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Defense Department issues new open-source guidance

The U.S. Department of Defense has issued new guidance on open-source adoption designed to remove any roadblocks to its uptake.

The U.S. military is no laggard when it comes to open-source software adoption, but apparently thinks it can do better. The U.S. Department of Defense on Tuesday issued new guidelines designed to remove roadblocks to open-source adoption, arguing that open source can help the Defense Department "anticipate new threats and respond to continuously changing requirements."

And to think open-source software like Linux used to be considered a threat to secure Defense Department systems.

While Department of Defense CIO David Wennergren's revised guidance (PDF) is not intended to create new policy, it does provide clarity that suggests open source is very welcome at the Defense Department.

Apparently, the Defense Department's guidance on open source, issued in 2003, wasn't resulting in as much uptake as the CIO desired.

Hence, the new guidance specifies that open-source software meets internal purchasing requirements for "commercial computer software," and as such gets statutory preference in purchasing decisions, just like software from Oracle, Microsoft, or others.

But the guidance goes beyond neutrality to suggest reasons that open-source software might be better than such alternatives, including:

  1. The continuous and broad peer-review enabled by publicly available source code supports software reliability and security efforts through the identification and elimination of defects that might otherwise go unrecognized by a more limited core development team.
  2. The unrestricted ability to modify software source code enables the Department to respond more rapidly to changing situations, missions, and future threats.
  3. Reliance on a particular software developer or vendor due to proprietary restrictions may be reduced by the use of OSS, which can be operated and maintained by multiple vendors, thus reducing barriers to entry and exit....
  4. Since OSS typically does not have a per-seat licensing cost, it can provide a cost advantage in situations where many copies of the software may be required, and can mitigate risk of cost growth due to licensing in situations where the total number of users may not be known in advance...
  5. OSS is particularly suitable for rapid prototyping and experimentation, where the ability to "test drive" the software with minimal costs and administrative delays can be important.

Ultimately, the Defense Department CIO leaves it to individuals to determine which software best meets Defense Department requirements in a given scenario, but the memo hardly reads like neutral guidance. This is consistent with a wise policy of preferences, not mandates, for open source.

It's also an indication of much more Defense Department open-source adoption to come.

(As an aside, special thanks to John Scott for alerting me to this news, and for his work with the Defense Department to help this happen.)