DOD opens up to open source

Model might help agencies reduce redundancy, save money and work together

Learning-management technology is an essential component for providing online classes. The systems manage every aspect of Web-based learning from registering for courses to receiving grades and credits for classes. Agencies looking for a learning-management system have traditionally bought one or built one.

Now there is a new way for agencies to acquire a system. The Defense Information Systems Agency recently made its suite of internally developed applications — the Open Source Corporate Management System — available to federal agencies. The suite of 50 Web-based applications includes a learning-management system.

Under the program, DISA hopes other agencies — as well as state and local governments, universities and industry — will reuse and refine the open-source code, said Richard Nelson, chief of personnel systems support branch manpower at DISA’s Manpower, Personnel and Security Directorate.

The program could initiate a new way for open-source software to become integrated into federal agencies, Nelson said. Defense and civilian agencies could continually create, refine and share code, ensuring that no single agency would have to acquire technology on its own. 

“We are hoping that this will provide a model for other agencies that may have their own, very good code for various operations that they haven’t been able to figure out how to get out to a broader audience,” Nelson said. “It is a model that allows them to see that, ‘It is possible to share stuff with everybody and still protect our own investment.’”

Another sign that agencies desire open source is the success of the Defense Department’s Forge.mil, a Web site where developers can collaborate on open-source software projects specifically for the DOD. Launched in February, the site is based on SourceForge.net, which hosts thousands of open-source projects in the public domain.

Whether sharing or developing software, the open-source model is an effective way to achieve federal government goals such as sharing resources, reducing redundancy and using interoperable technology, said John Weathersby, executive director of the Open Source Software Institute, which is involved with the DISA program.

The emerging open-source model also creates business opportunities for industry, Weathersby said. As agencies adopt and refine open-source tools, contractors will be able to compete to support those efforts, he said.

In the areas of service and support, agencies need help hosting application suites and integrating open-source software with existing systems. Agencies also need extra manpower to operate new systems. Other opportunities include training services for new open-source systems, Weathersby said.

DISA’s broad approach to sharing open-source software is a more comprehensive way to share resources than has been done in the past in the federal government.

“Most people when they think of open source, they just think of a single component or one little piece of code, but in this case DISA has leveraged the entire open source model,” Weathersby said. “Why should other government entities that have the same needs as DISA, pay for a solution over and over again when it has already been paid for once?”

As budgets in government and at universities shrink, programs that share open-source software become more important, DISA's Nelson said. Eventually, the more software is shared, the better it should become, he said.

“I'm trying to leverage my work to help other agencies, other organizations in industry and academia with the idea that in time I will be getting access to products that I can use,” Nelson said. “It will be new products that they've built to work with our product.”

DISA’s software has only been available for about two months, so it is too soon to know what other agencies will do to the software, Nelson said. Several agencies, universities and private companies have licensed the suite, but DISA officials do not know which components are most popular so far.
The software includes these features: 

  • Security suite. A set of personnel and physical security tools that includes contractor management.
  • Universal training template. A template that enables a user to flow group training data into an online tool to present and test for annual training and more. DISA’s Ethics Training tool, which is widely used throughout the federal government, is an example.
  • Telework. A telework management tool that lets users propose times to telework, with an automated notification system (both up and down) of approval status.

While the potential of DISA’s program is still unknown, DOD officials are already seeing signs of success with Forge.mil. In less than seven months of operation, the community has more than 3,000 users working on 120 projects, said Rob Vietmeyer, the Forge.mil project director.

Early on most Forge.mil users came to the site to develop and share software. Now, Vietmeyer is seeing collaboration.

“We are starting to see what I call technology communities of interest form,” Vietmeyer said. “Developers who have similar problems or challenges are forming groups and sharing source code across the group.”

Demand for Forge.mil is so strong that DISA officials plan to start a fee-for-service version starting in October. The service is for organizations that want to participate in Forge.mil, but have information sharing restrictions.

The for-fee version will be delivered via cloud computing like the free version, but it will let users privately use the development tools.

“I think there has been a pent-up demand for the capability to share open source within DOD,” Vietmeyer said.

Most software developers know and like the open-source paradigm, Vietmeyer said. Many who work in or for the DOD are already contributing to an open-source project somewhere outside the department.

“That sort of paradigm — the merit-based, community approach to development — has huge advantages,” Vietmeyer said. “Developers are looking for that when they come into the DOD environment.”

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