Adelstein: Linux use drives innovation

FBI info-sharing project is one of a growing list of open-source successes

Some say life evolved from small tidal pools. Innovation certainly does.

More than half a century ago, Clarence "Kelly" Johnson inspired generations of Americans to improvise and invent technology with whatever scrap materials and bold dreams they could find. In 143 days in 1944, Johnson led a Lockheed

Martin team in makeshift quarters to develop the first U.S. jet fighter. That team became Lockheed Martin's Advanced Development Projects Unit.

Following in Johnson's footsteps, engineers at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center attempted to reinvent supercomputing in the 1990s with 16 Intel 486 computers, some Ethernet cable and the Linux operating system. The open-source operating system's flexibility allowed engineers greater freedom to tailor technology to their needs.

The supercomputing effort spawned the Beowulf Cluster and massive Linux clusters at universities and Energy Department laboratories. It even contributed to sonar arrays on U.S. nuclear submarines.

Based on this same open-source inspiration, National Security Agency developers created Security-Enhanced Linux. Today, two Linux distributions meet the Common Criteria security standards because of NSA's work. The latest release of Red Hat Enterprise Linux includes NSA's security structure for use in federal agencies.

Linux is well-suited to federal projects with small teams and scarce resources. And many Linux applications, such as the Census Bureau's Fast Facts service, can support an entire enterprise.

As Linux became a viable option for the government, FBI officials started a project that grew to become the Emergency Response Network (ERN), a Linux-based information-sharing system that observers say is ready for large enterprises. As officials at other agencies hear more about ERN, they should be convinced to try Linux.

Jo Balderas, YHD Software's chief executive officer, helped start the FBI project when she volunteered for a bureau outreach program. She provided the Linux-based ERN technology that enabled agents at the FBI's Dallas office to immediately access information at American Airlines, Sabre, EDS and other organizations during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The system allowed Dallas FBI agents to check the network's status every hour.

During the attacks, it took FBI agents four hours to get hold of local police chiefs. In comparison, the ERN system can place 10,000 calls a minute.

ERN uses the best of open-source software, including Red Hat Enterprise Linux, the Apache Web Server, MySQL database and the PHP language.

"Because we use the crown jewels of open source, we can deliver fast, easy, cost-effective technology that has successfully addressed many of the information-sharing challenges that are obstacles to homeland security," Balderas said.

Adelstein works as an analyst and open-source software consultant at Hiser + Adelstein in New York City. He is a co-author of the book "Exploring the JDS Linux Desktop" and author of an upcoming book on Linux systems administration.

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