DOD move to develop software stirs up storm

Government, industry readers square off over reversal of course

The story “DOD rethinks buying versus building software” caused a stir among commenters on the Washington Technology site. The story reported an apparent shift away at the Defense Department from an unquestioning allegiance to the notion of employing commercial, off-the-shelf software (COTS) whenever possible.

For example, the story described how the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) has just released in open-source format a suite of office applications built in-house that it hopes other agencies will use and modify.

DISA built the applications in-house primarily because no commercial applications existed that could do the tasks needed and, in those cases applications were available, the cost was prohibitive, the officials maintain.

The comments generally were divided along government and industry lines. On one side, readers who had either previously worked for the government or still work for the government said there was substantial merit to in-house development. On the other side, industry readers questioned whether it was cost-effective to do so and were highly skeptical of government officials’ assertions that these were not available in the marketplace.

One reader, who goes by ARS, took issue with the premise of the story. The reader said COTS applications are still the underpinnings of the in-house developed solutions and that in-house development is actually reuse of COTS applications.

“Ultimately, we will not see any of the DOD agencies turn into software houses. That’s just not the nature of their business and it is not sustainable,” ARS writes.

Sherryl Dorch, of Trusted Computer Solutions, said in-house applications development when a vendor already provides a viable application is probably another example of reinventing the wheel.

For example, DOD is currently developing an application on forge.mil to lock down a Linux operating system, she notes. TCS sells a software product that performs this function and is not expensive — agencies can purchase a single license through the General Services Administration schedule for $240. “Development has to cost more than that,” she wrote.

Former and current government employees vigorously defended the merits of in-house development.

Although he developed valuable Web-based applications for the military while employed by the Air Force, his supervisors were interested instead in pursuing COTS only to retain the funding stream it generated, a retired Air Force employee who is now working for the private sector wrote.

And in the case of in-house development, the requirement that Web-based applications developed in-house be certified was a major impediment. “If you make it difficult to create the Web pages it will be impossible to supply what is needed by the military to support their needs,” that person wrote.

That sentiment was echoed by commentor Puritan, who felt that some government workers all too willing to turn to vendors for applications development that could easily be done in-house. “Take a hammer and chisel, do the planning and design an application tool free,” wrote Puritan.

Joseph Mazzafro, notes that in-house development might appear less expensive initially, but when one considers the sustainment costs (such as testing, developing new features, trouble desk support and training) the overall cost naturally rises. Because of this, DOD will eventually realize what private-sector software giants already know: that software developers are in short supply and expensive to hire and keep on staff.

“Not sure what makes [DOD/Intelligence Community] types think they can recruit and retain sufficient numbers of quality software expertise to make an in house approach either cheaper or better,” he writes.

About the Author

William Welsh is a freelance writer covering IT and defense technology.

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