Open source is NASA's next frontier

New CTO lays out his vision for the future

The challenges to government's adoption and participation in open-source communities is often thought to be a simple culture clash, but in reality it goes deeper than that, according to NASA's newly-appointed chief technology officer.

“The issues that we need to tackle are not only cuture, but beyond culture,” said Chris Kemp, formerly chief information officer at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif. “And I think we need new policy and support from the administration and Congress to help us tackle" them.

Kemp spoke May 5 as part of panel at the Open Government & Innovations 2010 conference, held in Washington D.C.  That was the same day that NASA announced his promotion to agency CTO, a new position created to foster information technology innovation within NASA. Kemp will oversee the agency's enterprise architecture division and be responsible for the introduction of new and emerging technologies into the agency's IT planning.

And open source is a key element of Kemp's strategy. “We're actually creating a new Open Source Office under our Open Government Initiative under the Chief Technology Officer's office,” he said.  “We're really taking this seriously, and we've never had this sort of visibility and interest from headquarters before.”

Developing with open source is important to the government, Kemp said, because it helps the government have an influence over emerging standards and to push commercial software providers into supporting features that benefit the government.

“We see a close correlation between the areas of new development where standards do not really exist and open-source development,” Kemp told the OGI audience.“Open-source development allows the federal government to adopt emerging standards, and to create a reference platform from standards work that's going on at NIST and various other standards bodies that are being coordinated by NIST.”

One area where NASA has relied on open source for this particular reason is NASA Nebula, an open-source stack for cloud computing. “It would be far easier for us to take some commercial products and plug them into the stack, and then we'd have a hybrid stack of software,” Kemp said. “But there are a couple of different problems -- once you start incorporating commercial software into your stack, you then lose the ability to make modifications to make those pieces of the stack integrate with everything else. You also lose the ability, as standards begin to evolve, to kind of force the standards issue.”

Related stories:

NASA explores the cloud with Nebula


Open-source tools could make it easier to build a hybrid cloud


NASA was the first federal agency to develop a framework for releasing software developed with taxpayer funding as open source — the NASA Open Source Agreement. “Many years were invested in trying to figure out a way to work around the liability and intellectual property issues,” Kemp said, “and we got there.” 

But just having the agreement — and a culture that strongly favors open source — hasn't been enough to open the floodgates. Having a cultural desire to do open-source and having the legal framework are “necessary but not sufficient,” he said.  The agreement "didn't prevent NASA having concerns about intellectual property and potential issues with what was being released."

NASA still enforces "a very rigorous and bureaucratic process" that software code must go through before agency officials will approve its release to an open-source community, he said. 

To overcome the organizational issues, Kemp said,  “you need to actually work on really back-end processes where the right people can make the right risk asssessments on intellectual property ussues, potential ITAR issues, or other intellectual property ownership issues within the code. The reality is that the folks who are looking at this stuff don't really know what they're looking for and they're not doing deep checks anyway. And if there is someone else whose IP is released in the code that NASA releases, it's a problem."

Kemp said another major issue facing the government was finding a way to allow those outside government to participate in government-led open-source projects. Because of concerns about the ability to assure that no one's intellectual property is being usurped by code contributed to projects — possibly opening the government up to lawsuits, “it's a challenge,” said Kemp. “Though the desire is there, and a lot of people are culturally there, civil servants accepting the risk associated with this has been the primary barrier within the federal government.”

NASA is has been working on the legal framework for  open-source contribution agreement for the past five years, Kemp said, and is very close to completing it.

“We're very close to releasing the first federal open-source contributor agreement, so this could essentially provide a SourceForge-like capability, where the public could make source code to NASA open-source projects, and we could review the code and then incorporate it back into projects that we can then re-release.”

About the Author

Sean Gallagher is senior contributing editor for Defense Systems.


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