Has open source officially taken off at DOD?
- By Amber Corrin
- Nov 19, 2013
As far as technology trends in the federal government go, the use of open source is on a multi-year hot streak. Alongside movements such as the cloud, open source is one of those agency options like an oasis – or perhaps a mirage -- in a funding desert, promising savings and efficiencies.
At the Defense Department, the incorporation of open source has happened more slowly than at some other agencies. With its legacy systems built on proprietary technologies, multi-year acquisition cycles and inherent security concerns, opening to the public something as sensitive as intelligence software is not necessarily operationally organic for DOD decision-makers.
But that is exactly what is beginning to happen, as the need to cut costs, share information and buy and fix capabilities faster pushes the military toward solutions where the community, and not the major contractor, is the key partner.
"The problem with proprietary solutions is the limited set of folks who can use them, rather than opening the core components to the community to drive...and just be the experts and the integrators," said Andy Goodson, program manager for Lockheed Martin's Distributed Data Framework, a newly open source software search engine for intelligence.
The DDF, which the military's Distributed Common Ground System relies on for real-time sharing of mission data in combat, previously was available only to DOD users. Lockheed recently donated the DDF's source code to the Codice Foundation, a nonprofit supporting government open-source projects, opening up the system to U.S. partners and other users who otherwise would have had to buy commercial software licenses.
The DDF now "is about taking the old proprietary approach and moving into newer open-source solutions [with] no licensing costs," Goodson said. "It used to take months and millions of dollars to make security changes," but the ability for open source to facilitate quick fixes, including from other members of the community using the system, means the military can more rapidly respond to requests from the field for changes. It also means more mission-related information can be shared between coalition partners.
DCGS is just one instance of DOD's implementation of open-source technologies, but it is a prime example of where the trend has been used first by the Pentagon: in tactical systems, supporting troops on the ground. But not everyone agrees that open-source should be the new go-to solution there, despite changing fiscal and digital realities.
"Perhaps the most important issue in a major DOD system is reliability, which includes the ability to scale under heavy load as well as a system's security and information-assurance features. Testing and certification of an end-to-end solution can be extraordinarily expensive, especially if that system is changed frequently," noted an October white paper from Oracle – a major producer of proprietary software -- that warned of the drawbacks of open source. "Commercial software companies have developed highly refined methodologies to perform these tasks. Don't underestimate the difficulties associated with testing open source software and incorporating required changes into the main development stream, especially when it comes to testing for robustness and reliability under load."
Despite such hurdles, others argue the open-source movement can only be expected to grow.
"I'd like to think that at this late date, not even Oracle is so brash as to really believe an agency like the DOD... doesn't know what it's doing when it comes to open source," Ed Boyajian, president and CEO of open-source enterprise database company EnterpriseDB, wrote in a Nov. 12 Silicon Angle blog post. "For government, the pressures for change are especially difficult with declining revenues brought on by the Great Recession, indiscriminate cuts due to sequestration, mandates for data center consolidation, and the need to move to newer low cost cloud platforms. The bottom line is that government agencies have to adopt paradigm-changing solutions that open source delivers to meet these challenges."
Amber Corrin is a former staff writer for FCW and Defense Systems.