korea have further sealed an agreement to standardize their IT systems on open-source software. Government representatives from the three nations have met several times in 2004 and are expected to firm up details of the move in the near future.

It's all about support: Besides the interoperability obstacle, the lack of third-party applications is often cited as another major impediment in Linux's quest to enter the mainstream. Without support for mission-critical applications, Linux's early inroads have been confined to commodity Web or file servers.

While the situation is changing, the breadth of applications available for Linux is still lower compared to entrenched operating systems like Windows or Unix

To overcome this problem, Linux proponents like Oracle are investing millions in incentives to lure independent software vendors to port their applications over to the open-source platform. In addition, companies like Red Hat and Novell are ramping up training programs to deepen Linux know-how among Asian IT professionals.
-- By Winston Chai, CNETAsia

Forget hard figures, the return of investment calculations and the list of new application features. These factors count for little as organizations deciding whether a move to a new IT platform is viable seek a different comfort level. This new level of comfort requires sufficient evidence of successful adoption by others in the industry. It also requires that the move be seen to inspire confidence among partners and customers.

In Asia, one can now argue that both prerequisites have been met when it comes to moving to an open-source platform. It may be hard to state a defining moment when that happened, since comfort is an intangible measure, but it is not hard to sense the optimism that now resonates on the ground with open-source software (OSS).

This confidence stems from the abundant anecdotal evidence that OSS benefits both government and commercial organizations. In Asia, Singapore's Ministry of Defence (Mindef), for instance, saved S$15 million (US$9.3 million) by deciding to let its existing licenses for Office 97 software lapse and to migrate to OpenOffice instead.

Thailand's National Electronics and Computer Technology Center (NECTEC), the nation's IT development agency, has been replacing its fleet of proprietary software with freeware and open-source applications such as GIMP, OpenOffice and Irfanview. NECTEC director Dr. Thaweesak Koanantakool reckons that at a nationwide level, using OSS saved Thailand US$45 million in 2003.

The state-owned Central Bank of India saved US$4 million a year, or reduced 30 percent of its IT expenses, when it adopted Linux to run Oracle applications last year.

The open-source movement in Asia

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Another key reason for the Asian mindset change is the proliferation of open-source advocacy groups in the region in the last two years. Prime examples include the Asian Open Source Center by the Malaysian government-led organization MIMOS; and pan-Asian Linux development like the "Asianux" project led by software developers from China, Japan and Korea.

Industry experts say that these nationalistic initiatives are important, because government agencies in Asia have telling commercial influence--and official endorsements can tangibly bolster the success of any IT adoption.

This point especially hits home for a country as populous as China, home to 1.3 billion people or one-fifth of the world's population. Adding fuel to the China momentum is the announcement last year by the Open Source Development Labs (OSDL) to accept membership of Beijing Software Testing Center (BSTC), China’s largest software testing organization.

It is also important to note that the alarmist OSS patent warnings sounded by Microsoft and other commercial software vendors earlier last year appear to have evaporated. "It is a non-issue now," Vivian Tero, senior analyst, infrastructure software IDC, told CNETAsia. She expects the market to work itself out with amicable outcomes even if further patent issues should arise in the future.

So how comfortable are Asia's public sector with OSS today? Fairly comfortable, it seems.

Cheok Beng Teck,
director, Mindef's CIO office

After a successful rollout of OpenOffice to thousands of desktops, Cheok Beng Teck, the director of Singapore's Mindef CIO office, is planting the seed for another open-source implementation.

NECTEC's Thaweesak is also chartering his next OSS move. He plans to promote the use of Mozilla's latest open-source e-mail client, ThunderBird, and the much-hyped Web browser, FireFox.

Mindef is planting the seed for another open-source implementation.

Thaweesak hopes that by promoting these two applications, users will become more comfortable moving to the Linux platform in the future. He said he will be happy if his organization's OSS adoption achieves an equal split between proprietary and open-source software.

Linux's success in large organizations, of course, will depend on more than productivity suites and Web browsers. Core business application is the next frontier for open source--whether they are themselves open-source applications or they run on open-source platforms like Linux.

IDC's Tero points out that the shift of core business applications, such as database processing and ERP (enterprise resource planning) software, to open-source platforms will depend on the mood of independent software developers (ISVs). But one thing is clear so far, she said, change is coming.

Gartner has predicted that 60 percent of large and mid-size government agencies worldwide will be using OSS in their core business processes by 2010, compared to less than 15 percent today--a significant increase.

In Asia, Gartner said that tech expenditure in the region, excluding Japan, will swell by 7.6 percent to US$208.7 billion in 2005, with the highest increase expected in the software segment where spending will improve by 12.4 percent to US$5.6 billion.

Recent statistics released by the Chinese government's Beijing Software Industry Productivity Center (BSTC) has Linux sales in China growing at more than 40 percent a year--from US$6.3 million in 2002 to US$38.7 million by 2007. Most of this growth will come from the server environment.

All this points to a rosy future for OSS in Asia. But even better, the identified roadblocks for open-source adoption are slowly being addressed, as the movement attracts more commercial vendor interests and stronger commitment from governments to educate organizations on OSS.

In this special report, we look in detail the successful implementaton of OpenOffice by Singapore's Mindef, and chart the progress of OSS adoption in Malaysia and Thailand.

What do you think of the state of open source today? What has been your experience with open-source software? E-mail us at enterprise@asia.cnet.com.

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