How to Deploy Linux From the Data Center to the Desktop

Rising demand for IT from government agencies in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu was putting pressure on the state's technology budget. The solution? An enterprisewide shift to Linux from the data center to the desktop.

The Electronics Corporation of Tamil Nadu (Elcot) began its enterprise migration to Linux 20 months ago with a single laptop issued to the government agency's managing director, C. Umashankar. On May 26, 2006, Umashankar walked into his office in Chennai (the capital of India's Tamil Nadu state) and was handed a brand-new laptop. He recalls promptly giving it back to his assistant. "I asked him to load Suse Linux on it. I guess he was surprised," Umashankar says. "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 assistant."

That confidence spread quickly. Within weeks, Elcot, the Rs 7.5 billion ($190.4 million) agency that runs IT for the Tamil Nadu government, was undergoing an enterprisewide migration to Suse Linux. By last year, Umashankar and his team had moved 30,000 computers and 1,880 severs belonging to some of the state's schools to Linux—possibly the largest Linux rollout in India. And they're not done yet.

For an organization with enormous responsibilities (the Tamil Nadu government serves a population the size of the United Kingdom; its current projects include computerizing land records and producing 18 million benefit cards for welfare recipients), there were a million ways they could blow it. With no vendor support, the odds were against success. Meanwhile, although Umashankar could sell his vision for a Linux-enabled enterprise within his own organization, it was another matter convincing other agencies that had to use the equipment to go along.

In a July 2007 report, Gartner analyst Mark Driver wrote that open source has been deployed primarily by the most aggressive technology adopters in order to gain flexibility and independence from vendors. The report predicts that open-source use will expand between now and 2012 to more conservative organizations motivated by cost and risk reduction. Umashankar was convinced that Elcot could no longer afford proprietary technology (the agency was a Microsoft shop). Every technology refresh, every new service, every new school that his department equipped came with a significant price. Open source offered a way to keep pace without busting the budget.

Start With Your Own Shop

By the first week of June 2006, Umashankar started moving Elcot's desktops to machines with the Suse Linux OS. The migration of more than 200 desktops at Elcot's headquarters took a little more than eight months.

P.R. Krishnamoorthy, senior business development manager at Elcot, says the biggest challenge was end-user 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."

At first, the plan was to equip half the desktops at Elcot with Red Hat Enterprise Linux and half with the Suse OS. But end users preferred Suse, which matched or surpassed Windows where ease of use was concerned.

"Our aim was to migrate to Linux and not a particular version of Linux," says Umashankar. One issue that tipped the balance toward Suse was that he wanted to deploy the K Desktop Environment (KDE). "It closely matches the traditional Windows XP environment," Umashankar notes. "To migrate from Windows to Linux this was essential." He had looked at Ubuntu, another Linux OS, but Ubuntu used the Gnome desktop (Kubuntu, a version of Ubuntu that uses KDE, wasn't fully incorporated into Ubuntu at the time). And, Umashankar says, Suse did not require a technician to install it; the installation could be done automatically.

As users started getting more familiar with the features of the new OS, they began to experiment. For example, they found new ways of switching their mail clients to work on Suse Linux. "First they migrated from Outlook Express to Mozilla Thunderbird for Windows," says Umashankar. "From there they took the mail folder and put it into the Suse Linux system, and started operating Thunderbird over Suse Linux." The end users' interest helped his campaign migrate to Suse Linux from a 100 percent Windows environment.

The Proof Is in the Price Tag

As much fun as it was to fiddle with Linux, it was finance, not fun, that drove Umashankar's decision to switch platforms.

Before he became an Indian Administrative Services officer, Umashankar worked at three banks. He also served as the district collector, or administrative head, of Tiruvarur (a district in Tamil Nadu) for two years. During Umashankar's tenure, the Tamil Nadu government found that 85 percent of the departments under his jurisdiction had automated their paper-based processes. 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. It was hard to escape the cold figures: For every 20 servers it set up with Linux, Elcot saves about Rs 50 million (approximately $1.3 million at recent exchange rates). And the organization had more than 1,800 servers.

Meanwhile, using OpenOffice saves Rs 12,000 (about $300) on each desktop; Intel dual-core desktops with 19-inch [flat-panel] monitors cost Rs 21,600 ($550) including the Linux OS. Purchasing a proprietary office suite would cost 55 percent more. And when you have to refresh more than 30,000 PCs, that can add up—to about Rs 170 million ($4.3 million), not counting the cost of upgrades.

As a corollary benefit, the Tamil Nadu government no longer needs to procure additional hardware required to run upgraded versions of most proprietary software. Umashankar estimates that by avoiding the extra hardware purchases, the government saves nearly half a project's initial hardware costs. That makes it easier to buy more computers for schools. Elcot also got rid of about 100 antivirus licenses that it no longer needed because its systems were no longer considered vulnerable.

