Aspire Systems, an outsourced product development company, helps its customers build software products better and faster. And, open source is their favourite pick for a swift drive to build products. Gokul Muralidharan, open source specialist, Aspire Systems talks to Vanisha Joseph of LFY about the company’s journey on the open source road and the promise this speed lane holds for FOSS/Linux experts.
Q: Elaborate on the demand for open source technology for FOSS and Linux experts in India. What is fuelling this demand? Please elaborate on specific sectors and segments.
A: Independent software vendors (ISVs) are looking for quicker development of their products/applications, and they see open source platforms as cost effective and mature means to achieve it. Further, the strong support for FOSS/Linux by commercial vendors – for instance, Java and MySQL supported by Oracle, PHP by Zend, Python by Google and Eclipse by IBM – are also driving the demand for FOSS/Linux experts. Web 2.0 technology is another principal driver for the demand for these experts as more than 50 per cent of Web 2.0 solutions built today are coming from open source tools.
PHP, Ruby on Rails and Python have reached the right maturity levels to build high-traffic consumer and enterprise applications. You can see that several B2C (business-to-consumer) applications such as viewpoints etc. are built on top of open source technologies. Talking about specific IT segments driving this demand, I would say e-learning, content management systems (CMS), customer relationship management (CRM) systems, hospital information management systems, mobile applications and e-governance are front-runners. As a result, the sectors driving this demand include travel, retail, e-commerce, healthcare and government.
Q: What are the advantages of using open source technology tools for product development?
A: We have seen advantages of using open source for product/project development at two levels – the development infrastructure level and the processes and development tools. At the open source development infrastructure level, we have migrated to Linux and today most of our development team use Linux on their desktops. This has cut down licensing costs on the server and desktop side. Further, for a product development company release and build management are crucial, and we have completely moved to Subversion for maintenance of our documents and code. This has not only brought down the licensing cost but also helped us leverage some functionalities like automation built mechanism, integration with Cruise Control and buildbot with svn etc.
For process and development tools, we were using proprietary tools but now we have shifted to open source tools. For instance, we use Prism 2.0, a customised version of Trac, for project management. Apart from that, we use numerous open source tools that have resulted in faster time to market by shortening the production cycle. For instance, we have built PropelP, a product development framework over Zend, which serves as a base when the customer approaches us for a new project. The framework helps us gear up quickly as we do not need to start from scratch, giving the product development cycle a boost.
Q: While the use of open source for product development results in savings in terms of licensing cost, it comes packaged with development cost. Isn’t the cost advantage diluted down the lane?
A: There are two major costs involved in any technology: development cost and infrastructure (both development and production servers) cost. As you can see, usage of open source reduces the licensing cost and thereby overall devlopment/production server costs are generally minimal.
Generally technology selection is philosophical rather than based on abilities. One has to really choose what they are comfortable with. For companies like ours, we have several open source enthusiasts and we help our customers build products. Product development time may not vary quite a bit from one technology to another technology. So, once someone knows the technology be it open source or other languages, it is the question of what you are comfortable with. However, for an ISV, especially if they find attracting open source talent difficult, they will have to budget more towards development cost. So if you get your investment right, like developing a good R&D team, the cost advantage will only grow for you as whatever development work is done can be reused in other projects as well.
Q: What are the open source tools that you’ll use for product development?
A: Our corporate site and blog are built on FOSS content management systems like WordPress and Joomla. For development, we use PHP, Ruby on Rails, Python and JAVA. We also use Perl for development of test scripts and automation management. MySQL and PostgreSQL are the two commonly used database management systems at Aspire Systems. Several of our development servers and desktops run on Ubuntu and CentOS. We use GNU C for our compiler needs while for SDKs, we use Eclipse PDT for PHP, Python and RoR development and Flex, Iphone and Palm SDKs for RIA and mobile application development.
Q: Elaborate on your open source offerings.
A: We offer the end-to-end product development services to our customer. We concentrate on Web 2.0 solutions, performance optimisation and mobile application development. Aspire helps ISVs reap the benefits of open source technologies, such as building custom online products easily, reusing and customising open source frameworks, realising stable and high-quality products faster, and reducing TCO for their end-users. You can take a look at our website, www.aspiresys.com, for more information on our offerings.
Q: What kind of contribution have your developers made back to the community?
