Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Ah Gurgaon

This month, September 2011, marks four years of my stay in Gurgaon. I came to this city with a bit of trepidation, having heard unflattering reviews about the city.

Most Indians, in general, hold a pretty low opinion of Delhi's citizens, with their abrasive nature and showy facade being the subject of much ridicule. Gurgaon was particularly reviled for its "mall culture", lack of public transportation, lack of safety, dust, .... Ignoring friendly advice, I had taken on the shift as a bit of an adventure.

I had landed late at night, and caught my first glimpse of the city in the shining Cybercity office corridor.

"It can't be that bad", I remember thinking to myself.

The roads were wide. Much wider than I had ever seen anywhere in Chennai, and almost as good as South Mumbai's well-paved set.

The cars were huge. Flashy cars and huge new SUVs seemed to be zipping everywhere. What more could a car lover want?

Then, out of vast empty space, huge apartment blocks towered. Yes, it was dusty all around, but these 'societies' seemed to be self-contained green oases.

It has been four years since that time.

Cybercity continues to be one of the most impressive office congregations in the country. The wide roads have become way more crowded. Where once Honda city's used to abound, BMWs and Audis seem to be dime-a-dozen. The vast dust-lands have become way more greener. Malls continue to multiply and thrive. Public transportation has come to be, and so has the Metro.

And I have grown to love this city. Love its youthfulness, its independence, its 'brashy' confidence, and the fact that in its own unique way it is a melting pot of so many different cultures from across India.

Monday, May 16, 2011

If Governments can, Why can't you?

Cross-posted from Everest Group's blog, with minor contextual edits.

All around the world, governments are increasingly stepping up to the Cloud.

Early last week, the U.S. government's General Services Administration (GSA) issued a solicitation for cloud-based email, office automation, and records services, in a contract estimated to be worth up to U.S. $2.5 billion over five years. The GSA expects savings of nearly 45 percent from this move.

By the end of this year, the government CIO’s commitment to a "Cloud First" policy is expected to result in closures of up to 137 data centers across the U.S. While this is only about six percent of the government’s 2000+ data centers, it’s a great start given the extent of change required.

Across the Atlantic, there are plans to consolidate the UK government's 8000 data centers into a dozen centers on an internal G-Cloud. The government also recently released an alpha version of a consolidated government portal (alpha.gov.uk) hosted on Amazon's cloud platform, that aims to centralize access to all government services.

In China, there are plans to build a cloud computing center the "size of a city" within the Heibei province, to primarily serve government departments. 

These moves by governments around the globe represent, for perhaps the first time in recent memory, path-breaking leadership in technology transformation. Change is never an easy subject, especially within the public sphere. Yet the extent of potential benefits from a move to the Cloud is making governments take notice, and make the plunge. 

Private enterprises stand to learn a variety of lessons from these public sector Cloud moves:

a. They set the lead for large private enterprises 

The Cloud is already at the forefront of CIO priorities for 2011. However, many enterprises hesitate to take large technological plunges given the extent of change required from legacy environments. Questions often emerge as to whether Cloud strategies are better suited for small-to-medium environments, and for new next generation initiatives. Enterprises also question how the change can be managed across so many different business units with disparate platforms. 

The scale of attempted governmental transformation should put such questions to rest. If an entity with over a thousand departments and an $80 billion IT budget (a.k.a. the US government) can make the shift, why can't you?

b. They indicate greater tolerance towards risk and security challenges

As other recent discussions on the Everest blog indicate, security and compliance concerns constitute two of the biggest impediments to transition to the Cloud. Yet, with risk sensitive departments such as Defense, Homeland Security and the NSA making the move, it’s clear the public sector’s concerns on these risks have been largely alleviated. 

As the head of the U.S. Cyber Command General Keith Alexander recently testified in a House sub-committee hearing"...moving the programs and the data that users need away from the thousands of desktops we now use - each of which has to be individually secured... to a centralized configuration that will give us wider availability of applications and data combined with tighter control over accesses and vulnerabilities and more timely mitigation of the latter...Indeed, no system that human beings use can be made immune to abuse - but we are convinced the controls and tools that will be built into the cloud will ensure that people cannot see any data beyond what they need for their jobs and will be swiftly identified if they make unauthorized attempts..."

c. They herald greater maturity in the supplier ecosystem

Google and Microsoft have sparred publicly over the last few months over the (alleged) respective lack of FISMA certification on Cloud services offered to U.S. government agencies. As the war for public sector Cloud prospects heats up, so will functionality and service provider maturity. For example, Google Apps for Government now includes specialized security functionality: data location and segregation of government data, necessary to ensure greater security and compliance. 

