The U.S. Department of Defense may teach you a thing or two about open source software (OSS). After spending years following the open-source trend, DoD technology representatives have laid out a firm opinion on open source—and it likely isn’t what you’d think. Dan Risacher, associate director for Information Policy and Integration in the Office of the Deputy Chief Information Officer has long been a vocal open-source supporter and at the Red Hat Government Symposium last month he detailed his views on the practice, including its numerous advantages within the government sector. Risacher noted that OSS empower the DoD to finally edge away from proprietary software and single-vendor contracts while lowering the TCO via long-tern development and proper lifecycle management, and while steering the government clear of costly and problematic vendor product and service-agreement lock-ins. Risacher also noted during the symposium that through the leveraging of open source software the DoD is able to retain their own intellectual property rights associated with the software implementation and development. Risacher isn’t the only forward-thinking government IT higher-up that supports open-source architecture. John Marshall, the senior information systems technologist for the Joint Staff Intelligence Directorate, Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Defense Information Agency, supports open source as well—noting its flexibility, dynamism, and its modular nature. Marshall also dotes on OSS when he said that the open-source dev community fosters innovative developers that can better think outside the box (than their corporate counterparts). This is exactly the kind of thinking that DoD’s David Wennergren, assistant deputy chief management officer for the DoD, wrote about when he said, “to effectively achieve its missions, the Department of Defense must develop and update its software-based capabilities faster than ever to anticipate new threats and respond to continuously changing requirements.” He continued on his memorandum to other military departments that the “use of Open Source Software (OSS) can provide advantages in this regard. Beyond pure flexibility Marshall also promotes the quality that OSS brings the government (and the forward-thinking private sector) via its system of peer review by high-quality peers—which leads to better code and more reliable software. "You're able to build tools for a larger customer base, and therefore you're able to share that back into the community," says Marshall. He also adds that leveraging open source systems leads to reduced copies in use, lowered overhead, lowered need for upgrades, lower overall management costs (including less need for expensive system admins) and more uninterrupted uptime. It is worth noting that Risacher, despite being a staunch OSS supporter, doesn’t blindly endorse its use; he addressed many misconceptions in his talk, including the common belief that it is free. There might not be upfront expenses with OSS, he notes, but there are associated costs with deployment, maintenance and lifecycle management.
One takeaway that forward-thinking private-sector, associations and non-profits’ IT departments are learning from the DoD’s OSS support is that if OSS can give large government bodies the agility and ingenuity they need without sacrificing quality—it can work for anyone.