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The Open Source Community relies on committed individuals innovating and extending the available code for anyone's benefit.

CREATIVE MINDS: At a lecture session on open source software at Hackfest, as part of Shaastra '10, at IIT-Madras. Photo: Special arrangement
CREATIVE MINDS: At a lecture session on open source software at Hackfest, as part of Shaastra '10, at IIT-Madras. Photo: Special arrangement

Freedom, and community and voluntary co-operation may be associated with enterprises and causes but when a group of budding engineers in Chennai talk about the soul of the machine — ‘software' — being trapped in countless battles of proprietary ownership and licences, the same terms acquire frontier meanings.

Engineers across Tamil Nadu under various organisations and banners work for promoting awareness about free software specifically, among programmers and students. While institutions such as IIT-Madras and various other educational institutions affiliated to Anna University are organising training sessions for programmers and users of free software, a lot of committed software professionals carry out research and development work for free software solutions to suit local requirements.

The movement, these engineers say, can be strengthened only if it is encouraged and effectively nurtured in all respects to form a genuine, credible alternative to proprietary software.

The IIT-M OSS Lab along with the IIT-M Linux User's Group (LUG) and Hackers' Club helps in fostering and developing open source software. The group — IITM Linux Users Group — an active community which deals with the free open source software boasts of around 1,000 members. The wiki page developed by these groups has links to the articles and lectures on various topics that have been addressed over the years.

“We mainly target the first-year engineering graduates because the younger you catch them, the more open they are to get accustomed to new applications,” says V. Subhashini, a Computer Science student at IIT-M and a member of the club. The institution provides a repository of the different flavours of Linux, hence the spreading of awareness and distribution of software becomes easier, she points out.

“The whole idea is to acquaint the programmers to the concept of free software by getting them started on it, solving their doubts and helping them use the applications, and eventually getting them to contribute to the source code,” she says.

The LUG in IIT-M maintains and updates threads that answer the queries of hundreds of free software users right from helping out how to use typical applications to imparting them guidelines on how to contribute to the code. With many alumni present as members, the responses to questions asked are quick, which, the students say, works well in getting used to the system.

Software is like science, an education that should not be restricted by licences and cost, says Alagunambi Welkin, an engineering student of Vinayaka Mission University. “Transit from proprietary software to free software is difficult because there exists a block due to an easy familiarity with the former, but once you understand the benefits of free software in terms of expense and for challenging your creativity, it makes you understand the concepts much better,” he says.

Applications such as gnuplot that help you plot graphs and latex for writing flexible reports, and scripting languages like python and skylab, useful for electrical engineers, are taught in comprehensible ways to engineering students who wish to experiment with free software in many sessions conducted by these groups. Apart from lectures on topics, there are regular talks on licensing that exist for software to prompt the users to ask questions and get their apprehensions about software applications clarified.

A Chennai-based group formed by Linux users in the city called ILUG-C promotes the awareness of GITS that work as version controllers in different applications. “Since many people modify the code of the software available freely, it is equally important to incorporate the changes in the integrated software,” says Subhashini.

Information on Internet Relay charts wherein ideas are discussed and various problems encountered in programming are discussed also forms part of the activities undertaken by the group. “Many of us want to try out coding and contribute to the building of a software, platforms like this not only give us an opportunity to do but also provide us with the necessary guidelines,” says Anand Kishore, an engineering graduate from Anna University.

According to the members, workshops and technical fests are better places wherein visitors get to explore a host of programming options to test their coding skills. Opportunities such as the Google Summer of Code that have famous free open source companies lending out their incomplete projects for completion to interested, capable students of engineering are also attractive incentives that drive many a brain working on the correct output.

“It is not the institution that matters here, but the commitment and passion engineers have for coding that decides their contribution,” says Subhashini, adding that many engineers solve bugs every year in technical fests, get their patches, that is approval for their code to be incorporated in the next version, and start contributing majorly to the source code of many free software.


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