India’s largest Linux rollout forges ahead despite tremendous odds

On May 26, 2006, Elcot (Electronics Corporation of Tamil Nadu) let in its first penguin. Things would never be the same again.

That day, Elcot’s managing director, C. Umashankar, walked into his office in Chennai, Tamil Nadu and was handed a brand new laptop. He recalls promptly giving it back to his PA. “I asked him to load Suse Linux on it. I guess he was surprised. But when the installation — complete with drivers and wireless networking — only took 45 minutes and very little external effort, there was a new confidence in my PA.” That confidence spread quickly. And with it came more penguins. Within weeks, the Rs 750-crore(Can$192 million)Elcot was undergoing a enterprise-wide migration to Suse Linux. A year later, Umashankar and his team had moved 30,000 computers and 1,880 severs belonging to some of the state’s schools to Linux — creating possibly the largest Linux rollout in India.

March of the Penguins

The decision to move to Linux could not have been anything if not daunting. As the nodal agency for information and communication technology of a state with the population of the UK, Elcot has enormous responsibilities — current projects include creating an electoral database and photo identity cards, computerizing land records and driving licenses, producing eight million farmers cards and 18 million family cards (used by families below the poverty line to draw monthly rations from the PDS), among others.In short, there are a million ways they can blow it.

And with no vendor support, the odds were against them.

Meanwhile, in his office, Umashankar had other problems. Like many pioneers, his vision held good only where his voice reached. Leading his secretariat to his vision of the Linux-enabled enterprise was one thing, convincing other government agencies that Elcot shifted gears with, was another.

But Umashankar knew what needed to be done. He was convinced that it was only a matter of time before the price of staying proprietary became crushing. With every technology refresh, with every piece of additional hardware, with every new school that his department provided for, with every new service they wanted to offer various government bodies and with every new PC Elcot bought, staying proprietary came at a significant price.

By the first week of June 2006, Umashankar started moving Elcot’s desktops to Suse Linux OS. The entire organization followed in phases, and slowly at first. The migration of over 200 desktops at Elcot’s HQ took just over eight months.

“During the migration although there were no issues, like all new things, it faced resistance. But once people started using it, they saw benefits and became fond of it. We won’t go back, this is an irreversible process,” says P.R.Krishnamoorthy, senior business development manager at Elcot.

As users caught on with Umashankar’s infectious enthusiasm, they started getting more familiar with the features of their new OS. Soon a cycle of interest developed and users found new ways of switching mail clients to work on Suse Linux.

“First they migrated from Outlook Express to Mozilla Thunderbird for Windows. From there they took the mail folder and put it into the Suse Linux system, and started operating Thunderbird over Suse Linux system. Novel, isn’t it?” Umashankar asks proudly.

This interest helped his campaign to migrate completely to Suse Linux, from a 100 percent Windows environment.

But why Suse Linux? To begin with, Elcot found that the Suse Linux Enterprise Desktop matched and surpassed the Windows OS where ease of use was concerned.

But initially, Elcot thought that half their desktops should be commissioned with Red Hat and other half with Suse.

Later, because of its user-friendly interface and backed by popular demand, users decided to migrate to Suse Linux en-masse.

“Our aim was to migrate to Linux and not a particular version of Linux. We had issues with Red Hat in certain areas. Ubuntu has only Gnome at the front end.

We wanted KDE too, as it closely matches the traditional Windows XP environment. To migrate from Windows to Linux this was essential,” Umashankar says.

And, he says, Suse does not require a technical person to install since everything is automatic and front-end driven and device drivers are detected automatically.

Initially, Umashankar says, they had some issues with an existing procurement application that was developed in ASP. It wouldn’t work under Mozilla Firefox.

Umashankar’s solution was simple, “We got the coding changed to work on Mozilla Firefox. Problem fixed.”

Nothing Beats A Good Price

As much fun as it was to fiddle with Linux, it wasn’t fun that drove Umashankar’s decision to switch platforms.

Before he become an Indian Administrative Services officer, Umashankar spent time at three nationalized banks. He also served as the district collector of Tiruvarur (a district in Tamil Nadu) for two years, during which all the taluks under his jurisdiction achieved an over 85 percent score on paperless automation. This included modules for land record administration, national old age pension schemes and agricultural laborers’ insurance.

