CIO's FOSS Imperative

The FOSS imperative is there and it is evident that the CIOs who have their IT infrastructure aligned with their organization's business goals, will first look towards FOSS as their choice to implement their Enterprise infrastructure.

Software enables us to use computer hardware as well as connect and communicate in ways that drastically change the way we work and play. For users of software in developing countries, the adoption of software solutions and Information and Communications Technologies as an enabler for social and economic development, is severely limited by financial constraints. CIOs today are divided in to two groups: the first one being the one that has the budget and capability to test and implement a new technology infrastructure; and the other being the group that is bound by financial constraints. There is, however plenty of software choice that brings good value for money for both these groups.

Just to brush up the basics, there are various forms of software available and these differ from another in the way they are developed, distributed, modified and licensed. The most prominent categories of software used around the world are:

a) proprietary software

b) F/OSS; and

c) a combination of the two.

Most proprietary software licenses impose various forms of restrictions on usage. These restrictive licenses carry high per-computer or per-user costs.

An alternative has emerged in the form of Free and/or Open Source Software simply known as FOSS. FOSS is software that can be used, copied, studied, modified and redistributed without restriction. This freedom extends to both developers and users and is highly significant to the developing world as FOSS increases access, ownership and control of the ICTs. It provides a framework for the usage and sharing of intellectual capital in a way that is applicable to many areas of both social and economic development. The adoption of FOSS presents opportunities for capacity development, localization and customization for diverse cultural and business development needs.

FOSS is no more a buzzword for the Pakistani IT Industry or our local CIOs. Technologies such as the Linux Operating System, Apache Web Server, Asterisk VoIP/PABX Communications Server and technology platforms such as Java or PHP are widely used in the Pakistani IT industry as well as within general business commerce and industry technology infrastructures. Where it comes to budgetary constraints, easier entry into the market, high availability infrastructures, and enhanced security and enterprise wide solution architecture, Open Source is always on the priority list. Secondly, FOSS has helped to evolve a local 'skills development' opportunity due to which organizations can develop, retain and support an in-house skills development life cycle.

Backtracking the steps of the Penguin

OSS originally made its way into Pakistan between 1999 and 2004 through a 2-tiered approach. At the very top, there was intervention created by the Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunications (MoITT) and at the other end of the spectrum, grassroot level intervention by various voluntary community initiatives initiated by members of the civil society. These include the Pakistan Linux User Group (LUG), the Free and Open Source Software Foundation of Pakistan (FOSSFP), the Ubuntu-Linux Pakistan Team (Ubuntu Linux User Community), the Linux Professional Institute (LPI), and the Computer Society of Pakistan's Special Interest Group on OSS.

In 2003, the MoIT set up a Task Force for Linux and as a result, the Open Source Resource Centre (OSRC) was established in Islamabad by the Pakistan Software Export Board (PSEB) in January 2004. The center promotes FOSS in the local IT industry and also conducts training. Other public sector institutions such as the Pakistan Computer Bureau have since joined the FOSS bandwagon, taking on the task of training some 4,000 government officials on various IT skills.

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Founding of the LUG and other groups

The Linux User Group (LUG) was formed in December 1999 and now has more than 3,500 members. Meanwhile, the FOSSFP and Ubuntu LUC launched the National FOSS Mass Awareness Campaign (FOSSAC). The campaign aimed to educate 7,000 people, notably women, across 506 organizations nationwide. It provided free training, certifying in excess of 4,800 Ubuntu-Linux users and distributing 10,000 FOSS CDs. This initiative involved a public sector university partner that donated 700 computers, 22 trainers and 600 volunteers to manage the campaign across four days (ie: 16 to 19 August 2005). To-date, more than 350,000 Ubuntu-Linux Desktop Software CDs have been freely distributed through and CDs are now widely available for sale through out CD sale spots around the country.

Questions you ought to be asking

A good question you may want to ask is 'why is FOSS being used in the first place?' A good answer is that FOSS carries low-cost of deployment, relatively lower cost of maintenance, widely available self-help resources, no competition or threats from software pirates and it has the ability to test virtually anything in any given circumstance. The costs in terms of consulting, hardware acquisition and training tend to remain comparable with costs of licensed proprietary software but the benefits stand out.

Does off-the-shelf Proprietary software seem to be the only choice for ready deployment into you infrastructure? Well, not really. For the smart CIO, his team needs to be able to design and develop infrastructure whose components are highly availability, scalable and secure. All this in addition to providing the best value for money, and realistically speaking, this cannot be achieved with solutions from one vendor. A CIO needs to be able to create a mix of solutions and implement them to fit into a usable architecture within his company or enterprise. That's why you'll find a combination of both FOSS as well as licensed propriety software in every enterprise infrastructure.

What about freedom to access and modify the software code? Well that's there too, but there is more to it. The Pakistani IT industry evidently needs to build software solution-oriented innovation on top of technologies that have lower cost and licensing barriers. This also opens up doors to opportunities for research and product innovation allowing increased spending on Sales and Marketing.

Is anyone seriously using FOSS in Pakistan? Just to mention a few, large conglomerates from the banking sector institutions and general business commerce and industry are using FOSS. Most notable deployments have been Tameer Micro Finance Bank Ltd. that runs a 100% Ubuntu-Linux-based Client and Server Architecture from its head office all the way across its 22-branch nationwide banking network.

The financial and securities clearing backbone, National Clearing Corporation Limited of Pakistan (NCCLP) also runs on a highly available, secure and scalable FOSS Architecture. Within the Islamic banking network, Bank Islami runs both its Headquarters as well as its branch network on an FOSS-based Enterprise infrastructure.

Today's CIO has a lot of choices. Whether or not to use FOSS is not based on which vendor is the market leader in software. The answer is actually based upon how their organization can build, maintain and sustain its IT infrastructure within the ever growing business economic environment. The FOSS imperative is there and it is evident that the CIOs who have their IT infrastructure aligned with their organization's business goals, will first look towards FOSS as their choice to implement their Enterprise infrastructure.

The author is a FOSS Advisor and Advocate. He leads Ubuntu Linux Pakistan as well as ventures for the promotion of emerging technology for local skills development, people empowerment and strategic technology management in the Pakistani IT industry. He can be contacted at: