How the DoD learned to stop worrying and love open source

The House draft of the annual defense budget reauthorization bill prominently lists open source software (OSS) among the objectives that should be considered in the procurement strategy for aerial vehicle technology and veteran health systems. If the bill passes in the House, it would be the first time that the National Defense Authorization Act explicitly expresses a preference for OSS. HangZhou Night Net

OSS has seen rapid public sector uptake over the past few years. Governments around the world are streamlining their technological infrastructure and reducing their IT costs by using emerging open technologies. Adopters have reported a wide range of benefits, including greater interoperability, less dependence on any single vendor, more competitive pricing, and greater flexibility.

The benefits of OSS are even greater in a military setting, where open technologies could provide troops with a tangible strategic advantage. One vocal advocate of open source adoption in the military is deputy undersecretary of defense, Sue C. Payton, who helped author the Department of Defense's Open Technology Development Roadmap in 2006. She argues that OSS could increase the agility of modern warfare by helping to accelerate deployment of new technologies that are essential to success on the front lines.

In a 2006 article for the journal of Military Information Technology, Payton characterized the proprietary software development model as a "broken" anachronism and argues that proprietary technologies are hindering efforts to modernize the US military. OSS would enable the military to reuse significant quantities of code across multiple applications and avoid reinventing the wheel for each new task, she says.

"Unfortunately, this kind of technological responsiveness and agility is all but impossible today, because much of the Department of Defense's software, which is central to its operations, is bound up in proprietary systems. These 'black boxes' cannot be accessed or modified by anyone but the original vendor, even though DoD nominally has rights to millions of lines of code that have cost billions of dollars to develop," she wrote in 2006. "To wage information-age warfare, we need business processes that allow us to evolve faster than our adversaries. The problem is that DoD software is acquired with the same industrial-age business processes used to acquire ships, tanks and other physical machinery."

Congress may finally be acknowledging the arguments made by Payton and other military OSS advocates. A report recently authored by the House Armed Services Committee that articulates the goals of the defense budget reauthorization bill says that OSS will improve security and give the military more leverage when dealing with competing proprietary software vendors.

"The committee encourages the Department to rely more broadly on OSS and establish it as a standard for intra-Department software development," the report says. "The committee acknowledges the availability of proprietary software and encourages its development and acquisition as necessary and appropriate. The committee believes, however, the wide-spread implementation of an OSS standard will not only lead to more secure software, but will also foster broader competition by minimizing traditional constraints imposed by an over-reliance on proprietary software systems."

The committee's report also praises the security and reliability of OSS, and says that the open development model "provides greater rigor in the software development process by making it available to a diverse community of programmers for review, testing, and improvement."

Military adoption of OSS has generally been slow in the past, but there have been some successes. As Payton notes in her article, Linux is used by the Army Future Combat Systems program and in the Land Warrior Program. The reliability of Linux-based combat technology is a strong affirmation of the value that the military can derive from adopting widely-used open source software programs. If the Senate leaves the House's open source encouragement intact in the defense authorization bill, then we could see the penguin in even more defense technologies in the future.

Further readingLibrary of Congress: National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2009House Armed Services Committee: Additional views on the National Defense Authorization ActFound via The Open Road: Defense Dept. committee has open-source leaning

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