Defense sees role for 'open source' software

The Defense Department sees a role for "open source" software as well as proprietary software in its information technology systems, according to a briefing conducted on Capitol Hill by a senior Pentagon official earlier this month.

In a presentation to staff for Washington state lawmakers, Dawn Meyerriecks, chief technology officer at the Defense Information Systems Agency, noted that the agency is exploring the use of certain software licenses, covered by the general public license (GPL) whose source code is open to inspection and alteration because it has been "widely" embraced by Defense high-tech clients such as IBM, Hewlett-Packard and Sun Microsystems. It also has been embraced by commercial information technology solutions. Further, open source technology improves cost effectiveness, the presentation said.

The presentation said that Defense is working on understanding applications and limitations of open source software as it applies to Defense policy requirements, and it is assessing the ongoing use of such software across the department. A report on both its application and use is in the process of development, to enable the agency to create an internal set of policies on open source.

The issue of the government's usage of open source is sensitive to Washington state lawmakers, as one of the state's largest employers is Microsoft-the largest producer of propriety software and a sometime critic of the government's use of open-source software. After Defense commissioned a study to examine its use of open-source software, Rep. George Nethercutt, R-Wash., arranged for Meyerriecks to meet with staff of Washington state lawmakers to get a briefing on open-source software. Nethercutt and officials with other state lawmakers would not comment on the meeting.

Microsoft and other companies, through a consortium called the Initiative for Software Choice, have been lobbying the Hill and other countries to ensure that open source systems, like Linux, do not become favored by governments. Currently, some countries such as Portugal are considering legislation that would require their governments to only use "free" or open source software. Earlier this month, Microsoft announced it would open the source code of its Windows operating system to governments and international organizations in an effort to enhance the software's security features.

Tony Stanco, associate director for open source in government at George Washington University's Cyber Security Policy and Research Institute, said that many high tech companies are starting to make use of GPL and Defense is looking at "where GPL might fit in the a software universe" at the agency.

Meyerriecks was on travel and could not be reached for immediate comment, but her presentation quoted Marcus Sachs, director of communication and infrastructure protection at the White House Cybersecurity office, saying, "We try to remain neutral with respect to the source [open vs. proprietary] ... the government isn't going to take a position [for or against open source]."

Microsoft officials declined to comment.