It's well-known that the U.S. government needs to freshen up its whole IT apparatus, and with budgets being as tight as they are, open source and the help of a volunteer community looks like an awfully good option.
MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif.-NASA
has a simple, one-word answer for those who have ever asked any of the
Does the U.S.
government use open-source software in research, testing and production? Does
it develop its own software and work within a community in an open-source
And does it distribute open-source software back to the
community, once it's been vetted and sanctioned as ready for prime time by
federal IT chiefs?
The answer to each of the above, of course, is yes. But
legal caveats, fine print and the amorphous character of software itself make
it much more complicated than all that.
NASA on March 29 and 30 hosted its first-ever Open Source Summit
here at the Ames
at the former Naval Air Station (NAS) Moffett Field, now known as the Moffett
Federal Airfield. This is generally the destination for Air Force One and Air
Force Two when the president and vice president visit the San Francisco Bay
Speakers at the event at the event included Google free and
open-source evangelist Chris DiBona; Pascal Finette, director of Mozillas Labs;
Bob Sutor, vice president of Open Systems at IBM;
and Red Hat CTO Brian Stevens.
The main point was to bring open-source and government
software development into the front court, so more conversations can start up
around the topic. It's well-known that the U.S.
government needs to freshen up its whole IT apparatus, and with budgets being
as tight as they are, open source and the help of a volunteer community looks
like an awfully good answer for some of that project building.
NASA's Open-Source License 'Incompatible' with Others
NASA's open-source legal guru, David Wheeler of the
Institute for Defense Analysis in the Department of Defense, told a group of
journalists and assorted guests on Day 1 that potential contractors should know
that his agency has its own
and that it is "incompatible with every other
known open-source software license."
In fact, it shouldn't be a surprise to anybody who's ever
worked with the federal government that each federal department in its massive
bureaucracy has a slightly different approach to open-source software use,
development and distribution as it pertains to each of their missions.
Thus, it behooves software developers who are interested in
various government projects to make sure they have all the legalese in front of
them before committing to work on the project-whether the job's as small as
writing a widget for a control panel or as complicated as helping out on an
ultra-sensitive aerospace initiative.
So much for keeping things simple.
"We have to do it this way," Wheeler said.
"We all have to develop different software for the missions we have
to do, and we have different needs for community support.
"For example, NASA tends to build things [IT] on a
truly cosmic scale, as you might imagine. We can and do release a lot of
software to the open-source community, but how many other organizations are
realistically going to have use for that kind of scale-out software?"
Wheeler also made a point with which most open-source
community members probably will not agree.
"All software-open source or not-is commercial
software," Wheeler declared, without equivocation. "There is no such
thing as non-commercial software. Period.
"All software leads to some kind of commercial usage,
whether it is for monetary compensation or whether it is for some other kind of
softer compensation, like recognition or publicity or whatever. All of these
types of compensation have some kind of value to the developer."
Most open-source software uses a give-away-for-free
"hook" version that is intended to become so useful to the user that
he or she eventually wants to buy the full-featured version, Wheeler
said. "What is that but commercialized software?" he asked.