June 11, 2002

MITRE study of Open Source in government generally positive

- By Robin "Roblimo" Miller -
This 63-page study was sponsored by the U.S. Army, presumably to help the Army make cost-effective software purchasing decisions. It has had plenty of lead-up publicity since it was written in July 2001, but is only now widely available for public viewing. It's nothing like the study recently put out by the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution that seems to consist of warmed-over Microsoft marketing rhetoric. Read on for a brief synopsis and analysis, along with my personal take on what all this means.
The first thing to note here is that MITRE gets most of its funding from the Department of Defense and other government agencies, while the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution gets the bulk of its money from private sources, including Microsoft. In this case, you might say, MITRE is taking the customer's view while AdTI is talking from the vendor's viewpoint. It is as if MITRE is taking the car buyer's side while AdTI is taking the car salesman's, except that the stakes here are much greater than the purchase of a single automobile. Anyway, here are some of the primary points made in the MITRE study:

  • Open Source is not new, but has been around since the 1960s; Emacs, the GNU toolset, Apache, Sendmail, Linux, and Perl are in wide use in the government already.
  • Open Source software patches/bugfixes/updates happen "potentially an order of magnitude faster than those of commercial software," and, "because the source code is publicly available, Program Managers can have their code tailored to meet their specific needs and tightly control system resources. This enables Program Managers to concentrate on developing the features unique to their current task, instead of spending their effort on re-thinking and re-writing code that has already been developed by others."
  • Cost comparisons are made between Commercial Off the Shelf Software (COTS) and unmodified Open Source Software (OSS), Modifiable COTS and lightly modified OSS, and between Custom Code (CC) and thoroughly modified, owner-maintained OSS. Open Source wins in some cases, but not in others.
  • Linux desktop shortcomings are not glossed over. The study says, "Significant investments in areas such as ease of use and configuration are needed for Linux to achieve success on desktops." [Remember, this was written in early and mid-2001; advances since then have been amazing ... ed]
  • Windows has advantages that include effective marketing, ease of use, and user familiarity across servers and desktops. Comparing Windows to Unix, the report says, "Organizations that do not plan for growth often choose Windows for its low initial cost of entry, while organizations that plan for aggressive growth upfront may choose Unix. Therefore, the optimal choice of Windows versus Unix depends on the number of users the system supports. As the number of users increases to over 1,000, Unix becomes the most effective platform, or optimal platform choice." The next paragraph mentions the commercial world's shift from Unix to Linux, and also notes, "If more Program Managers compared OSS to traditional COTS for their specific business case, it is likely that there would be many more users of OSS today."
  • "OSS provides more options than traditional COTS for life-cycle supportability, particularly for long-lived systems."
  • Big mention of and boost for Linux in embedded systems; the Abrams Tanks and Army Tactical Operations Centers are both mentioned as examples.
  • Report conclusion: "... open source methods and products are well worth considering seriously in a wide range of government applications, particularly if they are applied with care and a solid understanding of the risks they entail. OSS encourages significant software development and code re-use, can provide important economic benefits, and has the potential for especially large direct and indirect cost savings for military systems that require large deployments of costly software products."

A frightening series of thoughts

Put yourself in a proprietary developer's shoes. Imagine running a software development house that concentrates on producing custom applications for government agencies. (There are lots of these around the Washington, D.C., area.) For many years, you have written software for one agency, then bid on projects for other agencies and you have been low bidder on most of the subsequent contracts because you reuse the proprietary code you developed for the first contract. Competitors must start from scratch, so you have a huge leg up by virtue of owning some unique and useful code. You live in the outer suburbs and drive a Mercedes. Your business is stable and looks like it is going to be profitable for the rest of your life. You are thinking about buying or building a vacation home in the Bahamas in addition to the ones you already own in Colorado and Maine.

Now someone is coming along and telling you that you should open all your source code to the rest of the world, in effect giving your competitors a chance to bid against you fairly, and possibly win contracts that would almost be yours by default if you didn't have to share your source code. You are suddenly faced with the possibility that you are going to have to cut your profit margins significantly to stay in business.

Your immediate reaction is anger. The Bahamas house dream fades. Fear follows the anger. What if some bunch of developers with no overhead manage to underbid you on two or three contracts in a row? Good-bye, Colorado and Maine vacation retreats, and when you limit the Saks 5th Avenue credit card account, good-bye Trophy Wife, too. The future, once so rosy, is suddenly a frightening place, one where you may be forced to keep your Mercedes for three years instead of turning it in after one; where you will be forced to live in a 15-room house on a half-acre lot instead of adding on to your 30-room Horse Country manor on its 50 rolling acres.

So you fight. Of course you do. Hard.

Meanwhile, on the government side, the idea that a more humble programming group reusing Open Source code can bid as little as one tenth as much as the proprietary software magnate and do as good a job and a better long-term job of code maintenance looks great. Because others can freely use the original Open Source bidder's code, subsequent bids will all be fully competitive, which will keep prices down. The programmers will still want to make decent livings, and will want their families to have 10- or 15-room houses on half acre lots in suburban communities with good schools, and that's fine. They work hard and deserve to live well in return.

What gets wrung out of the system when government turns to Open Source is not code quality, and it certainly isn't security (remember, the vast majority of government systems that get compromised run proprietary operating systems and software), but is the taxpayers' contribution to proprietary software magnates' personal wealth.

We can hardly blame the proprietary honchos for wanting to hang on to their lifestyles, and we should sympathize with their efforts to get government agencies to keep subsidizing them. These plutocrats are going to lobby, donate, create and distribute studies, hire PR firms, and use every other trick of modern American political marketing to fight off the Open Source hordes lapping at their mansion doors.

Against all this proprietary political power, you have the Open Source promise of more efficient, lower cost, more reliable, and more secure government software, which benefits both the people in the government agencies who must use and maintain that software, and the taxpayers whose money buys it.

Which side will win? Or is it necessary for one side to win and the other to lose? The proprietary powers are certainly painting all this as a battle where even the slightest bit of Open Source -- or worse, GPL-licensed Free Software -- infection will ruin the government's entire code base and throw the virtual doors to every federal data center open to laptop-wielding robe-wearers who scream "Death to All USians" in Iraqi, Iranian or North Korean accents as they destroy our country's IT infrastructure.

I'd like to think our government people are too sensible to believe this silly scenario, even if it is presented to them along with $10,000 campaign contribution checks while riding to "briefings" in Hawaii in so-and-so company's jet, drinking corporate-bought 100-year-old Scotch and smoking corporate-supplied, illegally imported cigars hand-rolled by Fidel Castro himself.

But we'll see how it all plays out. I personally expect slow but steady gains for Open Source in the U.S. government, but I also expect to see plenty of bones still thrown to the proprietary software plutocrats, if only because the current U.S. system of campaign finance and (shall we say) "lobbyist-aided decision making" might collapse without their involvement, and we wouldn't want that.

Or would we? Hmmm.....


  • Open Source
Click Here!