Immigration reform may spur software robotics

A clampdown on visa use by offshore firms may prompt creative responses

The Senate immigration bill's H-1B restrictions have clearly upset Indian IT services providers. But sometimes being in a tough spot can prompt a company to find new ways of approaching problems, as Infosys is doing with a plan to use software robots.

In a move that may have deeper implications in these times, the Bangalore-based consulting and IT services company recently announced a partnership with IPsoft, a New York-based provider of autonomic IT services.

The autonomic tools that IPsoft makes are designed to bring software robotic automation and machine learning to routine IT functions, such as help desks, operations and infrastructure management. In other words, with IPsoft's tools, work that is now done by human beings could be done by a software machine.

Infosys says that IPsoft tools can "reduce human intervention."

More colorfully, Chandrashekar Kakal, global head of Infosys's business IT services, told the Times of India, that "what robotics did for the auto assembly line, we are now doing for the IT engineering line."

James Slaby, a research director of HFS Research who has been following the use of autonomics closely, wrote in a recent report that the IPsoft partnership may help Infosys "reap fatter margins by augmenting and replacing expensive, human IT support engineers with cheaper, more accurate, efficient automated processes," and by improving service delivery.

If the Senate immigration bill is adopted as is, Indian IT services providers will likely have to cut back-end costs to remain competitive.

The Senate bill may force offshore companies to increase the number of U.S. citizens on their North American workforces. One key provision limits visa-holding employees to 50% of an employer's workforce. Since as many as 70% to 90% of the U.S.-based employees of offshore companies are likely to be visa holders, the law could prompt more local hiring and acquisitions to boost U.S. employment.

In a recent opinion piece in the Business Standard, Som Mittal, president of Nasscom, a large Indian IT trade group, characterized various elements of the bill as "bigoted," "discriminatory" and "draconian."

He was referring to a provision that prevents visa holders employed by IT services providers from working in the offices of the clients of the service providers. "It's almost like saying, 'You can hire an architect to design your house, but he/she cannot work at the house location," he wrote.

Autonomic software tools can be used by anyone, and in that respect they pose a threat to offshore companies as well as being a potential cost-reducer.

What these tools are doing, said Slaby, "is making this kind of automation a lot less complicated and expensive to do, so much less so that it's actually cheaper than having, say, an Indian body shop do it, with none of the political, compliance, and other complications of sending the work offshore."

IPSoft has focused on autonomics for IT services, and Slaby estimates in his report that nearly all Level 1 support issues can be solved by IPsoft's "virtual engineers." Infosys, which employs nearly 160,000 people, plans to train 5,000 employees to use autonomic tools, and it intends to deliver proof-of-concepts to its customers.

The Senate Judiciary Committee, meanwhile, will continue to work on its immigration bill. The committee has not moved, to date, to reduce any the requirements affecting offshore companies. It will consider a series of amendments this week, which may ease some restrictions.

Patrick Thibodeau covers cloud computing and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at  @DCgov, or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His email address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

See more by Patrick Thibodeau on Computerworld.com.

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