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How Does the DoD Fight Terrorism Despite Budget Cuts?

Open source technologies – a viable alternative to closed, proprietary software products

United States military contractors are under unprecedented pressure to find ways to cut costs for their federal government customers despite the interest in developing new technologies to fight the war on terrorism. Gone are the days when contracts would swell exponentially without any regard for initial quote figures or recourse from their customers. The federal deficit debt-reduction plan, which includes massive defense spending cuts, recently put the contracting community on notice that it has to change the way it does business, become more accountable for cost overruns and find ways to do more with less. Those who don't meet this mandate will find themselves on the outside looking in.

Getting the military contractor community to radically change the way it does business is akin to trying to turn around an oil tanker with an oar. It's a daunting challenge, but not an entirely impossible one. The answer may be easier to find than many would expect: open source technologies. By using open source software (OSS) and Government off-the-shelf (GOTS) technologies, contractors can offer quality products and services that are significantly more flexible and cost-effective than proprietary systems, and can be reused indefinitely and shared with other federal agencies without additional cost.

Open source technologies enable contractors to get unique emerging technologies and operational prototypes quickly into theater, using GOTS products that nearly all Department of Defense (DoD) IT personnel are familiar with and can easily manipulate and upgrade in the future. These systems are far easier to integrate into government IT frameworks and don't require massive annual license renewal costs since the federal government owns the software. Vendors that use OSS are leveraging open source libraries to provide functionality so that they can decrease the development timeline and costs for the government and allow it to essentially have unrestricted rights to use the software as it needs to.

The price tag and overall total cost of ownership for OSS is dramatically lower than commercial products. Proprietary software is traditionally far more costly up front, and requires annual maintenance fees for updates and revisions that can sometimes cost millions of dollars in large defense programs.

Proprietary software companies, perhaps to protect their market, will often argue that OSS is not secure. On the contrary, in many cases it is more secure than private commercial offerings. OSS is based on a mass community of developers who are constantly working to fix any vulnerabilities and bugs that may arise, providing a far larger and more aggressive effort to ensure a secure software product. Earlier this year, the DoD published a 68-page manual, entitled "Open Technology Development: Lessons Learned and Best Practices for Military Software," to offer development and security guidance for military agencies considering the use of OSS. Any concerns about the security of OSS today are really unfounded.

The federal government has clearly bought into this way of doing business. OSS systems are being used by U.S. military branches all around the world. Virtually all branches of the U.S. military rely on OSS for critical information networks. Intelligent Software Solutions, a small contractor based in Colorado Springs, developed an open source software development product that is used by more than 100 United States government organizations for everything from command and control systems for the Air Force to analysis of all the vessels coming into the United States on either coast for the Coast Guard. This is but one of a handful of companies offering OSS solutions to the federal government. Imagine if more, larger contractors adopted this business model?

As a result of the improvements in and the popularity of open source technologies, the U.S. government now has a viable alternative to closed, proprietary software products. Imagine entrusting a critical, multi-billion dollar military computer network to one software vendor that restricts access to its code (and has to come in and make updates and fixes at additional costs every time), or using open source software that can be accessed by the government itself and distributed to other government users, without additional charges. Which do you think makes more sense?

More Stories By Carl Houghton

As vice president of strategic initiatives at Intelligent Software Solutions, Carl Houghton oversees the integration of technologies across business units in the company. He also leads the company's Advanced Technology Division, responsible for advanced research and development of cutting edge technologies. He has led many software teams designing and developing applications for government customers. His previous experience includes 15 years of active duty service in the United States Air Force flying in combat missions in various places around Europe and the Middle East. More information on Intelligent Software Solutions can be found at www.issinc.com.

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