Umashankar knew his IT and he knew the financial burden it put on the government.

The decision to migrate to Linux was driven primarily by cost. It was hard to escape the cold figures before Umashankar: Elcot saved Rs 5 crore on every 20 servers it set up with Linux. And they had over 1,800 servers.

In addition, Umashankar says that the shift saves them about 25 percent on any general hardware purchases — and as much as 90 percent on the high-end servers.

Umashankar says that his office uses the suite. This saves them close to Rs 12,000 on each desktop, he says.

“We buy Intel dual core desktops with 19″ TFT monitors for Rs 21,600 including the Linux OS. If we bought a proprietary office suite at Rs 12,000 for each desktop, the cost of commissioning infrastructure would go up to Rs 33,600 — a 55 percent increase,” he says.

And when you have to refresh over 30,000 PCs, that’s a figure that can add up: to about Rs 17 crore.

And that’s not all. These figures don’t take into account software upgrades for applications. By using the free suite and a Linux OS, Elcot has bypassed yearly licensing fees for proprietary software.

A corollary benefit is that the government no longer needs to procure additional hardware required to run upgraded versions of most proprietary software. Umashankar estimates that just this saves the government between 45 and 50 percent of a project’s initial hardware costs, which makes it easier to buy more computers for schools.

In addition, Umashankar says Elcot got rid of about 100 anti-virus licenses that were rendered redundant, because as one official claims viruses have “became extinct.”

Once Umashankar had broken the ice surrounding Linux, other open source applications were more welcome. Take for example how Elcot was recently asked to get software for a school for the visually challenged.

Their search for vendor came up with one company in Mumbai that offered them five user licenses for Rs 5 lakh. For an agency whose objective is to find the best price for public funds, it was a price Elcot found hard to swallow.

So Umashankar took the open source route. Their focused efforts led them to Orca, a free software running on Ubuntu Linux to assist the visually impaired. Elcot put together a massive three-day program to train visually-challenged teachers across the state on ORCA. They learnt how to handle a machine running on Ubuntu. Now Umashankar plans to bring more teachers and schools under ORCA.

Where the ‘Open and Free’ Live

Today, Elcot’s 30-seater software development center uses a strong OSS framework to develop its packages for government departments. “For the integrated development environment, the team uses Netbeans IDE, Postgresql for database, Jboss for deployment server, Jasper report for fixed width report development, Mantis for bug tracking and Subversion for version control,” Umashankar says.

The development center runs a few major applications. The first is the family card administration system.

Every family in the state has to possess one of these cards to receive monthly rations.

“Earlier the system was put on a critical client-server run on Microsoft, but there was a whole lot of confusion,” says Umashankar. “So we switched over from client-server architecture to an open source system.” Branch offices of the Food and Civil Supplies Department capture family card data — including scanned photos using HP’s scanners which work on Kooka, a free software for scanning. These are then attached to a database using a Web-based application.

On the server side, Elcot switched the application and database from Windows to Linux. Under the old Windows-based client-server system, once contractors captured data they integrated it with the Linux server. After the migration, contractors and Elcot officials were given user IDs and passwords on the newly developed Web-based system powered by OSS. All 30 branch managers were given training on the new application software for one day. They, in turn, trained the data entry operators.

“There was no issue in moving applications because they are all Web-based — users only get a browser as a front end, so they didn’t find any difference. In fact, it is easier to use because we don’t have to install any applications on local machines and training is minimal,” says senior business development manager Krishnamoorthy.

“This is the first software run on Tamil Nadu statewide area network (SWAN). The data capture operations were completely decentralized at the district level. It can be scaled up to the taluk level, depending on the requirements of the Food and Civil Supplies Department. Within 30 days, the team cleared the entire backlog of family card applications, and relieved the government from public pressure,” Umashankar recalls.

This first project took less than a week’s time to start. Today, data from 19.8 million families are available on servers hosted at the head office’s mini data center. It is worth about 1 TB of data and counting. The database will be moved soon to Elcot’s larger database center.

