Monday, April 04, 2005

Why FLOSS for Indian colleges/institutes


There are thousands of engineering and polytechnic colleges in India. Each year, a few hundred thousands of graduates and diploma holders earn their degree. They pay thousands of rupees as fees to get the best facilities. A part of this goes to buying foreign-origin software which they use either in college lab or for doing their assignments at home. This is a national waste of scarce resources. More so in a resource-poor, talent-rich part of the planet, which sometimes sees itself as a software superpower.

But Free Software is a matter of liberty, not just price. The Free Software Foundation (FSF), established in 1985, has for two decades now been dedicated to promoting computer users' rights to use, study, copy, modify, and redistribute computer programs. We would submit that it makes eminent sense to ensure that your students also have these freedoms, to allow them to think freely and grow significantly, in their quest to become the top software architects in the world of tomorrow.

Free/Libre and Open Source Software has many other advantages such as reliability, performance and security; building up of long-term capacity within the state and country itself; the Free (as in freedom) philosophy; encouraging innovations; offering alternatives to illegal copying; throwing up many possibilities in localisation; helping students vastly by allowing them to learn from the source code; getting access to literally thousands of tools; in addition, of course, to lower costs.

For every software which India's engineering students use; there is an alternate Free Software program available. Free Software (http://www.gnu.org/philosophy) offers freedom, accelerated possibilities and wider vistas to our students. In addition to all this, huge amounts of resources will be saved, and productivity gained, while deploying Free Software. This will not only make engineering education more cost-effective, but also more productive. It is in the interest of India, of your university, and your students, to ensure that VTU students get -- as early as possible -- an introduction to Free Software and its immense potential.

Issues related to Free/Libre and Open Source Software (FLOSS) in education are outlined very well at http://www.iosn.net/education/foss-education-primer/

Other than cost benefits, Free Software has other extremely pertinent advantages. We would urge you to serious consider the following:

  • No-fee licensing
  • Ease of license fee management
  • Better large-scale programmability
  • Easier integration
  • Better performance
  • Development convenience
  • Better support

In the case of education in computer sciences, FLOSS provides opportunities which nothing else can, as the Finland-based researcher Rajani points out:

  • Unrestricted access to the source code.
  • An environment of unlimited experimentation and tinkering.
  • Collaboration and interaction with a community of programmers, coders and users around the world.

In addition to providing ready and available tools, Free Software provides positive examples from projects around the globe. In practice, this means that if someone anywhere else on the linked-via-the-Internet planet has created a tool to reach a specific educational goal, one can take it as a starting point and build on it, without the need to "reinvent the wheel". The Dspace project and the Koha library software, are but two simple examples of such possibilities. As far as collaboration is concerned, Sourceforge is perhaps the biggest collaboration project ever created, uniting tens of thousands of software projects and hundreds of thousands of people around the world. "FLOSS itself has been called the most collaborative human effort ever," as Rajani rightly points out.

We have many other examples to look to. Savannah provides software development services at no cost to free software developers around the world. Savannah provides a web front-end for hosting and maintaining project homepages, bug tracking, CVS, FTP, and mailing lists. These all services are offered, running entirely on Free Software, without ads, for the entire community.

In addition to the above, the inherent qualities of FLOSS make it a prime tool for achieving local language educational software, especially for languages which are not deemed commercially viable for proprietary software vendors. This has the scope of offering both relevance and employment to so many of your bright young students.

There are literally hundreds of Free Software's programs which colleges or universities can adopt. As Vishweshwaraiah Technological University is one of the biggest and most prestigious engineering-related universities in India, its time for VTU to give the lead and significantly move towards using Free Software. This would encourage other smaller Universities to follow suit. Let the VTU have the pride to be the first one to adopt Free Software in its educational curriculum, on a scale significant enough to make a difference to the future of VTU, its many students, and to India itself.

