Open Source in Defense


I’ve been meaning to write a post about open-source software in defense for a while and today my inbox achieved critical mass with the arrival of yesterday’s GCN article on the subject. The article previews a memo being prepared by the Defense Department’s CIO that should be released in early November. It will provide additional guidance on the use of open source software in defense and is meant to make it easier for the government to obtain the benefits that come with open source.

In particular, the memo will make it clear that government defense programs should evaluate open source as legally equivalent to commercial off the shelf. It also will clarify policy about participation and contribution back to the community. I’m particularly interested in that latter part as I’d really like to see the DoD improve its karmic positioning vis-a-vis open source consumption vs. contribution.

The GCN article was spurred by comments Dan Risacher gave this week at the Red Hat Government Users and Developers Conference. Dan is the principal author of the memo and previously gave an overview of the policy intent at our inaugural in August. Dan and I will be discussing the policy and its hoped-for impact (among other things) further on a panel at the 4th DoD Open Technology Conference in DC on October 29 if you would like to hear more about it.

With this memo, recent news coming out of Congress (here and here for a link to the bill), the ongoing impact of Sue Payton’s Open Technology Memo, and the rapid uptake of at least package open source (e.g. Red Hat Linux) in places like the Army’s Blue Force Tracking systems, we might be approaching a real tipping point for the use of open source software in defense. You’ll know it has tipped if the big five defense contractors start tripping over themselves to publicize their use of open source software and then go on to claim how open their homegrown systems are.

Outside of DoD but closely related, many people are aware of the NSA’s efforts on SE Linux. They made the news again this week with the release of the Tokeneer project to further research into secure systems.

While the DoD is tipping toward open source, the Intelligence Community continues to pursue social strategies. Following on Intellipedia, they are now preparing for the (re)release of A*Space. It is sort of a social networking site and application platform with big database access and is intended for intelligence analysts (hence the “A”).

Matthew Burton is an ex Intelligence Analyst and current open source developer who intends to write applications for A*Space. We first met at and it turns out we are both looking downstream at what happens next as the government begins to embrace these open technologies. We use different words to describe what we think will happen, but we’ve both independently arrived at about the same place, somewhere that sounds like “activism through engagement,” or maybe just engagement.


I think open source software is a culture virus that has the potential to carry community, transparency, and collaboration across the government / citizenry boundary – with community participation as the carrier. Further, I’m hopeful that a bye product of that participation will be trust. I talked about this idea in my Ignite Philly talk (video) earlier this month.

I know this sounds crazy but I think it can be an incredibly powerful force. After all, think about the ways open source participation and social platforms are changing the companies we all work for. Twenty years ago it would have been difficult to find people whose first instinct was sharing outside of academia. Now, it is frequently the norm and taking a proprietary approach is the exception that requires that a case be made.

Matthew touched on similar ideas with his outstanding essay “Why I Help ‘The Man’ and Why You Should Too.” Matthew does a great job of explaining why engaging in meaningful ways is important in making positive change. He extends the argument further than where I left off with open source software. It’s well worth the read if you have a few more minutes.

Here’s to tipping.

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  • Jim,

    Thanks for the great update. The Pentagon memo crips up the direction that many agencies are already quietly pursuing and should serve as a great reference model for other agencies – as did the Open Technology Road Map when it was released.

    Significant uptake of open source in government is happening at the state and local levels too. Check out projects being presented at this year’s 4th Government Open Source Conference (GOSCON) happening Portland, OR Oct 20-23. This year’s program includes an Open Public Health Care IT focus, open government software collaboratives plus a global national government discussion by video conference including five continents.

    To your point; trust is a big deal. Events like this provide a platform for creating new collaboratives and the trusted relationships needed to forge them. And the government space, the additional complexity in putting them together is worth the reward of making them work.

    GOSCON is a non-profit educational conferece produced by Oregon State University’s Open Source Lab.

    Deb Bryant

  • A most relevant post and great references. To quote from Matthew Burton’s blog: “the longer I stayed involved, the more opportunities I would have to change it,” is exactly how I feel.

    As Deb Bryant indicated in her comment, the bottom-up activity has been going on for a while now. The top-down activity will hopefully focus on sound policy, promotion of best practices, and large-scale infrastructure. This is what is needed and it seems to be happening within the Army. Army CIO LTG Jeffrey Sorenson is vocal and active in this regard.

    Your use of the word “homegrown” is what caught me. Without policy, practices, and infrastructure, these top-down memos, directives, and laws won’t create the intended outcomes. I would characterize these in technical terms as accessibility and portability of data and interoperability of software. The Open Source debate in government is an issue of security and acquisitions. Consequently, all of the activity in the Open Source movement is likely to revolve around that. All fine and good, but I don’t think many will disagree that this has always been true and therefore, not much will change if that’s all that matters. Frankly, we shouldn’t care if System A runs on Linux or Windows as much as we should care about what goes into and comes out of the system; i.e., does it consume and produce data in a normal, standard way? And if I have to go digging into the source code of something I didn’t write then it may well not be written correctly. Don’t get me wrong, I applaud Open Source and DoD is doing the right thing by going open. But DoD’s complex “System of Systems” had better focus more on what happens between application boundaries than just what happens inside applications. Well-formed data, universal, standards-based transforms, ubiquitous communications protocols; maybe it’s just my bias but that’s the kind of openness I want to see in government IT.

  • zz ziled

    Nice essay, and I especially liked the Matthew Burton’s “WHY I HELP THE MAN” essay!

