Writing the words “government” and “open source“ in the same sentence feels inherently wrong, almost as if lying. Recent talk of the NSA, Edward Snowden, and PRISM doesn’t make the government seem any more “open”. The government carries the stigma as being on of the least “open” things in the world. If you’re a fan of House of Cards on Netflix, you understand just how “not open” the government is perceived to be. Yet contrary to popular belief, the government is using open source as a tool to improve agencies on the back-end and save tax dollars.
U.S. Federal Government + Open Source Software (OSS)
More of the government is using open source than you may realize. To quote OpenSource.com, “While the U.S. government has, to date not issued guidance requiring a preference for open source, it has clearly indicated that open source products are to be given at least as much preference as proprietary products.”
OpenSource provides an example of the successful use of open source by the a U.S. government agency, with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). It is the second largest agency of the U.S. federal government, employing more than 280,000 people and providing health care services to almost 8.7 million patients, benefitting close to 23 million veterans. The VA also operates the nation’s largest health care system with more than 1,700 hospitals, clinics, community living centers, and other facilities. And the VA also happens to be one of the largest users in the federal government adopting Open Source Software (OSS).
To give you more insight as to the government’s use of open source software, we sat down with Wes Caldwell, Chief Architect, Intelligent Software Solutions (ISS). ISS provides the federal government and the Department of Defense with data visualization, event analysis and pattern detection software. The company places a heavy emphasis on OSS applications and affordable government off-the-shelf (GOTS) products, which make it easier for government agencies to integrate into their networks and keep them from having these inflexible programs that lead to huge cost overruns.
The following is an excerpt from a recent interview with Caldwell, who shares his thoughts on the benefits of OSS in the US government, as well as suggestions on how the country can tackle remaining obstacles to OSS adoption.
What are 2-3 immediate benefits for government agencies using open source?
- A better starting point on a project, with the ability to leverage cutting-edge software that accelerates the development of new products.
- A large, open source developer community to contribute enhancements and new features (for free!)
- Better ROI, allowing their investment to go towards more value-add features supporting their specific requirements.
Can you give examples of the Pentagon or other government agencies using open source?
Cannot name specific agencies or organizations, but ISS has worked with multiple government agencies that are part of the Intelligence Community(IC) and Department of Defense(DoD) to deliver capabilities leveraging numerous open source software projects.
What is the biggest hurdle to open source as it pertains to cybersecurity?
Ensuring that open source software does not contain malicious code. Since a typical open source project has dozens of independent contributors, assurances are needed to keep possibly malicious code from being deployed on government networks.
What are 2-3 remaining issues or obstacles for U.S. government agencies using open source?
- Navigating the multiple license types in the open source world (i.e. GPL, LGPL, Apache, BSD, MIT, etc.) and what that means to building software around open source.
- Accreditation of open source software to run on government networks. This process can be tedious and time-consuming.
In May of last year The White House developed and released Project Open Data on Github. Project Open Data is a collection of committed code, tools, and case studies to help agencies adopt the U.S. government’s Open Data Policy and unlock the potential of government data. This is a notable step in the right direction, and an invaluable nod to open source.
Data, government, open source…no one said it wasn’t a slippery slope. Open source isn’t going anywhere, and as we’ve stated here on SiliconANGLE before, it’s driving a great deal of innovation in the software-defined data center. Open source software is disrupting the enterprise, and coupled with the Internet of Things they’re jointly consuming the world…digital and real. At its base-level, open source allows the government to be more efficient both in what it does, and what it costs.