Financial Daily from THE HINDU group of publications
Wednesday, Aug 07, 2002
Info-Tech - Software
Caught napping, again!
THE story of the Indian information technology industry is essentially one of consistently missed opportunities.
For instance, the domestic software industry was, towards the turn of the millennium, afforded, literally, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to establish a beach-head in lucrative markets around the world when they were in a fine tizzy over the Y2K bug but failed to do so.
The industry did, of course, make a fair amount of loose change during the dotcom bubble but, once again, failed to establish itself as anything more than a contractor of cheap labour for low-end work causing The Economist to tag India as `the laundry' to the global software industry. Actually, given the rash of medical transcription services and call centres that has spread across the country, this elegant exegetist of contemporary capitalism would have done better to have described India as the secretarial pool of the wired world. Unless, of course, it was referring to money-laundering....Perish the thought!
Will the Indian software industry be able to secure any benefit for itself from the fact that the IT sector in the US has come a full circle through a bubble and a bust and and is now back in Washington, looking for business generated by 9/11?
The answer, unfortunately, is that it will not.
Let us look at the facts of the case.
But, before we do that, it is important to remind ourselves that virtually all of the American IT industry was developed on the basis of socialised costs and privatised profits pulled off through sleight of hand by Washington. The Internet, for instance, was funded in its initial stages by the US tax payers and its benefits transferred to the private sector.
At a micro level, the leading database vendor, Oracle, by way of illustration, gained traction only after it landed consulting assignments of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) about two decades ago.
This time too, the industry is looking to the government for rich pickings. It has taken care, however, to wrap around itself the American flag...........
After 9/11, the "back to the frontier'' call issued by PC Forum has been widely interpreted as an exhortation to a return to US Government contracts which, backed by a homeland security budget of $38 billion for 2003, look positively interesting.
As matters stand, the sheer inadequacy of the US federal government's technological inadequacies have been brought into brutally sharp focus by the FBI Director, Robert Mueller's recent testimony before the Senate that the bureau does not have the capability even to search through its electronic documents using anything more complicated than single words!
In a manner of speaking, the FBI and the other US federal intelligence/law enforcement agencies cannot be faulted for the dismal quality of the technology that they use. These agencies, for reasons of security, have tended to steer clear all this while of commercial software in order to maintain security. As everyone knows, the Internet is chock full of sites featuring very handy tips indeed by hackers on how to exploit the vulnerabilities of commercial software.
Now that their collective Achilles' heel has been exposed, what will these agencies do to vamp up their info technology?
To begin with, they'll probably get out of the antediluvian flat-file databases that they use now. These flat databases may make for easily-enforced security but they store information in rigid tables that do not respond to complex queries nor link up.
Let's take the case of terrorism, for instance. One table may hold biographical information about terrorists and another may contain stuff about arms dealers who have links with them. As flat databases are not very flexible, they do not facilitate an easy connection between the two tables.
Non-governmental entities have long since moved over to relational databases such as Oracle's 9i or Microsoft's SQLServer or IBM's Informix, all of which have flexible tables which can be reconstituted around specific criteria. Thus, collating information on terrorism across various tables becomes a whole lot easier.
So why doesn't the US Government, with its vast resources, just upgrade the databases used by the federal organisations? The answer is that it can't. At least, not very easily. If you gut old databases and try and replace them with new ones, you just might lose a whole bunch of very valuable data.
There are, of course, a number of companies that offer reliable conversion software that reconfigure flat-file systems into relational databases but the reconfiguration takes time.
Flat databases are only a small part of the problem as far as US Government security outfits trying to beef up their information technology are concerned. Assuming that they do manage to switch smoothly to relational databases and are able to then install commercial search software from Google, Inktomi and so on, they will still have to figure out how they are going to manage and make effective use of the ever-growing amount of data that is coming their way.
Another distinctly more worrisome aspect of the problem is reflected in the result of a survey conducted recently by the Business Software Alliance which revealed that roughly half the IT professionals in the US believe that the American Government will be hit by "a major attack'' on its computer systems in the next 12 months and that it is not prepared for it. According to the BSA President, Richard Holleyman, the survey further indicated that the attack could range from discrete attempts to corrupt or wipe out groups of highly sensitive data to a broader onslaught against multiple systems.
It may be recalled in this context that the US Government's own evaluations of its systems have thrown up flunking grades.
If you think you've heard it all by now, hang on. The US National Academy of Sciences recently issued a 362-page report in which it has, among other things, characterised the country's computer networks as "extremely vulnerable to attacks'' and listed an array of anti-terror applications for existing technology for introduction on an expedited basis. Further, the study has recommended the securing of computing and telecommunications networks in the US so that breakdowns don't aggravate matters in the event of an emergency.
"Attacks on information technology can amplify the impact of physical attacks and diminish the effectiveness of emergency reports,'' according to the study.
It is in this context that the American IT industry, in the last few months, has flooded government agencies with thousands of proposals. In fact, the grapevine is that some of these agencies, especially those which have been created recently, don't have the people necessary to process these proposals!
Inevitably, Oracle has been first off the starting block with its enthusiastic support for an early introduction of a national identity card system. And the company has already donated its 9i data base management software to a US government agency which deals with national security. Finally, Oracle is joining forces with Sun Microsystems, Electronic Data Systems and PwC Consulting to take on a project involving assistance to the US Transportation Security Agency and other federal agencies in the adoption of biometric technology that will be used to assess security risks.
All this is obviously good news for US tech companies which have been going through extremely difficult days indeed after the Internet bubble burst.
But the American homeland security initiative is of no commercial significance at all to the Indian IT sector for a variety of reasons.
For one, it is extremely unlikely that American companies will be inclined to outsource any work on security applications, given their sensitive nature, to India.
And then again, if they are so inclined, they may well be constrained from doing so by the contracting entities which, obviously, will be government agencies with the highest level of sensitivity to security considerations.
Assuming, for the sake of argument, that, by some freak chance, certain assignments do come this way, the odds are that we won't be able to handle them because we lack the coding and allied skills. This, of course, is something that the domestic software industry will hotly dispute. But, it will have to back up its claim to coding competence with specific instances of achievement Y2k fixes, invoicing systems for supermarket and fast food chains and other distinctly low-end work of this sort just won't do the trick.....
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