In addition, as The Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program  (FedRAMP) mechanisms are established later this year to enable government-wide certifications and authorization, more Cloud vendors will step up to meet the bar.

d. They indicate need for concerted CIO-level leadership

Since 2009, when Cloud computing was identified as a Federal IT priority, the U.S. government’s CIO has unveiled a wide range of initiatives: establishing standard definitions; defining Cloud value propositions; launching Cloud store fronts; establishing the "Cloud First" strategy as a keystone of IT strategy; setting clear decision frameworks and timelines; and establishing new Cloud standards. Clearly, Federal Cloud initiatives are leading change across a diverse government organization, much of which has been driven by the CIO’s determined efforts to push through change, despite naysayers and challenges.

-

Governments’ migration to the Cloud represents a monumental effort in technology change in a large and complex organization. As private enterprises navigate to the Cloud, they have much to learn from the public sector’s lead.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

All hara in Pokhara

No travelogue can do justice to the experiences of a great trip. Yet they outline great memories.

We decided to take advantage of a long weekend break to check out our northern neighbour - Nepal. With Spicejet flying to Kathmandu at costs of a trip down south, we were enthused enough. The early morning view of the Himalayas was breathtaking.

We also had other reasons to lose breadth. We had just realized after boarding the flight that our credit cards indicated they would not be valid in Nepal. And most of our money was in Indian denominations of 500 and 1000, which were supposedly not accepted in the country. Much of the flight was spent trying to figure strategies to sustain in the piddly hundreds we had with us. Thankfully though, we had little to worry. No sooner than we got into Kathmandu, that we realized that not only were our cards fully valid, but all Indian currency can be used freely too. What a relief!

The touts outside Kathmandu airport remind me of those outside the railway station in Varanasi - like mosquitoes waiting to prey on unsuspecting visitors to charge exorbitant rates. The domestic airport is but a few hundred meters away from the international. And if one has but a few bags, can easily be legged to. As we did.

We found seats on the next flight to Pokhara (the visitor assist at the domestic airport is really helpful), and waited to board. Flights start from rates equivalent to 1000 Rs. Indian! The turboprop to Pokhara was really small though - just 2 columns of 10 seats each. With comments from tourists as to whether the flight would actually take off (or land), we were off. The half hour journey was fun, with a beautiful low view of mountains.

Pokhara is a charming small little town, and the starting point for the Annapurna trek. With supposedly 7 lakes around town (the large one near the market is a perpetually glittering shade of blue) and surrounded by mountains, its a beautiful retreat. In addition, its a great back-packer town. The lakeside market area is the coolest I've seen amongst all the backpacker hangouts I've been to: Bangkok, Koh Tao, Kowloon, Leh, and even Goa.

We stayed at a place called the Castle Resort, which is a kilometer or two out of town and atop a hillock overlooking the lake. Castle, is a beautiful resort in itself, and caters to slightly upmarket groups. It has a beautiful swimming pool, a great bar and rooms which offer a stunning view of the lake. In addition, Joe, the proprieter, is a super cool guy. The only downside is the distance from the town center and the approach - a bad broken road up-hill. In hindsight, the best place to stay is near the lakeside market - there are lots of guest houses and hotels, and the environment is amazing.

Sunrise at Sarangkot
Sunrise at Sarangkot, Nepal
There are quite a few points to visit around Pokhara town. The sun-rise at Sarangkot is beautiful, with stunning views of the snow-capped Annapurna and fish-tail peaks. The World Peace Pagoda atop the hill is neat and offers beautiful views of the town. The Devi's falls is freaky, and the cave temple in front is a subterranean adventure. The local town market itself is quaint, with even a Marwadi eatery that served us deliciously hot pooris and jalebis. Yet, the best place in my view is the lakeside market - colourful, lots of variety, cheap even by Indian standards and with a happening night life.

World Peace Pagoda
World Peace Pagoda
After staying at Pokhara for 2 days, we took the flight back to Kathmandu, promising ourselves that we would be back, for longer. Pokhara is clearly a wonderful place to relax on a long week's holiday, with a trek or two thrown in.

Back in Kathmandu, we found a great guest house to stay, right in the center of Thamel, through a friend's recommendation. Thamel is a bustling, colorful backpacker hangout, with crowds from all over the world. A shopper's delight, the food is great too!

Somehow, Kathmandu reminds me of Varanasi. A crowded, dusty, Hindu town, and seemingly lost in a different century. Sadly, they have even taken after us Indians in the widespread lack of sanitation.

The Pashupatinath temple is a large, crowded Hindu temple, with architecture that reminds me of Kerala's. The large Nandi up-front is quite distinctive. The Lingam is quite unique too, with four different facets of Shiva carved on it (unlike Indian ones which are plain). While queues abound, the easiest way to bypass these is to ask one of the 'guide's' to show you around. They know the guards and give you the enough access within 10 minutes to do the works. Beware though, they fleece you too - so be careful of what they tell you.

