DOD open-source memo could change software landscape

DOD has issued guidance that clarifies the use of open-source software.

The Defense Department's  guidance on the military use of open-source software has been a long time in coming, and should ease the widespread concerns in the military about open source-use, observers say.

Earlier this month, DOD issued guidance that clarifies the use of open-source software, or software whose code is made freely available for others to use and modify. Although many of today's most popular software programs are open-source, such as the Linux operating system and the Apache Web server, questions around procurement persisted in the military services. The guidance is not formally policy, but it offers clarifications on how to use open source software.

Acting DOD Chief Information Officer David Wennergren is expected to talk more about the guidance at the Government Open Source Conference, being held next week in Washington, according to sources.

The document has been needed for a while, observers note.

"A lot of people both within and around the Defense Department have been working on this for a long time. It's very significant that this has been done," said John Weathersby, the founder and executive director of the Open Source Software Institute, a non-profit institute dedicated to broadening the use of open source in government. "It is very significant in that it states — in writing— that open-source is a viable option and must be considered."

The document had been in draft at least since mid-2008. Daniel Risacher, who handles enterprise services and integration issues for the office of the CIO, has led the effort to develop it.

However, even before this clarification earlier efforts had been made to fit the strange new world of open-source software into the world of highly standardized government procurement procedures. Weathersby points to the study authored by Mitre's Terry Bollinger, "Use of Free and Open-Source Software (FOSS) in the U.S. Department of Defense," which highlighted the then-largely underreported widespread use of the open source within government.

Later that year, 2003, then-DOD CIO John Stenbit issued some basic guidance on the use of open source software, asking services to check its legality. In 2007, the Navy gave its okay for using the technology.

John Scott, director of open integration and open-source software for Mercury Federal Systems, who commented on early drafts of the new report, noted that the document is important because it clarifies that open-source software is a version of commercial software, an idea that had been widely debated given the grass roots development of many software programs.

"Its basically reiterating federal law, which states you have to look at commercial items [when building out new capabilities], and open-source is a commercial item," Scott said. "It will be interesting to see what the impact of this will be over the long haul, because [services] will have to look at open-source software to meet the capability they have to build."