Elcot now saves money using open-source business applications, too. Recently, the agency was asked to get software for a school for the visually challenged. When its search for a vendor came up with one company in Mumbai that offered it five user licenses for Rs 500,000 ($12,700), Umashankar decided to take the open-source route. Elcot found Orca, a free package running on Ubuntu Linux that makes applications accessible to the visually impaired. Elcot put together a massive three-day program to train visually challenged teachers across the state on Orca and Ubuntu. Now Umashankar plans to expand the deployment.

Developing Open-Source Applications

Today, Elcot's 30-seat software development center uses a strong open-source framework to develop applications for government departments. The team uses the Netbeans integrated development environment, Postgresql for databases, Jboss for deployment servers, JasperReports for fixed-width report development, Mantis for bug tracking and Subversion for version control.

The development center runs a few major applications, including the state's family card administration system, which Elcot migrated to from Windows to Linux. Every family in the state has to possess one of these cards to receive subsidized prices for commodities such as sugar and cooking fuel. Branch offices of the Food and Civil Supplies Department capture family card data, including scanned photos. The HP scanners use Kooka, a free scanning application.

The family card administration system is the first application to run on Tamil Nadu's statewide area network. The data-capture operations were completely decentralized at the district level and can be scaled up to the local government level, depending on the requirements of the Food and Civil Supplies Department. Under the old Windows-based client-server system, the locally captured data had to be ported to a Linux server in a separate step; the new system enables data entry directly to the database.

All 30 branch managers were given a day of training on the new application software, and they, in turn, trained the data entry operators. Within 30 days, the team cleared a backlog of family card applications, "and relieved the government from public pressure," Umashankar recalls. Today, about 1TB of data from 19.8 million families is available on servers hosted at the head office's mini data center. The database will be moved soon to Elcot's larger database center.

Other projects include an online property registration system, which when completed will enable citizens to register their land or property. Elcot has also released what it claims is the first-ever Linux-powered ATM. Umashankar says the machine will be sold at one-sixth the average price of a regular ATM.

Krishnamoorthy, the Elcot senior business development manager, says users "didn't find any difference" between the old and new systems because the applications are all Web-based. "In fact, it is easier to use because we don't have to install any applications on local machines and training is minimal," he says.

Managing the Downside

Not every group of end users within the Tamil Nadu government has embraced open source, however. Not everyone buys Umashankar's "Linux is superior" theory.

"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," he says.

He's offered sweeteners, such as a free set of standardized fonts for the Tamil alphabet, which can be used with Linux and Windows—a savings of up to Rs 6,000 ($150) per license (the Tamil alphabet is distinct from that of many other Indian languages, including Hindi, the national language). Elcot also covers training; the agency opened a full-fledged training division and is setting up a 300-seat training center in Chennai.

Umashankar expects the entire state government to gradually switch to Linux and OpenOffice within the next 12 to 18 months. "Give it two or three virus attacks and you'll see a faster migration," he says, tongue in cheek.

Yet despite Umashankar's optimism, Linux has its drawbacks. One of the biggest is a lack of vendors and software providers who will service Linux. Umashankar says there are no practical hurdles in providing this support; he blames vendors' "lethargy." He has decided to give service providers competition by providing Linux OS and application support to private businesses through Elcot.

On the desktop front, the challenge is different: Hardware manufacturers don't offer Linux drivers. Elcot qualifies hardware or peripherals for government use only if the equipment passes the Linux test. Technologies such as the Apple iPod, video conversion for high-definition cameras and popular software—such as business applications by the vendor Tally—don't measure up, says Umashankar. "We informed Tally [that it had] to provide a Linux version, failing which Elcot would not take up Tally training," Umashankar says. "Apple, too, has been asked to release a Linux version of iTunes software," he says. On the other hand, he points out that many major business application vendors have already released products for Linux, which means that interoperability is not going to be an issue.

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

A Linux Evangelist

Even with such challenges, Umashankar is satisfied with the results of the Linux rollout. Elcot now plans to deploy Linux clients at all 30 of its offices. The current number of 300 clients is expected to go up to between 600 and 1,000 over the next few months.

"Due to our experience in the last 18 months, our trust in Linux has gone up," Umashankar says. Now, he's pushing his suppliers to get on board, too.

"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 antivirus updates, all the vendor's systems, including the CEO's laptop, were corrupted.

"Elcot has given them an ultimatum: Either switch to a dependable system like Linux or lose Elcot's business," says Umashankar. Its vendor currently is in the process of switching over from Adobe Photoshop to the GNU Image Manipulation Program—a free graphics editor—with enhancements.

Elcot's experience with Linux might not create a big splash, but Umashankar intends for its ripples to spread.

Kanika Goswami is special correspondent with CIO India. Send feedback to her at kanika_g@cio.in.

This story, "How to Deploy Linux From the Data Center to the Desktop" was originally published by CIO-India.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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