By Frederick Noronha

IT MAY BE taking its time to get done, but this is one simple idea that
could have a wide-ranging impact for thousand of young
engineers-in-the-making across India.

Put briefly, the idea is simply to compile a whole range of useful and
'free' software that engineering students from this 'talent-rich,
resource-poor' country of a thousand million-plus can effectively use in
their studies and work.

It calls for quite a bit of scouring around -- and matching the needs of
students with what's available out there, in the wide world of
cyberspace. But since the software to be used is from the Free
Software/Open Source world of GNU/Linux, it means that once compiled,
this useful collection could be freely distributed without copyright or
unreasonably-high cost restrictions.

(GNU/Linux is a computer operating system that runs on many different
computers. It has been built up largely by volunteers worldwide, and
comes with along with its freely-copyable 'source-code' and thus offers
you the freedom to its users and programmers in many more senses than
just coming across at affordable costs.)

First to initiate this Nagarjuna G, a scientist and keen Free Software
proponent at the Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education. This centre
is located at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in the Indian
commercial capital of Mumbai (formerly Bombay). Incidentally Nagarjuna
is also the founder of the Linux-in-Education (LIFE) mailing list. See
details at

Prof Nagarjuna irst broached the subject thus, via one of the many
GNU/Linux-related mailing lists active in India: "I am presently
planning a single CD distribution containing the applications and
goodies required for a regular engineering college student.  I would
like to keep in mind the syllabus and projects students do.  Can some of
you tell us what kind of applications are used/needed by students?"

He argues that volunteers can build the list and "sit on one Sunday" and
put together the 'distro' (or distribution, referring to the collection
of software required).

It sounds easy. But this is a task which calls for considerable thought,
coordination and planning.

Nagarjuna admits that this project has been on the cards for some time
now. Inspite of being such an interesting idea -- a whole generation of
engineering students could get access to the power of GNU/Linux software
-- it has not been easy to push through. Not surprising in the world of
volunteer work, where real-life jobs and earning a living mean one can't
always do what one wanted to.

But the efforts are on.

"(This is) another thing which needs to be done but could not do it
because no volunteers.  But this is also on the agendas of the FSF-India
(the Indian-branch of the Free Software Foundation).  We will soon
identify a team for this and get it going," says he, determinedly.

Mumbai-based Trevor Warren agrees. He recently noted that working to
build up such a forum would be suitable for "like-minded GNUers like us
to spread and nurture the idea of Free Software". This is increasingly
seen as an important job in a country like India, rich in software
talent but poor in terms of the code it actually has access to when it
comes to meeting its own requirements.

There has been a lot of debate over what software would be best squeezed
into the space available on the CD.

Electronic students, for instance, would have their own requirements.
For instance Spice, the analog circuit simulation software or Varkon
(which plays the role of a computer-aided design software). BruseY20 is
a VHDL generator. VGUI is a block-diagram to VHDL. SAVANT is a VHDL
simulator while Alliance offers a complete set of VLSI tools. (VLSI
stands for very large scale integration, and relates to the important
field of chip design.)

Other suggestions that have come up include something for CAM/gerber
post-processing, a FPGA design package and a VLSI design package.
Besides, GNU/Linux also offers such suitable tools like RDBMS with its
front-ends and admin tools; PostGreSQL; MySQL; PgAccess; Tcl/Tk; Perl5;
PHP; PHP MyAdmin and PHPPgAdmin (administrative interfaces for MySQL and
Postgres in PHP).

For chemical engineers-in-the-making, GNULinux also offers a chance of
finding suitable molecular manipulation software.

There were many other names of free software products that could be

GNULinux is a great operating system for the Net, since it was itself
born in an Internet generation, though collaborative cooperation among
thousands of volunteers worldwide. This means it has a number of useful
web tools -- including Apache, PHP, Perl5, Webmin and CGI scripting.
Zope and Python, Tomcat and jservers are the other useful tools.

For civil engineers, Free Software offers a whole list of useful tools
to engineers-in-the-making. These include Varkon (CAD), Grass5 (GIS),
and some vehicular traffic analysis and simulation tools.

On the publishing front too, GNULinux has its options. For example, SGML
tools, jade, stylesheets, docbook, tex/latex, yacc, flex and bison.
There's also lyx.

Being Free Software, often created by volunteers who don't have the
motive of gaining by hiding vital information, such packages are mostly
very transparent and open in their approach. They also helpful
documentation accompanying them -- often (though not always) at very
affordable prices, if not free...and mostly copyable without
restrictions too.

Matlab, a software many engineering students talk about, is very useful
for solving all types of systems involving extensive matrix operations.
It has its specific programming language with built in functions.
"Usually all the engineering problems get reduced to a system of
differential equations and involve matrix operations, so its a kind of
software that everyone finds useful irrespective of discipline," as one
engineer in this debated noted.

With so much of software available, but often not widely known, it
becomes a hard job to choose. But chances of getting tonnes of tools via
a low-cost CD also promotes new ideas.

Adds Nerurkar, himself a student of automobile engineering: "Prof.
Nagarjuna mentioned e-books. That set me thinking... is it possible to
get e-books on engineering subjects like heat transfer, calculus, and
algebra? Should we include those? They could be in valuable." (E-books
are electronic-books, which are not printed on paper.)

To check out more about this group, visit:

Meanwhile, other Free Software campaigners like E. Krishnan of the
FSF-India also offers help in creating a 'custom GNU/Linux for our
schools with educational and office tools". E Krishnan mentions a
recent meeting with the Director of Public Instructions in Kerala, who
showed "considerable interest" in introducing Free Software in
Frederick Noronha * Freelance Journalist * Goa * India 832.409490 / 409783
Writing with a difference... on what makes *the* difference

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