Boundnath Kathmandu
Boudhnath, Kathmandu
Boudhnath is the most distinct Buddhist shrine in Kathmandu. Unlike Pashupatinath, it admits visitors of all religions (when will we Hindus change?). With beautiful, colorful carvings and shops all around, it's a worthy visit. The eye's painted atop the shrine are, by far, the most common memorabilia in Kathmandu.

We closed the day, checking out Darbar square. Thamel is quite close to the square and a trip atop a cycle-rickshaw is reminiscent of old Delhi. Has quite a market around and feels like Chandni Chowk.

As we had started our trip to Nepal, a lot of people back home had cautioned us about a lot of things - not to stay out at night, not to wander off alone, to beware of hate crimes, etc. Frankly, we saw none of these. If anything, people went out of their way to help us out, at the airports, markets, shops, and in the temples. We definitely plan to go back, for a much longer trip, to see more of beautiful countryside.

To those who seek to follow: Spicejet flies twice a day from Delhi to Kathmandu. So do Jet and Kingfisher. Indian currency can be used all over Nepal, and all Indian credit cards work (despite what's written on them!). Costs overall are lesser than India. Flights are the best way to travel between Nepali cities. Pokhara feels like Goa, with much lesser crowds around.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

One reason digital trumps print

Last week, I bought my mom a book. Something she had been asking about, for quite some time.

Yet, when she got it, she put it down saying the print is too small. Reading too small a print gives her a headache, and she would rather skip it than chance pain.

Now this is one problem with reading books the print way. You cannot resize text, you cannot zoom in and out. The medium is just too static.

In contrast, digital media is way more flexible. Zooming and out is a breeze.

Recently, reading books online has become an addition. With Amazon's Whispersync, I keep track of read pages on multiple devices - my laptop and my phone. In addition, its made my reading non-linear. Now I book-mark pages and jump back and forth, something I found painful to do with books in print. For an avid reader like me, the digital media has been a quick hook-on.

What's interesting is that even the earlier generation may have reason to switch.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

National Cyber security policy

A draft of the much needed National Cyber Security Policy has finally been released by the Ministry of IT / CERT-In, for public comments.


Interesting points:
  • Creation of a national level nodal agency on cyber security under CERT-in and sectoral CERT-ins for key sectors
  • A national cyber alert system for early warning and response
  • Local incident response teams at key locations, to liaison with expert teams with CERT-in for resolution
  • Creation of a Chief Info-security Officer post in all government and key sectoral organizations
  • Open standards to be encouraged and a govt-private sector consortium to be created to promote these
  • School/college training program on cyber security to be instituted
My view: Great start. Good coverage in areas at least. A much needed start too - IT and offshoring-focused industries should be pleased. This is something that goes against India in a lot of global sourcing evaluations.

A few things missing too: Privacy has just a single passing mention. But any cyber security policy that requires public and corporate participation must address privacy over use of shared / collected data. Check out the US policy review. But then, privacy and civil liberties have rarely been a key element in Indian law. 

A second lacuna is that it doesn't prioritize initiatives. The policy indicates over 10 major initiatives without any priorities or timelines. With so many different stakeholders involved in policy implementation, it is quite easy for the policy to remain largely in text. But then, this is common of most Indian policy. Again, this is an early draft, so hope things change.

Overall, a timely and much needed start.

Just in case, public comments can be sent to CENT-In/MIT at (grai AT mit.gov.in) till 15-May '11.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Landing up in lansdowne

Lansdowne is a small hill-station, situated at a distance of around 250 kms from Delhi. Named after an erstwhile British Viceroy of India, it is the home town of the Garhwal Rifles regiment of the Indian military, and is a well maintained, quiet and beautiful cantonment town. It also happens to be the closest 'hill-station' from Delhi.

A friend's visit and enough weekend enthusiasm got us moving early on an April Saturday morning. Despite limited morning traffic, reaching Meerut (some 70 kms from Delhi) took us over 2 hours.

Meerut is a dusty, yet vibrant and colorful town. A perfect spot to click those 'A day in the life of India' pictures. We quickly crossed the town and headed towards Mawana. Famous for its sugar, 'cane fields and mango orchards lined the route. Verdant green, and at this time of the year, blooming with mango flowers.The route from Mawana heads towards Najibabad and Bijnor, and is surprisingly well laid and maintained. 

A few kilometers outside of Mirapur, the road splits into two - with the one for Bijnor heading to the right. Busy with small talk and soaking in the beauty of those beautiful orchards, we missed the turn and headed straight to Muzzafarnagar. Nearing the town's vicinity, we realized our folly and with some Google Maps help, speedily headed back to track.

