May 14, 2003

Open source travels bumpy road at NIMA

- By Anne Zieger -
After years of research, managers at the military-backed National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA) have concluded that open source development styles may be a bit too, uh, creative for traditional government work.

Researchers have concluded that NIMA-backed National Technology Alliance (NTA) should serve as a middleman for open source deals, rather than expecting NIMA's affiliated agencies to adapt to the informal open source development process.

NIMA has had its eye on open source options for quite some time, but has backed into using open source software very carefully, moving through test after test to see how it would fit into its ecosystem.

Starting a few years ago, NTA commissioned Melbourne, FL-based ImageLinks Inc., an open source-based satellite image processing firm, to collaborate on the development of open source geospatial software.

NIMA, which manages the NTA program on behalf of the Department of Defense and varied intelligence agencies, had seen how ImageLinks used open source technologies in-house, and wanted to try them out for itself.

ImageLinks had switched from Sun Solaris on Silicon Graphics to Linux-based systems in 1997, running Beowulf clusters on commodity PC hardware.

An early ImageLinks effort, the Open Source Prototype Research project, sold NIMA managers on open source software's technical merits and cost-savings benefits. But the project also pointed out a huge gap between government processes and open source project management.

During the study, ImageLinks researchers watched government project managers try -- and fail -- to get their heads around the freewheeling open source development culture. While managers within government agencies typically manage tasks rigidly and supervise each step, open source development is spontaneous, idea- rather than manager-driven, and fast-moving, notes Mark Lucas, ImageLinks chief technical officer.

"If you take an open source project and cram it under a traditional government program, you're really doomed to failure," Lucas says. "We proved that open source is dramatically different than the way traditional government programs are run."

But NIMA wasn't calling it quits on open source by any means. To bridge the gap between agency politics and open source productivity, NIMA is developing Open Source eXtraordinary Program (OSXP), designed to help traditional government agencies work more effectively with open source software developers.

In October 2002, the NTA awarded a $250K planning contract to ImageLinks, this time to develop a plan for OSXP -- one detailing how agencies could move from creating open source prototypes to developing with open source software every day. As part of its research, ImageLinks enlisted the help of the Open Source Software Institute, which promotes the use of open source technology.

ImageLinks concluded that the key would be to have an independent body do the open source thinking. Given its special status as a tech contracting body, the NTA itself was a good candidate for the job, Lucas and his team concluded. "Government is often constrained by its own rules," Lucas says. "Unlike a commercial company, it can't go out and change direction very fast."

To outsiders, this may seem like a case of spending a bunch of money just to end up where you started. But to cautious government types, it's money well spent. "From day one, open source was very well-received," Lucas says. "A lot of people are very excited. But this is a big change."


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