It looks like the military services might be cracking the code on a seemingly impossible goal: to build critical technology systems faster, cheaper and better. The key ingredient is a repository of reusable code that Defense Department software developers and contractors can share online.
Forge.mil is an innovative program at the Defense Information Systems Agency that features an open, collaborative online environment that is accessible on the military's secure networks. Launched in February 2009, the website already has attracted 7,000 registered users who have shared resources and expertise on 400 military projects. More than 2,000 software releases have been posted to the site-including integration modules for common access cards and the public key infrastructure-which have resulted in nearly 40,000 downloads.
The most active Forge.mil project is the integration backbone for the Distributed Common Ground System, which will provide military forces around the world with access to time-sensitive intelligence information. Developers also are using Forge.mil's software to work on applications in such areas as command and control, human resources management, defense business modernization, and solid waste management.
"We are really excited by the continued growth of Forge.mil," says Robert Vietmeyer, the project's program manager. "In the end, it's really the war-fighters who benefit from the improved capabilities delivered using Forge.mil, the reduction in IT development costs and the accelerated delivery time."
Forge.mil has proved so successful at speeding up the military's software development cycle and reducing overhead costs that the General Services Administration is considering a similar project for civilian agencies, dubbed Forge.gov.
Peter Gallagher, a partner at Unisys Federal Systems, predicts GSA will adopt Forge.mil's open-source approach to software development. It would allow agencies to draw on computing resources and reusable software components as needed in the cloud, or an Internet-based network, instead of building them internally from scratch. "The reuse goal and objective is inevitable . . . so if you don't go down that path you're putting your business at risk from our perspective, and you are not serving your customers as optimally as you could," Gallagher says. "The government is going to end up reusing software through a fine-grained cloud service like Forge.gov because ultimately it's more effective."
With Forge.mil, DISA is providing a resource like that used by the world's leading Internet-based software development communities behind the Linux operating system, the Apache Web server and the Firefox Web browser.
"Back in the late 1990s, IT management thought open source was valuable because it's free, but that wasn't the point," says Mike Kochanik, vice president and general manager of CollabNet Federal, which is the cloud-based software that powers Forge.mil. "The real genius is how they were working together, scattered across the planet, without any organizational mandate."
Forge.mil provides an open source approach to writing special-purpose military code. "Before Forge.mil, DoD developers had almost no ability to find other developers working on similar challenges, to share lessons learned, and to collaborate on shared solutions," Vietmeyer says.
Defense has tried to encourage software reuse in the past, through such initiatives as the Ada programming language. But these efforts failed because software libraries were difficult to use and didn't provide source code. Forge.mil incorporates a library of reusable components directly into its development tools, while also providing access to source code and the ability to modify it.
"Forge.mil provides the core tools that a developer uses daily . . . along with the ability to easily discover and collaborate with other DoD developers working on different projects and programs," Vietmeyer says. "This is a radical change from our past program management and software development practices." These core tools track the versions of software that developers are working on as well as bugs that they discover.
The approach is changing the military's relationship with its contractors. Project managers using Forge.mil have access to the code their contractors are developing and can closely monitor progress through an online dashboard.
"We are upsetting the apple cart on the balance of power between the government and its contractors," Kochanik says. "We're changing the way DoD acquires software by protecting the investment the DoD makes and reducing the cost. This is acquisition reform in a meaningful way."
Forge.mil also is changing how contractors work with one another because it requires them to share code. "The typical systems integrator doesn't want to share his special sauce with someone else," Gallagher says. "But once you're being paid by the government to create assets for the government . . . you should be sharing that asset with others in the government without additional cost to them."
Unisys demonstrated its commitment to open-source software development in November 2010, when it introduced its Application Modernization Center of Excellence in St. Louis, which will employ 300 developers using CollabNet tools. At the center, Unisys Federal Systems developers will create software applications for its federal customers. The Agriculture Department's Rural Development Agency, for example, recently contracted with the company to modernize its applications and provide computing services.
"It's hard to understand how challenging a change it's going to be," Gallagher says. "We're not going to be doing a five-year fixed price contract to give [the agency] this software feature. Instead, we're going to collaborate with the government and that's going to give them a good value if they have a good partner."
According to Gallagher, software reuse is so important that federal contracting officers should evaluate bidders on this criteria just as they do past performance. "If you can't get reuse on the work you are undertaking, you should get a mark against you," he says. "If the government was measuring and evaluating reuse in its programs, that would drive the market to a more open approach."
The Touch of a Button
Software reuse speeds development, saves money and produces better code because more developers have vetted the components.
"If you have 25 developers working on building a piece of software, that's going to cost you $500,000 a year," Kochanik says. "They're going to consume two to three servers per developer. That's 50 to 75 servers. You'll need one full-time person to manage the server farm. It'll cost you $1,000 a year just for the electricity. To get [Federal Information Security Management Act] compliance in your lab will be another $168,000 a year."
In contrast, using Forge.mil would cost about one-tenth of that amount because developers rely on virtual servers and shared software tools.
"We provide a cloud environment with a start new project button. You have a project workspace within 20 minutes that's ready to code," Kochanik says. "The big savings come from the industrialization of the project startup process, the cobbling together of the tools, and running them as a managed cloud service." Additional savings come from increased productivity because users can build software faster from reusable components. "We can't easily measure it . . . but there's a time-to-market savings," he adds.
DISA will add social networking tools to Forge.mil in the first quarter of 2011 that will provide additional ways for military developers to communicate with each other and work together on software modules. But even with these new functions, the program's biggest hurdle is the culture change of openness for the services and their contractors.
"Being open is not a natural thing for most people," Kochanik says. "Then you're going to have the security people saying that it can't be secure if it's open. But the truth is, it's more secure. Data is encrypted at rest, in flight and on laptops. Every single transaction is logged. We use two-factor authentication."
Intellectual property is another concern. Contractors generally maintain the rights to the software they develop, and grant agencies permission to use it. DISA wants to share some of the code it pays contractors to develop with public open source communities such as Apache.org.
Most of the software developed on Forge.mil is open only to other Defense developers and restricted to use on official projects. But Vietmeyer says DISA could benefit from throwing the process open to innovative citizens active in open source communities. This is an issue that is being tackled by CENDI, an interagency working group of senior federal managers that recently published a paper on copyright issues affecting the U.S. government and its use of open source software. "The next step will be to figure out how to leverage Forge.mil to support software transition to the public, open communities and enable greater participation in DoD development efforts," he says.
Carolyn Duffy Marsan is a high-tech business reporter based in Indianapolis who has covered the federal IT market since 1987.