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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