NASA Hosts Its First Open Source Summit

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 following questions:

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 manner?

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.

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NASA on March 29 and 30 hosted its first-ever Open Source Summit here at the Ames Research Center 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 Area.

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 open-source license 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.

Chris Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger is Editor of Features & Analysis at eWEEK, responsible in large part for the publication's coverage areas. In his 12 years and more than 3,900 stories at eWEEK, he...