October 20, 2008

Indian political party turns to FOSS

Author: Marco Fioretti

Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is India's largest political party, with around 20 million Ordinary Members and about 4 million Active Members. In June, BJP announced its goal to become one of the most high-tech political parties in the next two years, and free and open source software (FOSS) will play an essential role in this project.

BJP says it plans to implement Wi-Fi connectivity in all its headquarters plus nationwide IP video telephony and unified messaging networks. It expects IP telephony should greatly reduce phone bills, and the videophones the party plans to use cost much less than full computers -- 14,500 rupees (about $315) versus 30,000 rupees (about $650). Video telephony and seamless integration of fax, voice mail, and email would enable BJP leaders to send instructions to remote offices and know how they were executed much more quickly than in the past. BJP also plans to be the first Indian political party to have its own Web connectivity between headquarters and state units, with about 100 caching servers to speed up access to its 36 official Web sites.

In addition to cost and efficiency, another reason BJP wants to go digital is politics, in the broadest sense of the word. It aims to give its members and potential voters a modern, dynamic image. BJP leader Shri Lal Krishna Advani recently discovered that "one way of connecting to Young India is via the Web," and BJP President Shri Rajnath Singhsays, "Unbiased and unfiltered feedback from the frontlines needs to flow up to the party leadership. I expect modern communication tools to facilitate such a dialogue."

Function Chosen software
Server Virtualization OpenVZ and Vtonf
Router + Firewall + VPN Vyatta
Unified Threat Management Untangle
HTTP Accelerator Varnish
Proxy Server Squid
Digital Repository ePrints
Email Qmail, Courier Imap and Squirrelmail
Instant Messaging OpenFire plus Spark
Video and Voice Telephony Asterisk, Hylafax
Mailing List Ezmlm
Security Camera Management ZoneMinder
Identity Management Fedora Directory Server
Web Content Management Joomla!
Remote WAN-based Backup VZDump and rSync
Storage Area Network OpenFiler
Network Management Zenoss

How will all this happen? Prodyut Bora, national convenor of BJP information technology cell, says, "We have found that it is possible to create an entire enterprise IT ecosystem using only FOSS." He says BJP plans to use CentOS as its server operating system and Ubuntu on desktops, along with many enterprise and infrastructure applications (see table). ePrints, for example, is used as internal document library, to build a BJP version of the MSDN Library. The choice of Qmail as mail transport agent is due to the fact that the IT cell staff believe in core competency and, as Bora says after a nine-month trial without any problem, "Qmail does exceedingly well what it is supposed to do: transfer mails".

At the time of this writing, BJP has only five Ubuntu desktops. They are part of a three-month pilot project that is almost over, after which Ubuntu will become the standard BJP desktop. However, almost everybody in the four offices in the National Capital Region (NCR) already uses some FOSS. Bora says he and his staff deliberately implement new applications in a way that users are almost oblivious of the change, in order to have as little resistance as possible. Most BJP employees, for example, aren't aware that the telephony systems have moved to Asterisk. The Ubuntu boxes used in the desktop pilot program all had a Windows XP look and feel, so the only comment, from one user, was "no big deal, it is the same as Windows XP." Bora considers that the biggest compliment they could have received. "Sometimes, the best change is when you don't feel any change at all."

At the same time, Bora points out that keeping users happy, or at least oblivious to change, didn't come for free. The IT cell was unhappy with the user interface of almost all the software they chose and had to make "major customizations" to them, though they left the back ends mostly untouched. According to Bora, "One of the biggest problems in using FOSS is that most user interfaces are atrociously bad."

Two examples he gave are SquirrelMail and ePrints. Both are great pieces of software, Bora says, but SquirrelMail looks like it belongs to a previous century when he compares it to Ajax-based webmail services like Gmail and Yahoo! Mail. The problem with ePrints is that its developers forgot the "rule of three" -- whatever you want should be available in three clicks -- so the IT cell customized it to be as user-friendly as MSDN Library. These and other software modifications aren't stable or well-documented enough yet for usage outside BJP, but Bora says the IT cell intends to release them to the community in the near future.

What about the rest of India?

People in the BJP IT cell all believe that promoting open source and open standards is an imperative for India. The large-scale FOSS deployment by the party, however, is just an internal decision of BJP, since the party doesn't have yet an official position on digital technologies. Nevertheless, the fact that such a big party is going to rely on FOSS for its internal and external communications will certainly make noise inside the Indian FOSS community. This plan will increase expectations that, sooner or later, BJP will make some official proposal that all of the country take advantage of the same technologies.

Some in the Indian FOSS community doubt that will happen. Sasi Kumar of FSF-India says, "As far as I know, BJP has not taken any particularly interesting move towards FOSS, nor there have been contacts or discussions between FSF India and BJP on these matters or about our struggle against software patents. Generally speaking, FSF India has no political connections or inclinations, but we will accept support from any political party without any commitment. We're happy to hear that BJP has found Free Software so good to build its whole ICT infrastructure with it; of course, we also hope that BJP will officially suggest the same for all Indian schools and public administrations!"

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