GTRI

Case Study

Open-Source Movement May Accelerate Military Software Development

Published: April 20, 2010


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Recent years have witnessed rapid growth in the use of open-source software - programs that make their source code open to others so it can be changed and potentially improved.

Bringing many minds to bear on a given program can lead to software that is both high quality and low cost, or even free. For example, the Linux operating system, which licenses its basic source code for free, is now used globally to run many servers in companies, government and academia.

The U.S. military is interested in open source, too, because it offers the potential for increased speed and flexibility, among other things. The reasoning is that, if handled properly, the potential advantages of open source could far outweigh any security or other issues.

GTRI researchers are working with the military to maximize the open-source potential. GTRI's efforts are helping make source-code tools and applications available and practical for military use.

"Perhaps more than anyone, when the military needs something changed, it needs the change made quickly," explained Joshua Davis, a GTRI research scientist who is helping to lead GTRI's involvement in the open-source movement. "If a key program is proprietary - if you have to go back to the software's owners for any changes you need - that process can take months or even years."

Moreover, he added, the fact that open-source programs could be modified quickly in the field might become very important to the military.

Unlike proprietary programs, open-source software is developed collaboratively by programmers around the world, as in the case of Linux. Open-source web sites, such as SourceForge.net, allow software users and programmers to locate and develop open source programs. SourceForge recently reported more than 230,000 registered software projects and more than two million registered users.

There is a military equivalent of Sourceforge -- www.forge.mil. This secure site supports collaborative development and use of open-source and DoD-community software. Forge.mil, led by the Defense Information Systems Agency, requires users to have specific DoD certificates to register.

To support the open-source trend, Davis has organized the Military Open Source Software (Mil-OSS) Working Group. The first Mil-OSS meeting, which took place at Georgia Tech in August 2009, attracted more than 120 people from the military, industry and academia and featured some 40 speakers. The group plans to meet again in summer 2010; information is available at www.mil-oss.org.

"Mil-OSS is an effort to build a grass-roots group across the DoD, potentially with international partners at some point," Davis said. "The aim is to bring software developers from the military and its contractors together to find opportunities for re-use and collaboration."

Davis envisions a soldier in a war zone having an urgent computing need that he or she can't provide - perhaps a plug-in to add a needed feature. That soldier would place a request on the Mil-OSS website; a programmer in the U.S. could see it, write some code to satisfy the need, and then make that code available to the soldier.

"That's the way open source is done now in the civilian world," Davis said. "This approach could allow the military to be more effectively included in the collaboration process."

A number of people in the military are enthusiastic about the open-source model.

Major James D. Neushul, a Marine Corps information management officer who spoke at last August's Mil-OSS meeting, believes that the open source approach would be highly useful to the military.

"An explicit mandate of open-source software that leverages a community of worldwide proportions is imperative for true security and reliability," said Neushul, emphasizing that his opinions are strictly his own.

Worries about the security or legality of military use of open-source software don't hold water, he added. The power of the many-eyes, open-source approach will in fact enhance security, he believes.

GTRI has already developed a secure web site that lets qualified users download the source code for software tools that are used to test tactical radio systems. The site allows GTRI personnel to communicate and collaborate with customers and other partners.

Davis is also developing a site that could become a repository for all open-source programs produced by Georgia Tech engineers and scientists.

"Basically, this site will publish work being done throughout Georgia Tech and will give folks from industry and the military a place to look at our capabilities," Davis said. "Also, by concentrating all that functionality in one searchable repository, we can give GTRI and Georgia Tech people a place to look for existing programs and help avoid redundancy in software development."