DOD open-source memo could change software landscape

CIO Wennergren to discuss memo at upcoming GosCon conference

The Defense Department's  guidance on the military use of open-source software has been a long time in coming, and should ease the widespread concerns in the military about open source-use, observers say.

Earlier this month, DOD issued guidance that clarifies the use of open-source software, or software whose code is made freely available for others to use and modify. Although many of today's most popular software programs are open-source, such as the Linux operating system and the Apache Web server, questions around procurement persisted in the military services. The guidance is not formally policy, but it offers clarifications on how to use open source software.

Acting DOD Chief Information Officer David Wennergren is expected to talk more about the guidance at the Government Open Source Conference, being held next week in Washington, according to sources.

The document has been needed for a while, observers note.

"A lot of people both within and around the Defense Department have been working on this for a long time. It's very significant that this has been done," said John Weathersby, the founder and executive director of the Open Source Software Institute, a non-profit institute dedicated to broadening the use of open source in government. "It is very significant in that it states — in writing— that open-source is a viable option and must be considered."

The document had been in draft at least since mid-2008. Daniel Risacher, who handles enterprise services and integration issues for the office of the CIO, has led the effort to develop it.

However, even before this clarification earlier efforts had been made to fit the strange new world of open-source software into the world of highly standardized government procurement procedures. Weathersby points to the study authored by Mitre's Terry Bollinger, "Use of Free and Open-Source Software (FOSS) in the U.S. Department of Defense," which highlighted the then-largely underreported widespread use of the open source within government.

Later that year, 2003, then-DOD CIO John Stenbit issued some basic guidance on the use of open source software, asking services to check its legality. In 2007, the Navy gave its okay for using the technology.

John Scott, director of open integration and open-source software for Mercury Federal Systems, who commented on early drafts of the new report, noted that the document is important because it clarifies that open-source software is a version of commercial software, an idea that had been widely debated given the grass roots development of many software programs.

"Its basically reiterating federal law, which states you have to look at commercial items [when building out new capabilities], and open-source is a commercial item," Scott said. "It will be interesting to see what the impact of this will be over the long haul, because [services] will have to look at open-source software to meet the capability they have to build."

About the Author

Joab Jackson is the senior technology editor for Government Computer News.

Reader Comments

Wed, Nov 4, 2009

Great news! I am more than willing to trade the nickle and diming of Oracle (make that Benjamining and Hamiltoning, no actually, make that Grover Clevelanding, he's on the $1,000 bill!), for the miserly cost & robust support of MySQL. Like name brand drugs vs genereics, it should bea federal mandate that taxpayer money cannot be spent on software for which there is open source at 1/10,000th the cost.

Wed, Nov 4, 2009 makatak Good ol' USA

This is a big step forward and will definitely make a difference. Program managers must constantly root out, address, and mitigate risk in their programs. The risks of using FOSS is now mitigated, since there is no possibility that a program would be forced to change direction due to not having access to FOSS. An even greater risk now mitigated is that a program might select FOSS and then have to undo that decision because of aquisition-related issues. FOSS is a huge game-changer and absolutely scares the pants off the large vendors (who are being told to integrate open source but are unable to add profit to the product due to the licensing). Plus, capabilities they deliver often become more FOSS and will soon be available through sources like Overall, this is a huge step forward for DoD and helps remove leverage from vendors and put it back in the hands of the program manager.

Mon, Nov 2, 2009 Wash DC

This is a very timely policy effort that will surely help address a part of the new NDAA mandate requiring a new IT Acquisition process. The challenges for open source however is the same for the COTS community in terms of SI incentives, weapons systems style architecture & acquisition processes, cultural resistance, and a lack of organic mechanism to reach outside the defense industrial complex. DoD is facing some harsh funding realities that might help drive long past due IT Acquisition reform. Hopefully, DoD leadership will not take the same approach as they did with the last NDAA mandate to create an Technology Clearinghouse. Nothing came from this as DoD went back to the same old suspects while ignoring the innovations of the market. The new IT Acquisition Advisory Council will be addressing these issues in depth when they release their much anticipated Reform Roadmap at the Nov 12 Defense IT Acquisition Summit. Hopefully, our leadership will take time to learn from the failures of the past.

Fri, Oct 30, 2009 Jason Hull

This is a good step, but how long will it take before the information published in the memo becomes action taken at lower levels? After all, the bulk of this memo simply reiterates existing federal laws. Saying "make it so" won't cause adoption; measuring success and effectiveness and publishing metrics will. When ratings of performance are based on measurables of adoption, we'll see movement. Until then, while this is useful to include, I am skeptical of the true impact.

Fri, Oct 30, 2009

Who's the bigot? Who cares if the applications are in Open Source, GOTS or COTS as long as they are secure and support the mission? Anyone that calls out a particular manufacturer as the opponent to open source these days is misinformed. Or old. Younger developers are sick of the fight and are looking for interoperability. Our developers all need jobs, open sourceies (all flavors), Microsofties et al. And BTW - if you are having such headaches with MS - get some training!

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