Agriya, an eight-year old Web development company headquartered in Chennai, promises 40-70 per cent cost savings to its clients. And, FOSS/Linux has been instrumental in helping them keep their word, completing over 400 projects as on today. Aravind Kumar, chief technology officer, Agriya Infoway, talks to Vanisha Joseph of LFY about the opportunities FOSS holds for IT companies and professionals.
Q: Is the IT industry ripe enough for FOSS/Linux experts in India?
A: Open source/Linux has grown beyond its initial popularity among hackers and is today being adopted by enterprises across the globe. There is as much, if not more, demand for open source enterprise products as compared to their proprietary counterparts. Thus, the biggest driving force behind the escalating demand for FOSS/Linux professionals is the mass movement supported by enterprise software companies towards open source. You would be surprised to know that even Oracle and Microsoft have a Linux team today.
In addition, the adoption of Linux and open source tools by SMEs across various sectors has been fuelling this demand. For instance, a leading bakery in Chennai is completely on Linux. Telecom and government are the two major sectors pushing this demand. We see a huge demand from state governments in India (including Hyderabad and Bengaluru) and also European countries (such as France). Thus, the ground is ripe for FOSS/Linux experts to grow and blossom in the Indian market.
Q: What are the advantages of using FOSS/Linux in project development?
A: If you aren’t using FOSS/Linux in project development, you are sure to go out of business soon. Most businesses exist for their customers, who are the driving force behind innovation etc. With a large pie of customers using open source or attracted to open source because of cost efficiencies, you would naturally go out of business if you don’t catch up with this market. For instance, 70-80 per cent of Web hosts companies work solely on Linux as they wish to be in business.
Speaking from personal experience too, the main advantage we have seen using FOSS/Linux in project development is the ability to attract a large user base. If we work on solutions using Java or .Net, we have to face loads of issues as the stack is overly complicated and complex, requiring certain access etc. Many clients wouldn’t be able to afford the high costs associated with such stacks. Thus, open source becomes the safest option for us to grow and attract a large user base.
In addition, the community support is a great advantage for companies using open source in project development. They are like friends ready to help you any time as long as you post relevant and proper questions after doing your basic homework. Lastly, there is a huge cost advantage with no licence cost strings attached to open source. This advantage is huge when you are talking about a large IT infrastructure. Ubuntu, for example, is an excellent OS that can compete with just about any proprietary OS. Just an OS shift can save you big bucks!
Q: But some people discredit the cost advantage saying there is a lot of development and maintenance cost associated with the use of open source for project development. Comment.
A: Both the high development and maintenance cost were issues in the past. Today most platforms used by companies for development are mature platforms – tried and tested for a production environment. Most platforms are based out of Red Hat, Debain, Ubuntu, or GNU Linux, making issues like stability etc no longer an anxiety. The new distros and distributions that keep coming up are given as new toys to hackers who try, test and fix the platform. Only after that do we experiment with it, thus there is little development cost on our side.
Similarly, the total cost of ownership used to be high when the platforms weren’t mature. Today, you need a Linux professional to maintain a Linux framework, just like you would need another guy if you opt for Microsoft or any other proprietary platform. Thus, maintenance costs are comparable.
Q: Which open source tools are used by Agriya?
A: We use the Lamp stack – Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP, apart from Ruby and Python. For the operating system, we use various stable flavours of Linux like Fedora, CentOS, Ubuntu and Debian.
In addition, we use application development tools like Moodle, Joomla, Drupal, MODx, SilverStripe, Liferay, SugarCRM etc, according to the needs of our customers. We use the standard open source SDKs and GCC compiler.
Q: Elaborate on your open source offerings.
A: At Agriya, we focus on PHP and Web development using open source tools. Our open source offerings ensure that the project is completed on time and within budget. We provide plug-ins for WordPress, Joomla and Sugar CRM.
Q: Elaborate on the give and take relationship of Agriya with the open source community.
A: At Agriya, the community has given us a lot in terms of helping us formulate ideas, solve trouble shooting, overcome implementation and integration issues, etc. We have also in turn contributed back in our own small way. Our developers have made some core improvements in a rapid development PHP framework called CakePHP. We have also contributed bug fixes etc to the Joomla community.
Moreover, we felt that documentation was a neglected area as it was incorrect, misleading or not updated with the latest version. So we pointed many documentation issues to the community and together tried to resolve it to ease the path for other companies looking at experimenting with open source tools.
Q: What are the challenges faced by Agriya in using open source for project development?
A: One big issue we faced and still continue to face is security with respect to using open source for project development. Since the code is open source, everyone has access to it making it easy for them to decipher and understand how things work. This makes it easy for those with bad intentions to break into systems. Thus, maintaining high levels of security is a challenge. Apart from this, documentation, which is either incomplete or not updated with the current version, is a challenge. You have 100 contributors for core development but when it comes to documentation, you might not even find the basic installation document updated.
Furthermore, community organising is another big challenge. Open source involves people from different backgrounds, cultures and languages and making them work towards a common goal is difficult. We often see flame wars resulting in a beautiful project being dropped or stopped. This makes it difficult for companies like us using open source as getting people on the project to work together is difficult in a virtual environment. For instance, Mambo once used to be a famous content management system, but it is nearly dead today. The reason being most of the developers took a different path and formed Joomla instead of taking Mambo to greater levels. Such distributed work sometimes results in difficulties for companies using open source tools.
Finding appropriate talent is also an issue as open source skill sets remain scarce and niche. Most of the experts come with a high price tag making it difficult for companies like us to hire them.
Q: Do you have an open source team? Do you plan to expand that team?
A: Most of our workforce is well tuned with FOSS/Linux skill sets. I would say as many as 75-100 of the 150 professionals we have, can be labelled as FOSS/Linux experts. We do plan to expand this team and are looking at hiring about 75 people this year. However, we are also looking at optimised utilisation of our resources to enable us to add offerings and give our customers a wider choice and not just increase our headcount aimlessly.
Q: What kind of skill set are you looking for?
A: We believe that open-source skill set can be learnt on the job. Thus, we rather look at the professional’s attitude, interest and passion towards open source compared to experience in the domain. We do give preference to people with open source experience but what we have noticed in the past is that such brains might not fit into the 9-5 work culture. They are free-thinking people working on their own will. Thus, we have opted for nurturing internal FOSS/Linux experts and leaders.
Q: What kind of training do you provide to the open source professionals?
A: We believe in making our resources self-reliant and self-dependant, or if I could say, make them more of a man. Most of the training provided is on the job, wherein the seniors mentor them and encourage them to solve issues. We conduct training sessions on basic open source tools and subversion. We also focus on soft skills training as we believe that’s what prepares them to embrace technical skills.
For upgradation of skill sets, we encourage our developers to watch and learn from videos, tech sites, tech blogs and discussion threads. We also encourage them to participate in bar camps and hack events to gain exposure to the latest open source technology trends but unfortunately, such events are scarce in Chennai.
Q: What are your expectations from the community in the future?
A: Considering security is a major challenge we face, we are looking at good security packages from the open source community as well as some good firewalls. Else, the community is doing a great job!
Q: What is your message to the community and other companies thinking of taking the plunge into open source?
A: For companies who haven’t adopted open source yet for project development, I would ask them to look at open source tools as a serious alternative. Develop and contribute as much as possible to the community as open source is the future of the IT industry. For the community, my message is to keep up the good work and work together! Coordination among the community would complete the wish list of companies like ours adopting open source for project development. Collaboration among great minds can out beat even the giant Apple!