Thursday, May 23, 2024

U.S. Department of Defense Details Open Source Lessons Learned

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The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) has issued a major report detailing its lessons learned and best practices for military software use of open technologies.

The 68-page report has the goal of helping the U.S. government to implement what they refer to as open technology development (OTD) for government software projects. As part of OTD, the report includes a number of specific recommendations for open source software usage. Some of those recommendations are somewhat of a surprise, considering that the U.S. military is often seen as an organization that is not likely to be very open about their software development practices.

“The biggest surprise was the focus on the importance of community creating open source project,” Gunnar Hellekson Public Sector Chief Technology Strategist at Red Hat told

Hellekson is also the co-chair of Open Source for America, a group that got started in 2009. Open Source for America is a group of over 70 open source vendors that have joined together as an advocacy group for the use of open source in the U.S. Government.

Hellekson noted that the new U.S. Government report is a positive step for open source.

“They’ve taken a very enlightened view, recognizing that a successful project requires more than just negotiating legal and regulatory hurdles,” Hellekson said. “They want robust, sustainable, community-driven open source projects in the DoD.”

Looking beyond just community building, the report itself is also representative of the open source process as the report is licensed under the Creative Commons.

“That’s very, very exciting,” Hellekson said. “It means that other agencies, local governments, and others can copy, reuse and remix this excellent work.”

Though the report offers lessons learned from the U.S. Government’s experiences with open source, it is not a top-down directive ordering staff to use open source. In Hellekson’s view the report is a ratification or endorsement of the excellent work that’s already happening in the DOD.

“It’s called ‘Lessons Learned’, so you’re seeing a ground-up movement for more open source software, and this is a way of putting some guidance to that,” Hellekson said.

While the report provides guidance on the use of open source in the U.S. Government there are still a number of barriers to adoption.

“There are still ‘rear-guard actions’ with folks who believe that open source is inherently insecure, but that’s very rare to hear nowadays,” Hellekson said. “Most people understand that open source can be secure, has been secure, and is a great way to ensure security in the future.”

The other key challenge is dealing with the government’s budgeting and acquisition system. Hellekson noted that for the government, these challenges prevent more collaboration and sharing of code amongst organizations. For the open source projects in the private sector, they have all the challenges of every other startup working with the government, but have to deal with open source objections on top of that. In Hellekson’s view the answer to dealing with the challenges is education, which is why the new lessons learned document is important.

“The Federal government has always had a great appetite for open source,” Hellekson said. “Every day, we find more and more folks interested in the alternatives that open source offers them.”

Hellekson noted that some of Red Hat’s earliest adopters were the DOD and the intelligence community, because they have some of the most demanding missions and have an inexhaustible appetite for new technology. As such, open source is a great way for them to access that technology very inexpensively.

While money is partially a driver for open source adoption, Hellekson stressed that open source is about much more than saving a few dollars.

“It’s about encouraging collaboration, eliminating redundancy, and having software that’s more responsive to the changes of the mission,” Hellekson said. “The DOD clearly recognizes this, which is why they’re using documents like this one to make it easier to use, create, and share open source projects.”

Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at, the news service of, the network for technology professionals.

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