Open minds on open source
- By Paula Shaki Trimble
- Dec 03, 2000
NASA programmers might raise a few eyebrows by converting their electronic
posting system for business opportunities from an Oracle Corp. relational
database to an open source counterpart, mySQL.
On Nov. 6, a team at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center finished the
transition of the NASA Acquisition Internet Service to mySQL with barely
a hitch, said Dwight Clark, computer systems analyst and project leader
for NAIS. NAIS sends e-mail notifications to users based on specified interests
and enables users to query the Web site (nais.nasa. gov) for updated opportunities.
"We noticed an increase in [speed of] performance" since the change
and have not experienced any problems with the product, Clark said. "We
kept waiting for the other shoe to fall from the time we started investigating
mySQL, but it never did."
Open-source software is still an unconventional option for most federal
agencies, but support is building for its use as many federal agencies enjoy
the benefits of fast, low-cost systems such as Linux.
The President's Information Technology Advisory Committee recommended
in September that the federal government encourage open-source software
as an alternative for software development for high-end computing and allow
open-source development efforts to compete on a "level playing field" with
proprietary solutions in government procurements.
The PITAC Panel on Open Source Software for High End Computing believes
open-source software will give agencies the opportunity to get better software
at a lower cost, said Susan Graham, co-chairwoman of the panel.
The NAIS team already was investigating open-source relational database
software when Oracle started to restructure its license agreements with
NASA in a way that would be cost-prohibitive for the organization, said
John Sudderth, senior computer scientist with Computer Sciences Corp., a
contractor for NAIS. NAIS' annual budget is about $300,000.
Faced with software they couldn't afford, Sudderth and his colleagues
decided to switch to open source — and found mySQL (www.mysql.com) to be
the most robust product available.
Critics of open source say security is a problem because a community
of developers with unknown intentions distributes the software. But supporters
counter that such a community will help find vulnerabilities and bugs and
will respond more quickly than private firms to patch holes.
"This is clearly not a topic where there's any unanimity of opinion,"
said Robert Borchers, director for advanced com-putational infrastructure
and research at the National Science Foundation.
"There is a long tradition in the [Energy Department] of the labs sharing
source code," said Borchers, who was part of the PITAC panel. "I don't think
there are any stories like that within NSF yet."
Now that companies that support Linux are appearing, such as Red Hat
Inc. (see story, Page 38), open source should take off, he said. Linux recently
has been used at DOE and the Commerce Department's National Institute of
Standards and Technology and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The problem with open-source code is that it accelerates the learning
curve of a cyberterrorist because access to the source code is free and
readily available, said Scott Hissam, who leads an open-source research
and development project at Carnegie Mellon University's Software Engineering
Government "should embrace any software technology they can use to get
their job done, but don't embrace it blindly," Hissam said.
Open-source software also doesn't fit neatly into traditional federal
procurement methods because some license agreements require users to submit
modifications to developers for consideration in future releases. If a software
change is made that is government-specific, it may not be accepted by the
developers and will have to be cut into each new version used by an agency,
Open source' defined
"Open source" is a term for software that is openly distributed, often
under conditions specified in a licensing agreement. Two critical characteristics
* Users are given access to the source code, which allows them to modify,
study or augment the software's functionality.
* Any licensing agreement allows distribution of the initial software
and redistribution of that software in a modified form. If users make changes
to the software, they may submit them to the community of developers for
possible inclusion in future versions.