In September 1991, when Linux Torvalds, a student at the University of Helsinki in Finland, released 10,000 lines of code on the Internet, nobody could have believed that it would spark off a revolution. In the fifteen years since then, Linux has grown into an enormously capable operating system that contains more than 100 million lines of code that runs on tiny embedded computers to supercomputers and everything in-between. This has been made possible through the contribution of thousands of volunteers across the world working together over the Internet, in what is perhaps the largest collaborative projects in the history of mankind.
Linux is the leading example of the open source movement that is democratizing knowledge and the tools with which we access knowledge. The open source principles of community, collaboration and the shared ownership of knowledge have lead to a transformation in the way knowledge is created and distributed. This has profound implications for India and other developing countries.
Linux was released under the General Public License created by the Free Software Foundation which gives users four freedoms: The freedom to run the program, for any purpose; the freedom to study how the program works, and adapt it to your needs, the freedom to redistribute copies and share it with others and the freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements to the public, so that the whole community benefits. A precondition to these four freedoms is that the source code for the software is freely available.
For millions of software developers across the world, this access to source code and the ability to improve it to meet their needs has been enormously empowering. In the area of supercomputing, scientists have coupled together commodity hardware and open source software to build complex systems that have drastically reduced the cost per teraflop for supercomputers. For millions of users across the world, the ability to freely copy the operating system has meant that they can try it out on their computers for free and pay for value added services like support, customization and training, as and when they are ready. Across the world, governments like China, Brazil, Venezuela and others have been embracing open source because it reduces their dependence on monopolistic vendors and their monopoly pricing structures and restrictive licensing practices. In India, Kerala, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu have declared their intention to use open source software to make IT more widely accessible to their citizens.
Enterprises across India have also been quick to realise the benefits of open source despite the enourmous amounts of FUD (fear, uncertainity and doubt) that proprietary vendors have sought to create. Today, enterprises like LIC, IDBI, IRCTC, IndiaBulls, UTI Bank, Canara Bank, CESC and others use Red Hat Enterprise Linux and other open source software to run their mission critical applications. The SMS voting backbone for highly popular TV shows like Kaun Banega Crorepati and Indian Idol also run on Red Hat Enteprise Linux.
Linux is now well established as a reliable, stable and secure operating system on servers. According to IDC, Linux server sales grew from 4.3 billion in 2004 to 5.3 billion in 2005 as customers deployed it in a wider range of technical and commercial workloads. Over the last few years, Linux has also emerged as a capable desktop operating system with slick desktop user interfaces and an excellent, free office productivity suite in Open Office. Those who have used the Linux desktop have been pleasantly surprised by its capabilities. The Kerala government has decided to move around 12,500 schools to Linux after finding proprietary software to be unaffordable.
It is no surprise that Linux and open source software have caught on rapidly in India. Our traditions of knowledge like yoga and ayurveda have always been free and open to all. We have successfuly built commercial models on top of free knowledge as can be seen from the proliferation of Ayurvedic spas and the fact that yoga is a $30 billion industry in the US. Open source proves that the age old adage that we all grow richer by sharing knowledge still holds true in the Internet era. For decision makers who are implementing IT, it is time to take a long hard look at the long term benefits of open source and evaluate the value it provides on servers and desktops.