TECH TALK: The Rs 5,000 PC Ecosystem: Bank Branches

Banks, Financial Services companies and Insurance companies (collectively dubbed as BFSI) are among the largest users of technology. Much of their business relies on the electronic movement of information. Also, by the nature of their business, they need to have a distributed physical presence in a lot of neighbourhoods. For example, Indias largest bank, the State Bank of India, has over 9,000 branches, while the largest insurance company, Life Insurance Corporation, has over 2,000 branches. The opportunity for the Rs 5,000 PC lies at these BSFI branches.

Typically, the branches have some form of computerisation, and about 5-10 PCs. In most cases, these will be networked terminals or thick desktops, running a proprietary application. The numbers across a single organisation are large. In the case of terminals, the organization would be keen to give a modern GUI-based desktop to the users, so they can use email, a web browser and other applications. In the case of the thick desktops, the challenge comes in the form of both upgradation costs every few years and the incrementally high cost for new users.

This is where the 5KPC can make a big difference. What it does is bring down the single biggest impediment to computerisation: the high cost of hardware. The 5KPC provides for a saving of at least Rs 20,000 (USD 400) per user. Multiply this by a few thousand users, and the savings become enormous.

Each branch can have a 5KPC for every employee, connected to a thick server. The users now get the performance of a new thick desktop, the look-and-feel of a Windows-like interface, the full complement of applications (email, browser, IM, Office suite) without the attendant problems of having to upgrade every few years. In addition, support is simplified dramatically because the client computers dont need any support and the thick servers at the branches can be managed centrally.

The issue that most BFSI installations have is that of running their proprietary applications on a Linux/open-source platform. They typically will have an application written in Visual Basic or Developer 2000 and running on a MS-Windows desktop. The application drives the platform. Rewriting the application is a non-trivial exercise. For the 5KPC to be useful, it needs to be able to support this application. Is this possible? Yes!

There is an open-source software project called Wine. Heres a brief introduction from its website:

Wine is an implementation of the Windows Win32 and Win16 APIs on top of X and Unix. Think of Wine as a Windows compatibility layer. Wine provides both a development toolkit (Winelib) for porting Windows sources to Unix and a program loader, allowing many unmodified Windows 3.x/95/98/ME/NT/W2K/XP binaries to run under Intel Unixes. Wine works on most popular Intel Unixes, including Linux, FreeBSD and Solaris.

Wine does not require Microsoft Windows, as it is a completely alternative implementation consisting of 100% Microsoft-free code, but it can optionally use native system DLLs if they are available. Wine comes with complete sources, documentation and examples and is freely redistributable.

Wine is the trick to making existing Windows applications work on Linux, and thus the 5KPC. This is not yet a trivial exercise Wine itself is over a million lines of code, and does not support every Windows application. Some effort will need to be put in to make Wine support the proprietary Windows applications. But the benefits in hardware cost savings are substantial enough to justify this exercise.

[A few other alternatives exist: Crossover Office (a commercial implementation based on Wine), Win4Lin (from NetTraverse) and Windows Terminal Services from Microsoft with rdesktop (which is free) running on the 5KPC. Each of these will entail a per user cost.]

While new applications should be developed to ensure they work on a browser (so they are OS-independent), to make a mark in this sector, the 5KPC solution will need to support an existing legacy of Windows applications on Linux. The sheer volume of opportunity in the BFSI sector makes it a key segment in the 5KPC ecosystem.

Tomorrow: SMEs

TECH TALK The Rs 5,000 PC Ecosystem+T

Published by

Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.