    I can relate, but there are times “THE MAN” and “Uncle SAM” needs to be stirred-up and shaken-up like a good cocktail!

    I would like to advance an opportunity challenge for Open Source Advocates on this board to send some “TOUGH OPEN SOURCE LOVE” to shake up a government service almost all Americans and many non-citizens will come in their lifetimes to know and “love”….

    The following letter recently came to my attention after some personal frustration. It is from the SOURCEFORGE.ORG Project called “TAXGEEK”; yup, there are indeed several OPEN SOURCE TAX SOFTWARE efforts, which I guess have a pretty tough uphill battle. See:

    Personally, I think these are really worthy efforts which should be supported and pushed by Open Advocates because this is a TRANSFORMATIONAL OPEN SOURCE GOVERNMENT EFFORT and would directly benefit the American Public.

    But look at the resistance we are up against!

    Here is a 2005 letter in the same vein that I just penned in 2008, after a really bizzaro, unbelievable, encounter and incident with the IRS that happened on Friday Oct 25th, 2008.

    I wrote it against the advise of friends and colleagues, who tell me, I am playing with “fire” by taking on “THIS particular GOVT MAN”! [I am waiting for my reply—bet it will be similar!]

    To the I.R.S.
    Date: 2/2/2005 6:49:41 PM
    Subject: Individual E-file without 3rd Party

    To whom it may concern:

    I noticed that the IRS does not provide an option to e-file independent of private for-profit companies. Why is this? Your stated goal is to
    have 80% of tax-payers file electronically within the next couple of years. Yet, by requiring the usage of for-profit companies, it seems
    that a 37 cent stamp or two is much cheaper for most people. Most European Union countries provide free government approved software to
    the public for e-filing.

    I am a programmer and would not be adverse to filing my taxes electronically myself if the formats were openly available and it was
    possible to digitally sign the form myself. Is this a possibility? Can you point me towards the specifications or are they not publically

    Dr. Tim Niiler”

    Reply from the IRS:


    Thank you for your inquiry.

    The government believes that private industry, given its established expertise and experience in the field of electronic tax preparation, has a proven track record in providing the best technology and services available. In addition, the government believes a partnership with private industry will: provide taxpayers with higher quality services by using the existing expertise of the private sector; maximize consumer choice; promote competition within the marketplace; and meet objectives in the least costly manner to taxpayers.

    We hope the above information will prove helpful to you.

    The IRS Website Support Team”

    [Source: – FAQ # 6.]

    By the way, here is another story twist:

    “IRS gets favorable progress report on information security”
    By Jill R. Aitoro
    October 24, 2008

    So my question/challenge for Readers of this post is, as the next TAX Year and April 15th TAX DEADLINE rolls into view; will you challenge the IRS policy?

    Will you walk the OPEN SOURCE ADVOCATE walk on this one? Bet it will be an interesting little walk…[laughing].

  • zz ziled

    In reference to my previous post on “HELPING THE MAN” ease ‘open source and open ‘electronic public administration best practices’ even when THE MAN DOES NOT WANT HELP.”

    This is the e-answer I received from the Internal Revenue Service [IRS], it mirrors the previous 2005 letter @ the “TAXGEEK” Project.

    I am posting this because discussion because one may see parallel resistance with adopting Open Source Public Sector practices within the National Security Community.

    Personally, I have found that often the arguments against adopting Open Source and all are the same….

    Comment from Web Site sent to (LTK419029097861X)
    Date: Oct 27, 2008 8:37 AM

    Please use the ticket number located in the subject line of this email in any correspondence
    with the IRS.

    SUBJECT: Comment from Web Site sent to

    Dear XXXXX ,

    Thank you for your inquiry.

    The IRS Restructuring and Reform Act of 1998 (RRA 98) encourages IRS to work with the private sector to improve electronic filing services, but not to provide taxpayers with tax preparation software or a direct method of electronic filing. To do so
    would be cost-prohibitive and may be viewed as competing with the tax software industry
    that is expert in the tax software business and is providing robust products and services to a wide range of taxpayers.

    The Government believes private industry, given its established expertise and experience
    in the field of electronic tax preparation, has a proven track record in providing the best technology and services available. Additionally, the U.S. Congress has indicated it does not want the IRS to enter into the tax software business. The Government believes a partnership with private industry will: provide taxpayers
    with higher quality services by using the existing expertise of the private sector; maximize consumer choice; promote competition within the marketplace; and meet objectives
    in the least costly manner to taxpayers.

    As a result, IRS does not offer a direct method to e-file your individual income tax return from There are, however several options that may assist you with electronically filing your return.

    1. If your adjusted gross income is $54,000 or less you may qualify to electronically
    file your return for free using the IRS Free File program. For more information
    on this service, go to

    2. If your adjusted gross income is more than $54,000 you still have the option
    of electronically filing your return through a Free File vendor however there will
    be a fee. See the individual partner’s website for more information.

    3. IRS has answers to hundreds of Frequently Asked Questions on our FAQ page located

    4. Additional information available on electronic filing and payment options are
    available on the IRS website at

    5. Additional information regarding electronic filing can be obtained through any
    of the IRS partners listed on the “Partners” page at:,,id=101223,00.html

    Please feel free to contact our office at 1-800-829-1040 if you have additional

    The IRS Web Site Help Desk

  • Well… Finally an issue both hardcore liberal radicals and conservatives with severely impaired English language skills can agree on. Well, that and a complete disgust for the bank bailouts.