Analysis: Contractors should welcome open source

Contractors shouldn't fear the shift to open source. Instead, welcoming the trend can enhance their standing and help differentiate their offerings.

Although open-source software services are not yet in the mainstream, many federal agencies have been demanding them from their contractors – and for good reason. As early as 2006, the Defense Department went on record stating that incorporating such technology would improve interoperability and increase efficiency and productivity by creating standard policies for the internal redistribution of code.

This call for the adoption of open-source software was enhanced by the 2009 National Defense Authorization Act. The law included language that called for military services to consider that software when procuring manned or unmanned aerial vehicles.

The chasm that many contractors still need to cross is how exactly to do this while maintaining their competitive advantage; too many companies are concerned that adopting open-source software will commoditize their offerings. Reality tells us otherwise.

In fact, similar shifts have already occurred in military shipbuilding and aircraft construction without compromising corporations’ ability to differentiate themselves. It’s these same companies that are well positioned to help implement open-source software in their solutions. Many of these firms have top-tier employees with decades of first-hand experience in such environments, and would do well to take the lead.

Although the move to open source no doubt would call for a shift in the role that companies play in providing such services, firms that can demonstrate a clear understanding of how to integrate such technologies and yet deliver the same level of operational suitability will continue to win contracts.

Contractors therefore must show a strong commitment to and focus on implementing open source software. To that end, here are three steps contractors should consider when implementing such policies:

  • Contribute open-source software: Many contractors regularly develop new tools and applications as part of the normal course of their work. Upon completion, companies should consider offering some of these new applications to the worldwide development community through such outlets as SourceForge.net.


  • License proprietary software to customers: In addition, corporations might want to license the source code of their proprietary software platform to customers if they desire to perform additional development in-house. Not only can this directly enhance a contractor’s open source efforts, but it could also bring with it new ideas to incorporate in its product roadmap.


  • Direct support of open standards: Companies should systematically support and use open standards, such as XML, SOAP, HTTP, whenever possible. Although there might be applicable reasons why they shouldn’t be used on certain occasions, such instances should be few and far between.


Make no mistake – the evolution away from “purely” proprietary systems to ones that incorporate open-source software is on us. Regardless of approach, a contractor’s program must be grounded in a commitment to design solutions using the best tools to meet each individual customer’s needs.

Rick Pope is chief operating officer of DefenseWeb Technologies Inc., a custom software developer and systems integrator serving Defense Department and other federal government agencies. He can be reached at rpope@defenseweb.com.


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