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Federal open source software activities are growing

Patricia M. Loui-Smicker of Hawaii was confirmed by the Senate, just the other day, as a director of the Export-Import bank. Not the kind of routine confirmation that makes the news. Gilberto de Jesus of Maryland withdrew his nomination to be chief counsel for advocacy at the Small Business Administration. The Senate Committee on on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs reported favorably on a bill “to reduce the operation and maintenance costs associated with the Federal fleet by encouraging use of remanufactured parts.”

If, like me, you sometime pause in wonder at the majesty and trivia of the federal government, a universe within the universe, then you may from time to time like browsing the daily digest of the Congressional Record. Thanks to the simple and fast web site FDsys.gov, operated by the Government Publishing Office, you can zero in on a particular day between yesterday and 1994 in a few clicks. GPO says that since FDsys became its distribution system of record in 2009, some 1 billion documents have been downloaded.

Now, the GPO has made portions of the code that controls FDsys available on GitHub, one of the more active sites for open source software communities. Among the initial chunks is FDsys Collections, which GPO describes as a specialized parser using regular expressions to extract relevant information from source documents. The collection provided covers congressional hearings. More will follow.

GPO is not alone among federal agencies contributing to GitHub. The General Services Administration has put in lots of code it says is useful for building mobile apps.

It appears the adoption of open source by the federal government is growing.  In its 2012 digital government strategy, the Obama administration stressed open data and public application programming interfaces leading to better online services, particularly mobile apps. The strategy doesn’t explicitly ask agencies to make their code public, nor to join open source communities. It does, however, call for a “new default” of exposing federal data and web APIs publicly. Although some of the strategy has been fulfilled and some not, maybe open source application code is the next logical step the strategy might have taken.

Some of the vendors sense this.  I spoke recently with Jarid Cottrell, an open source expert at Booz Allen Hamilton. BAH is planning several moves in federal open source, in the manner in which the company pushed cloud computing early on.

Contrell says the main advantage of open source code is not so much that it’s distributed free initially, but that that it fosters communities of developers. They continuously develop and improve it. And by having so many eyes on it, open source code tends to be freer of cybersecurity weaknesses, its proponents say. Open source can potentially change the economics of whole classes of software when communities create free or low cost versions of functionality otherwise dominated by expensive, proprietary software.

Open source is not free of effort. Once a team develops code for whatever function the organization needs, the code must be compiled into a runtime package and thereafter maintained. That’s why for-profit companies have formed around open source, among the oldest being Red Hat. It and others sell value added support and training services around code that is open sourced. Or they acquired proprietary products, release the code under various non-revenue license agreements, and sell value added services. That the code is available for anyone to contribute to makes the open source subscription model fundamentally different from the licensing models that apply to proprietary software.

Both models have a place in computing.  But I sometimes wonder whether super-popular proprietary products like Microsoft Word or Excel might have spawned more secure and less annoying versions had the company chosen an open source approach.

Booz Allen has created its own open source community called Project Jellyfish. It’s devoted to software for cloud connectivity and cloud brokering, which may be the next hurdle for federal agencies looking to put more data and workloads into clouds. Cotrell said Jellyfish is just part of a larger open tech initiative BAH will launch over the next few months. It will do its consulting gig, helping federal agencies understand open source. It will incubate open source communities around cloud and mobile. And will build more apps and share the code, as it has done with Jellyfish.

The White House may now be a source of acceleration for use of open source tools in federal systems. The newly appointed White House director of Technology, seems to have solid open source creds. He’s been a proponent of the OpenID Connect authentication technology. CrunchBase lists him as once being the president and director of the Open Web Foundation, while the White House blog about his appointment mentions open source work while at Facebook.

New contracting rules published last week by the General Services Administration make it harder for software vendors to tie up agencies with self-renewing licenses and support/upgrade packages. That plus the need to squeeze cost out of maintenance and operations will also give agencies impetus to at least look at open source. You can find open source software for nearly every function, from hypervisors to text editors.

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