Open source gets DOD’s long-awaited blessing

Guidance urges department to treat open-source as it does other forms of commercial software

New Defense Department guidance puts open-source software on the same level as commercial software and urges DOD agencies to evaluate it on an equal basis with proprietary offerings. The guidance also encourages services to share copies of open-source software internally wherever possible

"To effectively achieve its missions, the Department of Defense must develop and update its software-based capabilities faster than ever, to anticipate new threats and respond to continuously changing requirements," wrote acting DOD Chief Information Officer David Wennergren, in a cover letter to the guidance, which was issued Oct. 16.  "The use of Open Source Software can provide advantages in this regard."

The new guidance answers a wide variety of questions that have arisen within the military ranks about the use of open-source software, particularly around procurement and sharing. It supersedes earlier guidance, issued in 2003 by then-CIO John Stenbit.

Military services procuring software should regard open-source as just another form of commercial software, the guidance states. When evaluating possible software choices, the agency should consider the benefits of open-source, such as how the code is peer-reviewed, the freedom from potential vendor-lock in, potential licensing issues about reusing the software and the potential cost-savings.

"While these considerations may be relevant, they may not be the overriding aspects to any decision about software," the guidance states. "Ultimately, the software that best meets the needs and mission of the Department should be used, regardless of whether the software is open-source." The memo also warns that services should not use open-source software without some sort of support contract.

The guidance also states that the programming code of open-source software is “data” as defined by DOD Directive 8320.02. Because "open-source licenses authorize widespread dissemination of the licensed software," the military can share open-source programs across the entire department.

The guidance also clarifies that any changes a service makes to an open-source program do not necessarily have to be shared with the public, though changes that do not compromise national security, such as code fixes and enhancements, should be shared wherever possible.

Questions about the memorandum can directed to Daniel Risacher, who handles enterprise services and integration issues for the office.

About the Author

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

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Reader comments

Sat, Apr 17, 2010 John

The DoD CIO open source Memo did MORE than put open source on an equal footing with commercial software. Read it carefully, please. The Memo ELEVATED open source to "Statutory Precedence" over all other "like" solutions.

Thu, Oct 29, 2009 Frank Gearhart Colorado

As a network/systems admin, I deal with Army systems where, every time we have a problem and try to get some information to solve it, we run into "that's proprietary information", or "just send us the system and we'll fix it", or "just reimage it". I've sometimes resorted to using a packet sniffer to see what normal traffic looks like (we run a closed network) so I can better diagnose "they're not talking, and I've gone through the manual" problems. Using open standaeds (without non-standard extensions, as Coner suggests) and publishing data formats would, in my opinion, go a long way towards making these systems truly interoperable.

Thu, Oct 29, 2009 Jeryl Cook Washington,D.C

Conor I agree with you! I do believe perhaps the author means also when he says “vendor lock in” is related to how a commercial product is implemented as related to interoperability with other external systems In the simplest example, suppose a system implemented in a closed architecture and produces a data format that is proprietary to the vendor and not based on any “open standard” like XML,etc.. this can cause problems down the road if consumers are implementing solutions based on this to this proprietary standard..

Thu, Oct 29, 2009 Norhtern VA

All I can think of is 'about time'. The commercial world has made these decisions and assumptions years ago, and finally the govt comes around. Kind of scary on one hand, kind of expected on the other. At least the slow moving change of heart is in the right direction. It would be disheartening to quantify the amount of lost dollars and efficiencies with the decisions that were forced away from the direction of open source over the last several years based on previous 'guidance'.

Thu, Oct 29, 2009 Conor Brankin

While I fully support the use of Open Source in the DoD, I am a bit confused by the statement that open source will provide "the freedom from potential vendor-lock in". The issue with vendor lock-in is that applications are architected, designed and coded to a specific platform. "Platform" is the problem with lock-in, not vendors. Virtually every platform that describes itself as being "standards compliant" will have extensions to standards that provide enhanced flexibility, scalability, ease of development or ease of production time administration. The use of non-standard extensions lock applications to the platform regardless of whether the platform is purchased from a software vendor or is a "free" open-source platform coupled with with a support contract. Therefore, using an open-source platform, coupled with non-standard extensions locks the application to the vendor selling support contracts. If the goal is to move away from lock-in, the DoD needs to mandate the use of standards without extensions.

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