July 17, 2002

Study: Open Source alive and well at Navy office, perhaps more to come

-By Grant Gross -

The Naval Oceanographic Office already uses Linux and other Open Source tools for a variety of functions, and it could use them even more after it receives recommendations from the Open-Source Software Institute, due out by the end of the year.
The Naval Oceanographic Office [NAVOCEANO] is working with OSSI on a comprehensive assessment of the Navy center's use of Open Source software, and researchers have identified several areas where Linux is used, including the data collection computers on NAVOCEANO's survey ships, which collect ocean data from a dozens of instruments. The office also uses Linux for visualization systems, storage systems, and on some desktops, says Andrew Aitken of Olliance Consulting Group, which is helping OSSI with the NAVOCEANO study.

OSSI officials hope to have a series of additional Open Source recommendations available for the office by the end of the year.

In the case of the data collection computers on survey ships, Linux on Intel machines is costing 10% of the former RISC-based systems, Aitken told a crowd of government workers at a Tuesday workshop on Open Source and e-government sponsored by the U.S. General Services Administration and the Cyberspace Policy Institute at The George Washington University.

"Linux-based systems are saving time, improving effectiveness, and reducing the platform diversity," Aitken said.

Also at the Tuesday meeting, OSSI announced that Hewlett-Packard has committed to be a major sponsor of the institute itself and of the Navy study. Other major sponsors include Intel and the Open Source Development Group.

This development agreement between the Navy office and OSSI, launched in November 2001, is the first for OSSI, which has the mission of advocating Open Source software to government agencies and educational institutions. John Weathersby, OSSI founder and chairman, says his group is talking to other government agencies about similar agreements, and he continues to advocate Open Source software in visits to Capitol Hill.

"I kind of consider myself the social chairman of the Open Source community," Weathersby said in his Mississippi accent. "I try to put the right people together in a room, go mix a drink, and say, 'y'all have fun.'"

Weathersby's message to those who'll listen is that Open Source is a viable alternative technology, but he realizes that he's pitching technology to politicians who often have little experience with it, in places where one of the rules of the road is, "it's who you know." He can speak the politicians' language because he's a businessman, not a technologist, he said.

"I realize that if we have materials I can understand, they might could be understood by someone on the Hill," he said. "What I'm trying to do is promote the good ol' boys club between government and the Open Source community."

OSSI has completed the first phase of its NAVOCEANO study, identifying where Open Source software is being used there, although it's still hard to peg percentages on how prevalent it is at the agency. NAVOCEANO CIO John Lever says Open Source probably won't work for all the agency's needs -- for example, he believes commercial geographic information system software still offers more functionality than its Open Source counterparts, although the office does use several Open Source GIS packages, too.

"Adoption of Open Source software has arrived in a controlled ad hoc basis," Aitken said. "In some circumstances, it's been proven to be just as robust, stable and secure as proprietary platforms."

The next step for OSSI is an analysis of what software NAVOCEANO is using and where it would make sense for Open Source to replace proprietary software. In the third phase of the project, OSSI will recommend ways NAVOCEANO can benefit from the Open Source development model and how Navy workers can contribute to outside Open Source projects.

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