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With the current U.S. administration being tech-savvy and promising transparency, many in the open source community have been hoping to get more visibility and traction in the government's procurement cycles.

It looks like the U.S. Department of Defense might have noticed -- or at least has decided to catch up with other government organizations around the globe -- as they make it easier for their staff to make use of open source. A recently released memo has been cause for some FOSS community jubilation.

DoD Memo Clarifies Open Source Policies

A widely-distributed memo released by David Wennergren, Deputy CIO of the U.S. Department of Defense offers clarification on the use and development of open source software within the DoD. The memo begins by briefly defining open source and explains that -- as we all knew -- "there are many OSS [open source software] programs in operational use by the Department today, in both classified and unclassified environments."

"Unfortunately," it continues, "there have been misconceptions and misinterpretations of the existing laws, policies and regulations that deal with software and apply to OSS, that have hampered effective DoD use and development of OSS."

If you have people within your organization who still believe that OSS is somehow the devil, offering this well-considered memo as a rebuttal--or to their superiors--could go far in giving your arguments credibility.

The Benefits of Open Source Software

Much of the rest of the memo addresses details such as who in IT is responsible for assisting staff with open source matters, and explains that in almost all cases, OSS meets the definition of "commercial computer software" as far as the DoD is concerned. This single statement takes open source out of the ghetto that some like to shove it into as somehow inferior to or less trustworthy than commercial software, at least as far as policy is concerned.

In addition, the memo lists 7 positive aspects of open source software -- things to consider when conducting market research on software to use within the DoD:

  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. "Open source licenses do not restrict who can use the software or the fields of endeavor in which the software can be used.  Therefore, OSS provides a net-centric licensing model that enables rapid provisioning of both known and unanticipated users.
  5. "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.
  6. "By sharing the responsibility for maintenance of OSS with other users, the Department can benefit by reducing the total cost of ownership for software, particularly compared with software for which the Department has sole responsibility for maintenance (e.g., GOTS).
  7. "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."

[Editor's Note: Check out our 2009 Open Source CMS Market Share report for details on the 20 most popular open source content management systems.]

Additional Clarifications

Other guidelines clarified by the memo include:

  • Choose software that best meets DoD needs, whether open source or not.
  • A statement clarifying that OSS is not considered the same as public domain binaries, which are not allowed within the DoD.
  • Instructions to always have a plan for either commercial or internally-offered maintenance and support, regardless of where you get the software.
  • Clarification that there are open source licenses that permit OSS modifications for internal use without being legally required to release the changes to the public.
  • Since source code and design documents are considered data, they should be shared across the DoD "as widely as possible to support mission needs," especially since OSS licenses make this simple.
  • Clarification on under what conditions OSS software developed for the government should be released to the public.