Because of the software tools prescribed in the colleges, and also a general lack of awareness of Free Software options, most colleges currently use Microsoft Windows based operating system. Yet, in terms of technological features, stability, learning possibilities, the GNU/Linux is increasingly being recognised as the best available globally. It is the best suited for any educational institution. Students can not only use it, but also can study its source code to understand its internal workings. Likewise, they can easily get in touch with the many volunteers who have put together this amazing set of tools, and collaborate internationally to created more suitable products and also hike their own skill-sets.

Inspite of constraints built in many a syllabi of engineering colleges, many colleges across South Asia have begun adopting GNU/ Linux, starting with the server room, where it is well known for its stability and security. Now it has entered our labs and desktops. In addition to this, GNU/Linux is playing an impressive role in building up the world of 'social software', encouraging people to collaborate and build knowledge in entirely new ways -- as seen from the emergence of such FLOSS tools such as wikis and blogs. Without the agenda of sharing knowledge, such approaches could not have been dreamt of. This collaboratively-written letter, with the ideas and inputs from people across India and the globe, is an example of such a trend. VTU needs to make a historic decision in terms of seizing possibilities thrown up by such trends.

Take a specific example from the world of simulation: Matlab v/s Octave

Matlab is used in communication and electronics lab. Matlab for an individual license for use in a university (academic use) costs $500. Any college will have to buy a minimum of 25 licenses. This means shelling out Rs.537,500.

Octave, which is a simulation software written by university professors. This usually comes, along and as part of, the GNU/Linux Operating System. The advantage to students is that they don't have to buy a limited student version to use at their homes. They can use Octave both at their lab and at home.

Sci Lab is another Free Software competitor for Matlab. It uses sophisticated algorithms to analyse data and produce aesthetic graphics.

NG-SPICE is yet another GPLd Circuit Simulator which is based on the University of Berkeley's Spice Version 3f5.

But such examples are not restricted to the high-end aspects alone.

Currently, as engineering students, we all use or used Microsoft Word to submit our project documents for review and for other academic purposes. Recent technological developments have offered us Open Office which is as good as Microsoft Office and has the same, if not better, features. Microsoft Office in fact lacks some features like PDF (Portable Document Format) support, compatibility with older versions of Microsoft Office itself, lack a vector drawing application, etc. Open Office gives you everything starting from a word processor, to presentation software to PDF generator. It is fully compatible with Microsoft Office -- so already existing data in those formats can be used. Wouldn't you agree that it's the right time to save money and enhance efficiency of technological education in our country? Apart from, of course, ensuring that concepts like freedom emerge in the world of software-use too?

Computer Networks Subject Teaching: Ethereal, tcpdump, NS2 etc: We use the above mentioned tools for the teaching of Computer Networks and Data Communication subjects. There are a number of other GNU GPLed tools which can be used in a number of other labs for teaching and learning.

Content Management Systems: Drupal, PHP-Nuke etc: These are fascinatingly useful tools for building websites and info portals for students to make online learning possible. In the world of online forums, Free Software have a number of free options. You could well imagine the impact that the accelerated spread of such easily-reachable and usable tools would have, not just on the engineers of tomorrow, but on the wider Indian society as a whole.

VHDL -- Xilinx v/s Alliance 5.0, gEDA: The Xilinx software for VHDL simulation is available for individual systems. Xilinx lacks in VLSI CAD systems, but the Alliance 5.0 is an EDA VLSI CAD, and has set of tools which meets the needs of academics and gives complete tools for VLSI design including support for VHDL as well as verilog support. gEDA is another set of free software which helps in complete design of electronics system. The above are just a few examples. There are many such software programs from which students can benefit. We hope the university understands the urgency and the need. We would be happy to give the university any information/help that is needed. Currently, India has a wide range of volunteer GNU/Linux support groups, a list of which can be found at http://wikiwikiweb.de/LugsList and we would be more than happy to offer whatever support is needed, from our end, for a shiftover to a freer world of software and computing.


The above is matter has been taken from the VTU-FLOSS Campaign

http://bangalore.gnu.org.in/?VTU-FLOSS_Campaign

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