Military enlists open source community

U.S. Defense Department is adopting a collaborative approach to speed software development, reduce cost

The Defense Department is trying to take advantage of Web-based communities to speed up software development and reduce its costs.

The U.S. Defense Department is enlisting an open source approach to software development -- an about-face for such a historically top-down organization.

In recent weeks, the military has launched a collaborative platform called Forge.mil for its developers to share software, systems components and network services. The agency also signed an agreement with the Open Source Software Institute to allow 50 internally developed workforce management applications to be licensed to other government agencies, universities and companies.

Taken together, the two developments show how the Defense Department is trying to take advantage of Web-based communities to speed up software development and reduce its costs.

Dave Mihelcic, CTO of the Defense Information Systems Agency, says the military believes in the core Web 2.0 philosophy of the power of collaboration.

"The Web is a platform for harvesting collective intelligence," Mihelcic said in a recent interview. He pointed to "remixable data sources, services in perpetual beta and lightweight programming models" as some of the aspects of open source software development that are applicable to the Defense Department.

One example of the Defense Department's new community-based approach to software development is Forge.mil, which was made generally available for unclassified use within the department in April. Forge.mil is powered by CollabNet Team Forge, a commercial lifecycle management platform for distributed software development teams.

The Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) has issued version two of SoftwareForge (software that runs on the Forge.mil site to enable sharing and collaborative development of open source software) after a three-month trial that grew to 1,300 users.

SoftwareForge provides software version control, bug tracking, requirements management and release packaging for software developers, along with collaboration tools such as wikis, discussion forums and document repositories, DISA said.

DISA said it will deploy a cloud computing-based version of the SoftwareForge tools for classified environments. DISA also plans to add software testing and certification services to Forge.mil.

Mihelcic says Forge.mil is similar to the "Web 2.0 paradigm of putting services on the Web and making them accessible to a large number of users to increase the adoption of capabilities. We're using the same collaboration approach to speed the development of DOD systems."

Meanwhile, DISA has licensed its Corporate Management Information System (CMIS) to the Open Source Software Institute to develop an open source version of the 50-odd applications that DISA uses to manage its workforce. The CMIS applications support human resources, training, payroll and other personnel management functions that meet federal regulations.

CMIS has 16,000 users, including DISA employees and military contractors. Originally written in 1997, CMIS was revamped in January 2006 using the latest Web-based tools including an Adobe Cold Fusion front-end and a Microsoft SQL Server 2005 back-end.

Richard Nelson, chief of personnel systems support at DISA, says CMIS is easy to use because it takes advantage of modern Web-based interfaces including drop-down lists for data input.

"We've been able to cut down on help desk support so substantially," Nelson says. "With the old version, we were running anywhere from 75 to 100 help desk calls and e-mails a day. Now our average is less than five e-mails and calls. It's not because people are using it less but because it has fewer problems."

Nelson says a key driver for CMIS is that it needs to be so intuitive that users don't need training.

"If the customer requires instruction on the product, we have failed and we will do it over," Nelson says. "The reason that we're able to do that so successfully is that we take a somewhat different approach to the way most software is designed. Most software is designed so that business logic and processes need to follow software logic and process. Therefore it requires substantial training. We do it exactly opposite."

The Open Software Services Institute will make CMIS available in two different licenses: a regular open source license for government agencies and companies, and a free license for academia.

Nelson says CMIS has a cutting-edge approach to learning management, handling everything from training course sign-up to approvals and payment. Another unusual feature of CMIS is its telework management application.

Nelson says he hopes many organizations will license CMIS and start adding new capabilities so DISA can take advantage of a vibrant CMIS community of developers.

Within three years, "I would hope that a number of others inside government and beyond are using it," Nelson said. "I'm hoping we all have ready access to qualified developers. I’m hoping that DISA gets access to a substantial number of additional applications…without having to build them ourselves."

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