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Defense department endorses open-source software

Michael S. Mimoso, Editorial Director

Enterprises looking toward the federal government for technological inspiration got a healthy dose of it recently when the Department of Defense authorized the use of open-source software within its ranks.

DoD chief information officer John Stenbit penned a memo May 28 that authorized the use of open-source software as long as it adheres to the same DoD policies that govern proprietary and government-developed software. Namely, open-source software must comply with National Security Telecommunications and Information Systems Security Policy No. 11, which governs software acquisitions, and it must be configured in accordance with DoD-approved security configuration guidelines.

"This is very significant, because this is the first official federal government statement putting open-source software on a level playing field with proprietary," said Tony Stanco, founding director of the Center of Open Source & Government and associate director of the Cyber Security Policy and Research Institute at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

"This legitimizes [open-source software]. Before, it was kind of like 'don't ask, don't tell.' People weren't asking about it and weren't using it because no one wanted to risk their careers on it," Stanco said. "We expect some of the conservative elements to become more aggressive about open-source."

Stanco pointed to a study by the Mitre Corp., a not-for-profit IT service organization that manages

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a DoD research and development center, on the use of free and open-source software in the DoD and what would happen if open-source was banned in the department.

The report, released in January, points out that the use of open-source software is pretty prevalent in the DoD, in particular in infrastructure support, software development, security and research. The report said the DoD was especially dependent on open-source software for security, in particular because of its open nature and the ability of developers to rapidly fix vulnerabilities and respond to attacks. Banning open-source software would adversely impact network security and other areas, the report said.

"The DoD usually leads the way with technology. It's pretty cutting edge," Stanco said. "Here's a credible voice on the IT side saying open-source is nothing to be afraid of."

Stanco expects that this action by the DoD could spur state governments to consider more open-source products.

"The states are in bad shape and need to reduce budgets," he said. "They need to make cuts. That's why states like Oregon and Texas are considering moving away from proprietary to open-source. Rhode Island and Hawaii are also looking into it."

Cost, however, is not an issue for the federal government, which has money to spend as it tries to get the Department of Homeland Security operational.

"It's about the flexibility and security with regard to fixes and customization," Stanco said. "If you're building a new weapon system, the ability to play with Linux is especially good."

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