Drive up from Koratdwar was nice and breezy. Nice winding mountain roads, beautiful pine trees and meadows all around, and with hardly any traffic.

Oak Grove Inn, where we had booked our stay, lies on the Pauri-Lansdowne route, and required a slight detour to reach. This was the day of the World Cup Final match, with India and Sri Lanka battling it out, and we had reached just in time for the start.

The Inn, run by a retired Army Colonel (Col. Rawat) and his wife, is a beautiful, cozy, homely and neat bed-and-breakfast stay, situated a few kilometers outside the boundaries of Lansdowne, overlooking a beautiful valley. The Col. and his wife were great hosts, and went beyond their way to organize our stay. Gave me explicit directions on every part of the drive from Delhi to Lansdowne, and called me up twice enroute to enquire on my direction. While at the place too, they went out of their way to ensure things were up to the market. The closest one can get to feeling homely, away from home.

After settling in, we took a break during Sri Lanka's slog overs to go around town. 

The town is well maintained, with the army's discipline well exhibited. Small parks, winding clean roads, military presence all abound. Few attractions exist: a well laid-out museum on the Garwhal Rifles, a couple of view-points, and a lake (that could very well be a ditch).

What's distinctive is the quietness. Unlike most hill stations in India, there is little commercial activity. Few people walking around in gay abandon, and hardly any families with kaw-kawing children, that are wont at every other hill-station. It's almost un-Indian in this general lack of population / activity, and the cleanliness. The winding tree-lined roads make a great walking destination too.   

The evening, of course, was devoted to watching the match. And what a fine contest it turned out to be!

Overall, Lansdowne is a great place for a quiet weekend getaway from Delhi. Just don't land up there expecting to shop and party. However, it's just THE place to stretch your legs and detox away from Delhi's dust.

For those who seek to follow the trail: The drive takes 6+ hours, depending on the traffic, and your familiarity  with the route. After Meerut, follow NH-119 to Mawana, Bijnor, Najibabad and Kotdwar. The real traffic choke-point is Modinagar/Meerut, the rest of the drive, particularly after Mawana, is a drivers delight. Enroute, shortly after Mirapur, remember to take the right turn at a restaurant called 'Monty Millions' to head to Bijnor. Oak Grove is a great place to stay. Alternatively, the GVMN guest house at Tiffin Top is a picturesque location.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

The Spirit of Mumbai

I stood outside a hotel in Mumbai, trying to find a cab to take me home. My travel was not too far, yet beyond walking limits. A sultry evening in a dusty and dirty part of town.

Just one cab stood outside, with the cabby looked eagerly to find a passenger. A black and yellow cab with a white shirted driver.

My destination disappointed him. He had been waiting for too long, to catch a short ride. He shook his head respectfully. "Sorry sir. Have been waiting here since morning."

I knew I wouldn't find another cab ride there, without a lengthy walk. Too few cabs, all ferrying riders. None waiting to stop. Resigned, I started the jaunt.

But the waiting cabby was beside me. "Sir, I will find you another. I am sorry I couldn't serve you".

He briskly crossed the road and flagged down a cab going in the opposite direction. A heated Marathi conversation ensured. But it ended with an approving nod.

The cabby waved me in and ran back to his waiting spot. Ignoring my profuse thanks and stunned expression.

The Spirit of Mumbai.

(Learn, Chennai auto-drivers. Learn.)

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Electronic Service Delivery Bill

The Indian Ministry of IT has put out a draft Electronic Service Delivery Bill 2011 for comments to general public. The intended Bill seeks to accelerate the process of electronic delivery of services to public by government departments by prescribing a time-bound transition from manual to electronic services, and creating an associated regulatory infrastructure.

My comments, based on an initial read.

It is an appreciable start, meant to galvanize state departments into action. While some states such as AP, Karnataka and Delhi have taken sizeable steps in e-Governance, the rest are largely laggards. If nothing else, this bill should make governments sit up and move a bit.

I specifically liked the wording around the use of service providers for delivery of services and collection of associated charges. If implemented properly, this will result in a new era of PPP opportunities for IT service providers in e-Governance. 

Yet, the bill gives too much leeway to individual ministries on the extent and time-frame of implementation. One good alternative would have been to prescribe a minimum set of services that each ministry must e-enable. In the current form, it would become the headache of the regulatory Commissioner to push ministries to expand scope.

Another open point is the open implementation timeline. Despite prescribing a 180-day limit for governments to decide on the scope, it makes the cut-off date for implementation, discretionary. Knowing the legendary delays in implementation of e-governance projects, this is a quagmire.

In sum, a great start. May run into financial impediments unless the associated investment burden of states is appropriately addressed (not everything can be a PPP with limited investment); and political bottlenecks could be envisaged since it seems to exert quite a bit of central influence on state functioning.