April 15, 2005

Interview with the Open Source Software Institute's executive director

Author: Robin 'Roblimo' Miller

John Weathersby is head of the Mississippi-based Open Source Software Institute (OSSI), which earlier this year signed its second Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) with the U.S. Navy. This is the lightly-edited transcript of an IM conversation we had with Weathersby last month.Roblimo: How long has OSSI been working directly with the Navy?

Weathersby: OSSI has been directly engaged with the Navy since Sept 2001.

We signed the first Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) in Oct of 2001...and completed it in Oct 2004

Roblimo: How does this second CRADA contract differ from the first one?

Weathersby: The first CRADA was a foundational building exercise for both sides... the Navy knew they were using some open source within their systems, and the CRADA was a way for them to identify where and how it was being used (within the defined sections)... and it also helped identify the economic benefits of their usage of open source.

In so many cases within industry, government, and military, the guys in the back room were using open source where it made sense for technical reasons, primarily, but also for economic reasons, in that a lot of times they could not afford to use a proprietary alternative. It's the same story that we all saw over the past few years as the "business side" of open source matured.

Now that open source has become a viable, recognized alternative solution, a different level of decision makers are considering and approving the open adoption of open source. This is what I've seen happen in the Navy.

This CRADA is an extension of the first effort, but this one will drill down into much more specific areas, including scientific computing, web services, desktop and policy.

Roblimo: So the Navy -- or at least the Naval Meteorology and Oceanography Command -- is now actively and openly using open source and free software?

(Note the key words: "Actively" and openly.")

Weathersby: What I see as key to what the Navy is doing is that they recognize that open source is an integral part of their overall IT solution. It is, and will be, "part of the total solution." And they are addressing this now... by asking themselves, "Where are we using it and why?"... "What are the benefits, both technically and economically?" "How can we learn from these situations and leverage this knowledge in other areas?" And another area that is critically important is that they are addressing the policy aspects of open source. Because by addressing the policy aspects, they can then most openly address the procurement process.

Yes, in the report from the first CRADA, it states that the Navy, and NAVOCEANO in specific, is using open source in a wide variety of situations.

That report (public version) is available at our website.

Roblimo: How did OSSI first make the contacts that led to these contracts? Was there a public bid procedure or was it through some other process?

Weathersby: OSSI was first introduced to NAVOCEANO through the office of the Mississippi Technology Alliance (MTA) whose job is to promote technology development within our State. NAVOCEANO is based at the Stennis Space Center on the Mississippi Gulf Coast and MTA was doing their job to promote technology and economic development at home.

That was a critically important meeting, but what really made it work is that the CIO at NAVOCEANO, John Lever, was receptive to the idea. It wasn't that he was any big open source advocate, but he simply asked the question of his staff, "are we using any of this technology, and if so, is it working for us?" The response was, "Yes." So he suggested that we work together through the CRADA to find out where and how it was being used.

Roblimo: How would you advise open source-oriented consultants and businesses elsewhere to make initial contact with DoD installations in their areas?

Weathersby: A CRADA is a cooperative working relationship between the Navy and interested parties, and it is sponsored by those that participate, so there is no requirement for public bid process. OSSI, through its sponsoring members, pay our part to work with the Navy. We do it because we feel that it is our mission to help define the market within the government and DoD.

Roblimo: So the Navy isn't actually giving money to OSSI?

Weathersby: No...the Navy does not pay OSSI to participate in the CRADA. OSSI's CRADA activities are sponsored by participating members. We pay our way.

Roblimo: So OSSI's members are doing this out of the goodness of their corporate hearts? Or because they hope to win future contracts?

Weathersby: The DoD is the largest single purchaser and user of IT products and services in the world. OSSI's participating sponsors are involved in this project because they understand that helping the military understand and adopt open source as a viable solution will impact the entire industry. There are no promise or quid pro quo agreements with regards to future contracts. We don't work that way. If you are only interested in tomorrow's sales results or your own specific agenda, then you probably won't get involved in this process. But those that work on these projects see the same horizons and understand that this is the largest ship on the ocean, and if you can help them get it turned in a favorable direction, then we all benefit.

We've had many people that can't see it and have walked away. But then we've also got a core group that have a sense of perspective and they have been dedicated to seeing these types of projects through.

Roblimo: Has there been much talk of the Navy donating code back?

Weathersby: Yes...they want to get to that point. That is a key point in their policy process.

There are issues of national security and public domain that they are trying to clearly define and vet through their established development and usage process.

Roblimo: Are any NAVOCEANO personnel currently contributing to any open source projects?

Weathersby: I know there are many open source programs being used within NAVO, but how much, or how code is being distributed, or redistributed, I do not know specifically.

Roblimo: Are you seeing any commercial opportunities for smaller open source consultants and related businesses within the DoD and other federal agencies?

Weathersby: Absolutely. If you work close to most any DoD project, you know there are numerous contractors that do a lot of the heavy lifting. Take Stennis Space Center, for example, there are several large agencies there... NASA, Navy (CNMOC/NAVO) and Naval Research Lab (NRL), as well as NOAA... but what makes up most of the work force are contractors. These are made up of small, medium and large contractors, from Northrop Grumman to one- and two-man subcontractors. There is a growing need for open source expertise within these ranks.

The same is true within civilian agencies. As open source solutions are more readily adopted, there is a growing need for people who can develop and maintain these systems.

Roblimo: Any advice on how small companies can find and/or get in on this kind of work?

Weathersby: I would start off by figuring out where your strengths are, technically. Also, you must consider some obvious issues like: if I wish to work within a DoD-related environment, do I have the clearance necessary to gain access to the opportunity. If this is a barrier, then focus on civilian work. There are many, many RFPs that are being circulated now that accept open source as a part of the solution. Open source is now being seen as a benefit, and not a liability.

Back to the technical strengths... that is obviously where you'd focus your attention. Ask yourself, what agency, department, organization would have need of my skills. Then contact them and see what work is available. Again, only a short while back was open source dismissed because people either didn't think it was mature enough or secure enough, but those days are fading quickly.


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