A: Our developers are extremely active on PHP, RoR, Zend and Drupal based forums and share their knowledge, give suggestions, provide code patches, fixes, plug-ins etc. We have conducted webinars on open source and the Web 2.0 concept. We also funded Wikipedia to ensure documentation is available to the community. We plan to release full level plug-ins to the PHP and RoR community.
Q: The community is known to give back much more. How has the community helped you during the project development?
A: The community has helped us overcome implementation challenges, challenges pertaining to integration of a few components, etc. We got lot of suggestions from Zend community on our implementation, Postgres for setting up our servers and Drupal for a project involving extensive customisation. The community has primarily helped in troubleshooting and formulation of our ideas.
Q: What are the challenges faced by Aspire in using open source for product development?
A: One of the biggest challenges that we face is helping the customer appreciate the strength of open source technologies. Oftentimes, it is easy to decide in favour of proprietary systems due to technology ownership / support reasons. In case of open source, ownership is not visible and it is community driven. Once someone understands the power of community, it is easy to adopt the open source. We see this approach changing, especially as people are moving more towards SaaS and want to keep the operational cost low among ISVs.
Another major challenge is the need for choosing right licensing that will fit the needs. There are several licensing stuff like GPL, BSD, Apache, etc. One has to be really careful with respect to choosing right option and adhere to the licensing terms established.
Q: Do you have a dedicated team working on development using open source technologies?
A: We currently have 140 developers involved in open source development. Apart from this, we have a centre of excellence (CoE) working on open source, Web 2.0 and mobile solutions. Started about a year ago, the CoE is a 20-member team now. The members are selected on a year-on-year basis and they work on new adaptations in the project, setting and achieving new milestones for research in the area of Web 2.0 and mobile solutions using open source.
Q: Elaborate on the training given to professionals. Do you offer upgradation programmes?
A: We provide an open source training framework for every new entrant in the open source team. The six-eight week training programme helps them learn about Web concepts, PHP, ROR and Python. Further, to upgrade the skill sets and knowledge of the present team, we conduct Wisdom Curve sessions wherein the latest technology trends are identified and presented to the resources. We also encourage developers to actively participate in forums to get more exposure. Our developers never miss participating in boot camps organised by IBM, and Python hack events.
Q: What are your hiring plans for 2010-11? What kind of skill sets are you looking for?
A: We plan to hire 60-80 people for the open source team in the forthcoming year – including a mix of freshers and experienced resources. For freshers, we look for problem-solving skills, and willingness to learn and explore continuously. For experienced professionals, we look for strong knowledge base in open source and Web 2.0 basics and licensing, capability to explore and provide solutions and participation in the open source (not necessarily professional participation).
Q: Is good talent available? If not, what is your strategy to overcome this talent crunch?
A: Good talent with open source skill sets is available but the numbers are limited. Opportunities at college level for developing open source skill sets are less and that is the reason for this scarcity. People can develop themselves once there is enough opportunity and ecosystem. At Aspire Systems, we have a training programme called ‘Impact Training’ where the new entrants get to work in real-life projects, mentored by experienced professionals. In essence, we don’t provide just classroom-based training but the one that involves lot of hands-on work and real-life project experience.
We believe by providing adequate exposure through our training programmes and events, we can enhance the open source knowledge base of our resources and overcome talent issues.
Q: Websites like fossyellowpages.com promote Indian ISVs providing FOSS solutions and those like fossjobs.in promote FOSS-related jobs. What do you think can be the impact of such websites w.r.t. accelerating India’s capability as a FOSS powerhouse?
A: These are very handy for the customers to find out right kind of companies that provide services on building solutions over FOSS platforms. The job sites are very useful to find niche skill sets and experience which is critical in FOSS, and would motivate more job seekers to learn and adopt FOSS by exploring the opportunities that are flooded in this domain.
Q: In the future, what kind of solutions are you looking for from the community?
A: We are looking for mobile solutions and security infrastructure management solutions from the community. We are also looking at more avenues to understand and use the open cloud.
Q: What advice would you give to IT companies and developers looking to enter open source waters?
A: Open source technology is not an end-to-end solution. It is a good base foundation but one needs to build components on top of it. The general mistake is that people expect open source to have everything in it and when it does not, they choose an expensive vendor to support it, taking the overall costs high. Be well aware of licensing and have emphasis on product quality. We should make more contribution and participation, and level of quality of inputs and outputs given to the community should be increased.