We noted yesterday the way the White House was embracing open source principles with its switch to Drupal for its Web site, and today there's news that a different quarter of government is keen to go open: The Defense Department.
The news comes pretty much directly from the top--from David Wennergren, the DoD's Chief Information Officer (acting), in the form of a memo (PDF file) to a large list of recipients, including the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It looks like he really means this drive to get some traction.
The memo's titled "Clarifying Guidance Regarding Open Source Software," but despite that dry heading, effectively updating a five-year-old guidance note, it's pretty ambitious: "To effectively achieve its missions, the Department of Defense must develop and update its software-based capabilities faster than ever, to anticipate new threats [...] The use of Open Source Software (OSS) can provide advantages in this regard." Basically Wennergren is noting that the use of OSS has been going on in many other industries and sections of the government, but not within the DoD due to "misconceptions and misinterpretations of the existing laws."
The main body of the memo shows that someone advising the Chief Information Officer really does get what open source is all about. The list of benefits includes:
- Continuous and broad peer review, which supports finding and fixing flaws and security holes more efficiently than a small, dedicated staff would
- No restrictions on modifying the code to meet DoD specialist requirements, on a dynamic basis
- Reduces reliance on a single vendor, since open source code can be supported by many companies at once
- Cost advantages, versus a per-seat software license for commercial code
All of which are precisely the same reasons that many other bodies are adopting open source code. But surely, you may be thinking, isn't there a significant security risk in the DoD running code that effectively anyone in the world can examine ... and presumably exploit this knowledge for nefarious purposes? Well, to a certain extent you're right--closed format, proprietary, and secret code would certainly be a harder nut for malicious coders to hack. But the DoD isn't proposing open-source solutions for every situation, and the memo is careful to note that many OSS licenses specify that you needn't make public any specialist modifications you've made to previously public code.
Though this news is another tick in the open government box, as Obama promised, from a man in the stree point of view in these economically dim times, the idea that part of the DoD is looking at ways to save money spent from the public purse must only be a good thing.