Open-Source in Defense

One of the more interesting presentations and discussions at BarCamp.mil was the Department of Defense CIO thoughts on a future publicized guidance on the use and promotion of open-source software for defense contracts.

Open-source in the DoD isn't new. In fact, there have been government reports that call for the DoD to issue an official strategy for utilizing open-source. The issue is particularly unclear in recent light of the US Government being declared a sovereign entity outside of copyright law.

The objective of the prospective official guidance would be to outline both the benefits of using open-source in defense as well as provide understanding on the effects to contractors and bids. It is vital that contracts are clear on the legal implications and responsibilities of providers.

So far, this has meant that solution providers are not necessarily willing to wade through the uncharted waters and instead deliver proprietary software. In addition, there was no impetus to use open-source, since by shipping proprietary software the effect is to lock-in the provider for decades.

In addition, there needs to be a defined mechanism for how accepted open-source software that comes inside various government offices, especially defense and intelligence organizations, be re-released to the community. Currently I've seen a number of open-source projects taken into agencies and essentially forked since the code will never be able to be released due to concerns of potential security leaks in the code itself.

In the open-source world, a government supported promotion of its use would have dramatic effects. Looking at the current state of commercial company support for projects such as Apache, Linux, Gnome, OSGeo and more demonstrate that there is clear benefit to be gained. If the government then pushes open-source there would a huge upsurge in the support of projects and communities.

Here's to hoping the lobbyist groups don't head this off before it makes it to the light of day.

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Andrew Turner is an advocate of open standards and open data. He is actively involved in many organizations developing and supporting open standards, including OpenStreetMap, Open Geospatial Consortium, Open Web Foundation, OSGeo, and the World Wide Web Consortium. He co-founded CrisisCommons, a community of volunteers that, in coordination with government agencies and disaster response groups, build technology tools to help people in need during and after a crisis such as an earthquake, tsunami, tornado, hurricane, flood, or wildfire.