Other projects include the online registration of property, which when completed will enable citizens to register land or property online. Elcot has also recently released the first-ever Linux powered ATM. Thanks to its Linux operating system, Umashankar says, it will be available in the market at one sixth the average price of a regular ATM machine.

Cold Shoulder

But it wasn’t like Elcot met success all the way. Umashankar says that Elcot faces a real challenge with certain sections of the bureaucracy. In direct opposition, with others who don’t buy his ‘Linux is superior theory’, he has stood by his decision to migrate.

“Despite Suse Linux beating Microsoft’s Windows in ease of user interface, some bureaucrats still consider that only MS-Windows is user-friendly. They refuse to look at Linux OS. It’s strange. But that’s only one side of the story. Many departments have also migrated to Linux after experiencing it,” says Umashankar.

It helps that Umashankar threw in a sweetener. Elcot offered them a set of standardized Tamil fonts working on Linux and Windows — free of cost.

“Until now they were buying the font license for between Rs 2,500 and 6,000 each!” he says.

Training, which can be a really big challenge with large-scale migrations, is also covered at Elcot. All government departments are offered free and paid training facilities.

Elcot has opened a full-fledged training division, which has made marked progress in the last year. Elcot is also setting up its own 300-seater training center in Chennai.

Umashankar expects the entire operations of the government to gradually switch over to Linux/Open over the next 12 or 18 months. “Give it two or three virus attacks and you’ll see a faster migration,” he says tongue-in-cheek.

Despite his attitude, the worries of his peer are not unfounded. It’s hardly news that one of Linux’s biggest drawbacks is the fact that there aren’t many vendors and software providers who will service Linux.

What annoys Umashankar is that there are no practical hurdles in providing this support. “This is largely due to their lethargy.” Since, he says, the logic of business is competition, he’s going to give these providers a run for their money. “Now, government companies like Elcot, which have only served the government, are coming forward to provide Linux OS and application software support to private businesses.”

On the desktop front, the challenge, he says is a little different: hardware manufacturers refuse to release Linux drivers. Elcot only qualifies hardware or peripherals if it passes the Linux test. The challenge comes in areas like Apple’s I-Pod, video conversion for high definition cameras and popular software such as Tally, says Umashankar. “We informed Tally to provide a Linux version failing which Elcot would not take up Tally training. Apple too has been asked to release a Linux version of i-tune software,” he says.

On his part, Umashankar plans to share code Elcot has developed. “Once we implement two more application software packages, we will host the entire application software framework for free download for use in other state governments.” Elcot, says Umashankar, is also looking into the possibility of taking legal action against vendors who refuse to release Linux drivers for their products.

That’s not the only place Elcot is making its presence felt.

Influencing the Environment

Umashankar — and now Elcot — consider reliability and freedom the two important values they have derived from Linux.

This sense of security has prompted Elcot to deploy Linux clients at all its 30 offices. The current number of 300 clients is expected to go up to between 600 and 1000 over the next few months.

In addition to stability and reliability, Elcot relies on a Linux desktop-based PIV system to firewall its domain. Umashankar points out that “Linux is the only OS which is scalable to any hardware platform, including mainframe computers. We have servers and desktops running on Intel and AMD platforms. We have a Solaris installation, too.”

Linux also offers freedom and choice which are completely missing in the proprietary domain. There is the freedom from downtime, that proprietary systems can never offer, Umashankar says. Besides, he points out that many business application majors have already released products for Linux, which means that interoperability is not going to be an issue.

“Due to our experience in the last 18 months, our trust in Linux has gone up,” Umashankar says.

And so has the trust of Elcot’s vendors, he says.

“One of our vendors who produces banners and pamphlets for us suffered a severe setback because a virus attacked them on the eve of a large event hosted by Elcot. In the end, we had to make our own arrangements through another vendor.” He recalls how despite anti-virus updates, all their vendor’s systems including their CEO’s laptop was corrupted.

“Elcot has given them an ultimatum: either switch to a dependable system like Linux or lose Elcot’s business,” says Umashankar. Their vendor currently is in the process of switching over from Adobe Photoshop to GIMP software with enhancements.

Elcot experience might just be one pebble in the pond, but it’s making its splash felt.

Kanika Goswami is special correspondent.

Comment: [email protected]

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