U.S. government is moving toward OSS


Author: Tina Gasperson

Is the U.S. federal government moving toward adoption of Linux and open source solutions? The answer is yes. The only question is “how fast?”America’s government is a sprawling entity with seemingly unrelated departments, specialties, and functions. Each function has its own way of doing things, all the way down to the IT structure. Sprawling entities need a lot of computing power, and this creates a huge market for vendors. In fact, there’s so much to sell, program, maintain, and support that some businesses exist only to provide hardware and software to the federal government.

Herndon, Va.-based DigitalNet is one of those companies. About 50% of its 2,300 employees maintain active security clearances with the government to provide networked infrastructure and security solutions.

Roger Yee, vice president of solutions engineering at DigitalNet, is intimately familiar with the structure of IT in much of the sprawl. He said some departments are quite Linux-friendly, especially the Department of Defense. In fact, Yee and his team recently completed a big project for the Navy in which they converted a large amount of legacy data to Tomcat, Apache’s popular open source Java server technology.

That system is used for weather data sharing. “If you’re an aviator and the mission scenario is you’re going to fly into a storm, there’s a lot of criteria about how that will affect the airplane,” Yee said. “That database is now all Web-based and open source.”

Yee said he is doing a lot with Java. He considers it one of the “key components” his government clients are using now, along with Eclipse, the open source toolset for Java development. In fact, the 5.5 release of Tomcat lets developers bypass Sun’s SDK because it uses Eclipse.

MPC, based in Nampa, Idaho, devotes a large amount of its time to government sales and contracts in its MPC-G division. MPC-G systems engineer Jay Masterson said he has seen some movement toward open source solutions.

“I’ve seen some real frustration with people, with Microsoft driving them to look at their licensing schemes,” Masterson said. “We’ve had some customers that were bound and determined to make a change. But I have not seen a massive implementation.”

Masterson said two departments he knows of have come to the edge of the open source cliff and decided to step away: the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory (INEEL), and the National Weather Service. “They were committed to it, but something stopped them from doing it. I don’t know if it was higher-ups or what. There still is some sort of buffer there,” he said.

With MPC-G, the more government looks toward open source, the more the company will have to examine its own offerings. “We’re primarily a Microsoft shop,” Masterson said, “and that’s the OS we offer as a download.”

He said the company gives a “No OS” option on systems, and for those he’s seen clients install SUSE and Red Hat. It is causing an awakening of sorts. “We’re taking a much harder look at this, primarily because of Novell going with SUSE.”

Masterson said that because of the visibility and reputation that Novell brings, it begins to make sense for the company to offer a Linux solution. And although Red Hat would be one of the first distributions he’d go with if a company wanted to take that step, Masterson admits he doesn’t completely understand some of Red Hat’s practices.

“They’ve kind of confused me with their new model,” he said, referring to Red Hat’s commercial success with freely available Linux. “I do think people are taking it as more viable because they’re charging for it. It’s kind of a catch-22.”

But despite the questions, he is still optimistic about Red Hat’s product. “They’ve chosen to make it stable — in the past there were so many revisions coming out. At some point you have to quit developing and say, ‘this is what we’re going to support and it’s not going to change.'”

Masterson said it would take some work to begin offering Linux to MPC-G government customers. “Once you load it, you’re expected to give support. This is nothing you could give a timeline on at this point. But if we want to sell more servers, we need to offer more options.”