Govt’s Move To ‘Open Source’: Firm support system a necessity for adoption

Despite financial advantages, questions over security and operational efficiency need a closer look.

Written by Ranaditya Baruah | Published:February 19, 2016 1:44 am
internet-7591 Open source can work in India only when a strong support system is developed.

Switching over to open source software across all Central departments, as per a policy decision taken by the NDA government last year, could entail substantial savings on the Centre’s software expenses as most open source alternatives are free. Experts, though, caution that the obvious financial advantages of adopting open source notwithstanding, concerns pertaining to security and operational efficiency may have to be addressed concomitantly.

The government’s cumulative IT spending is estimated at $66.98 billion (around Rs 4.17 lakh crore) in 2015, according to the Ministry of Communications and IT, which has based this estimate on various global IT research and advisory forecasts. As per NASSCOM’s Data Security Council of India, average spend on cyber security is about 2 to 3 per cent of the total IT spending — at about $1.5 to 2 billion.

“A big share, about 15-20 per cent, of the government’s IT spending comprises of closed software. Shifting to open software would help the government save a lot of money,” said Rahul De, Hewlett-Packard chair professor in ICT for sustainable economic development at IIM Bangalore. “However, adoption of open-source software will take time. Unlike closed or commercial software, open source requires a certain ecosystem to work smoothly. However, Centre’s change of policy towards open source is a positive step,” added De.

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As the source code of open software is publicly accessible, which can be modified by anyone, many experts question the efficiency and security of such software. “The question about the efficiency of open source software is largely a perception issue. While most people think that closed software work better because large companies are behind them, there are good alternatives to most commercial software and they come at a far cheaper cost,” said Kannan M Moudgalya, professor of chemical engineering at IIT Bombay.

Experts also believe that educational institutes should be the first places that use open source extensively. “The problem of working with closed software, especially in educational institutes, is that the talent that comes out of these places are too dependent on commercial software. It’s very important that we create an environment where open-source talent can come out of these institutes. Open source can allow things to be done in a much faster manner and it’s also cheaper. Using such software in government departments is good but using these in educational institutes is even better,” says Akhilesh Tuteja, partner and head of IT advisory, KPMG.

Tuteja, however, believes that open source can work in India only when a strong support system is developed. “There are some open source softwares which are backed by strong user communities but there are others with less competent communities behind them. If a software is not backed by a strong community then there might be some vulnerabilities which might not be fixed.” With no regulation governing these kinds of software, using open source in government departments might be a concern, he adds.

As the source codes of most open source software are publicly available, many also think that this eases the chances of malicious users to hack into such software. “It’s the opposite actually. As the source code is openly available more people are likely to work on such software and fix the vulnerabilities. It’s more difficult to hack into open source software than proprietary software. One of the first organisations to adopt open source were the US military forces. They did so because they believed that this was a more secure alternative,” De said. “In open source users have access to the algorithm that makes it work, but no one has access to the encryption key or the set of numbers that act as a password. Without that password it’s impossible to hack into these,” De added.

Even though many institutes of higher education have adopted open source in a big way, a lot more can be done. “Big institutes like IITs and IIMs have started using open source but a lot more can still be done. Many institutes, especially schools across many states in the country, have not been able to adopt these software because there is no serious policy backing them. As a result they are left with no option but to go with commercial vendors for closed software,” De said.

A big part of government’s push for open source is based on the need to include vernacular languages in governance. The government is banking on BOSS (Bharat Operating System Solutions), a Linux-based operating system to meet this particular requirement along with imparting an enhanced understanding of open source in the country. But experts think that government should focus more on applications and then later move on to operating systems. “There are already strong open-source alternatives available in the open source community. Applications should be a bigger focus for the government because that is more important when it comes to governance,” Tuteja said.

Moudgalya, who has developed workshops for people to use open source software in 15 Indian languages, said that such workshops can be also be conducted for officials so that they can start using open source alternatives in vernacular languages across government departments. “Such training programmes can be developed for all government institutes and a strong support staff can be trained to use applications in open source mediums,” Moudgalya said.

The IT ministry has already approved a policy on “Collaborative Application Development by Opening the Source Code of Government Applications”. The policy intends to increase the pace of application development and rapid roll out by adopting the principles of open source model and the government intends to promote reuse of existing developed applications. It is also intended to encourage innovation — inside and outside the government by encouraging collaborative development to develop better products in less time, a source said.