Linux in Government: OSS in the US Navy?

by Tom Adelstein

Government agencies wishing to develop an understanding of open-source software's potential might look no farther for information than a non-profit trade association headquartered in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. The Open Source Software Institute has become adept at helping government enterprises understand the benefits of open-source software, especially Linux.

To see an example of the Institute's work, let's look at an event the Institute's organizer put together for the United States Navy. On September 16, 2004, the Open Source Software Institute presented an informational briefing in Washington, DC for the US Navy's Program Executive Office for Information Technology (PEO IT), which is responsible for providing acquisition and support services for the entire Navy. Organized by John Weathersby, the meeting focused on open-source software acquisition.

Few people know that Weathersby serves as a special advisor to the US Department of the Navy, Office of Chief Information Officer (DONCIO). His mission focuses on helping the Navy craft an official policy regarding the usage, development and deployment of open-source software. Weathersby began his work with the Navy back in June 2001 when he performed a study to determine the Navy's extant usage of open-source software within the Naval Oceanographic Office and to explore additional opportunities to implement open-source solutions. The original Cooperative Research and Development Agreement, known as a CRADA, can be found here.

In case you don't want to read the entire CRADA document, the objectives of the first study:

promoted a technical study concerning the application of open-source software at NAVOCEANO; engaged the application of open-source software methodologies and techniques to the vast repositories of application software at NAVOCEANO; provided access to the Government of the intellectual capabilities of the open-source industry through OSSI; and provided a beta test site for the concepts and procedures of the OSSI.

Weathersby's successful first project helped establish the Open Source Software Institute's value. Without getting too far into the details and the acronyms that tend to confuse outsiders, the study identified many places where the NAVOCEANO had deployed open-source software solutions and achieved efficiencies. Additionally, the study found that open-source solutions were being used in mission critical applications.

CAPT Phil Renaud, Commanding Officer, Naval Oceanographic Office, comments on the significance of that first study in the following quote:

Although the Naval Oceanographic Office is an operational activity, we fully appreciate and understand the power of collaboration with academia, research and development organizations, and industry. Leveraging the knowledge and economies of scale available through partnerships is an essential ingredient in the recipe for success. Although it may be somewhat trite, there is great truth in the derived acronym: "TEAM" (Together Everyone Achieves More). One of our newest partners, through a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA), is the Open Source Software Institute. OSSI brings a wealth of open source software knowledge and experience to NAVOCEANO which we are confident will make our operations more efficient and effective. In turn, we will expose OSSI to a wealth of operational applications for open source software which should open many new doors of opportunity for the institute to explore. I am very excited about our newest partner and look forward to sharing many exciting successes with OSSI. Together we'll make NAVOCEANO, our Navy, and our Nation stronger.

Following that study, Weathersby began working more closely with the Navy on its open-source software initiatives.

The Informational Briefing

The September 16, 2004, program promoted dialog among members of the the Navy divisions' offices and representatives of the open-source IT industry related to acquisition of open-source products and services within the Department of the Navy. The Program Executive Officer of PEO IT sponsored and hosted the event. Steven M. Ehrler, formerly a nuclear submarine officer, sponsored and hosted the event. The list of open-source vendors and their representatives included:

  • Hewlett-Packard - CJ Coppersmith

  • IBM - Greg Kelleher

  • Intel - Rick Jones

  • Red Hat- Michael Tiemann

  • gOSapps - Tom Walker

  • Computer Associates - Kapil Lohia

  • Novell/SuSE - Doug Rossie

  • Zope Corporation - Rob Page

  • Jboss - Martin Musierowicz

  • OSDL - Paula Hunter

  • Sun Microsystems - Dennis McLain

Weathersby presented an introduction to the meeting with four agenda items:

  • What is Open Source? What is Open Source?

  • Business Practices of Open-Source Software

  • Open Source Market Size/Scope Open Source Market

  • Examples of Open Source and the Navy - Specific PEO IT Issues

The attendees quickly learned from Weathersby that "open-source software has achieved widespread use in both industry and government, and its use is expected to continue to grow". He then reported on CRADA 01-008, dated August 13, 2003, which showed the use of open-source software in NAVO's principal shipboard data-gathering systems (ISS60), combined data storage and computational systems acoustic imaging. He also discussed increased technical and economical efficiencies and open-source software used in mission critical applications. A copy of the opening presentation can be found here.

Reference materials provided to the Navy during the briefing cover too many topics on such a wide spectrum that they cannot be summarized in this article. However, if you wish to view the materials to get an idea of the kinds of information available, here are links to some pertinent documents.

What Can Government Learn?

Government procurement people tell me they want IT vendors to bring them solutions; procurement frowns on having to do development internally. Unfortunately, these same people continue to buy inferior products based on Microsoft technology.

If you look at the vendors attending the Navy's Program Executive Office for Information Technology event depicted above, you would have to say a serious commitment to Linux and open-source software exists. Have you looked at the extensive list of products and services available for your agency? Have you considered the real cost savings?

Another point you might consider deals with vendors' perception of your procurement habits. When IBM and HP call your agency, do you frown at the mention of open-source solutions? If so, don't expect your vendor to bring you materials about their OSS offerings. You have turned them into an order-taker rather than a problem-solver.

Open-source solutions provide significant cost savings, work reliably and have proven themselves over and over. It's now time to examine your motives for dismissing these solutions. One thing we know for sure, the United States Department of the Navy has stopped dismissing them.

Tom Adelstein lives in Dallas, Texas, with his wife, Yvonne, and works as a Linux and open-source software consultant with Hiser+Adelstein, headquartered in New York City. He's the co-author of the book Exploring the JDS Linux Desktop and the upcoming book Essential Linux System Administration, to be published by O'Reilly and Associates. Tom has been writing articles and books on Linux since early 1999.

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