TECH TALK: As India Develops: ICT (Part 2)
What India needs is an affordable computing platform to build out the digital infrastructure across its enterprises, homes, education institutions and government. So far, the high cost of the computers and even higher cost of software (relative to income levels) has hobbled adoption of technology in India. Luckily, the elements to construct solutions at price points which are 70-90% lower without sacrificing performance are now available.
Thin clients are computers with limited local processing and storage, which are both centralised on servers. The client should be able run an OS (Linux ,for example) along with VNC (virtual network computer). VNC is a remote display protocol, much like RDC from Microsoft and ICA from Citrix. Using this approach, thin clients can be, theoretically, assembled for less than Rs 2,250 (USD 50) in component costs, excluding the display. A refurbished 14-inch monitor will cost under Rs 2,000 (while a new one will cost about Rs 3,500). TV can be a possible display option also, though one will have to sacrifice the viewing quality. Thus, it is possible to put together the user desktop for no more than Rs 5,000.
Server-centric computing is just like the mainframe and minicomputers of the past. Terminals managed the local input/output while all the computing and data storage took place on the server. A return to a similar model is essential if one has to dramatically bring down the cost of computing. In todays world, there are two things working in our favour: networks (local and wide-area) have become fast enough to enable data to be transmitted rapidly across from the server to the client, and Moores Law provides for huge server processing capabilities at much lower price points. So, it should be possible to centralise computing at a cost of no more than Rs 2,500 per user (for a minimum of 10 users on the LAN) or a fraction of that if being offered as a hosted service by broadband operators to homes.
Open-source software is the third leg of the affordable computing. For almost every commercial software there is a free, open-source equivalent. For the desktop, Linux compares well with Microsoft Windows, OpenOffice with Microsoft Office, Ximian Evolution with Microsoft Outlook, Mozilla with Internet Explorer. For the server infrastructure, it is possible to put together the complete infrastructure of a mail server, proxy server, firewall, anti-virus software, anti-spam, database server and file/print server software with open-source components. In addition, there are thousands of other open-source applications available for specific needs.
Taken together, thin clients, server-centric computing and open-source software offer an excellent platform on which to build an alternate environment which can dramatically reduce the cost of computing for the next markets. By leveraging a handset-like business model, service operators (think of them as tech utilities) can start offering hardware, software, networking, connectivity and support for as little as Rs 500-600 per month, bringing the cost of computing down to that of a cellphone today. This is what is needed for building out Indias digital infrastructure.
Tomorrow: ICT (Part 3)