Open source in U.S. government in five minutes

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open source lightning talks

Gunnar Hellekson, Technology Strategist for Red Hat's U.S. Public Sector Group, presents a timeline created by tying together data about software the government has released as open source.

Interesting facts:

  • Big stretch in the '90s where not much happens, then Obama Administration comes to the White House.
  • Popular press makes the government using Linux sound like a brand new idea, but they've been doing it comfortably for 10 years.
  • The Department of Defense (DoD) took time passing rules allowing open source software use, while the Department of Energy was just doing it, and had been for some time.  
  • A 2009 DoD memo stated that open source software is safe to use and has attributes that should be encouraged—was the final measure needed to legitamize open source in government.
  • Those in government who write memos pertaining to open source, typically end up being the ones who write the policies for it too. 
  • Open source is now on equal footing with commercial software—catergorized as "commerical off-the-shelf software" (COTS). 
  • Research opportunities concerning open source in government abound.

YouTube Video

Lightning talk on YouTube:

I'm the Chief Strategist for Red Hat's US Public Sector group, where I work with systems integrators and government agencies to encourage the use of open source software in government. I'm a founder of Open Source for America, one of Federal Computer Week's Fed 100 for 2010, and I've been voted one of the FedScoop 50 for industry leadership.


This is a pretty good start but I think it needed to mention the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB for short). They are releasing code (Open sourced) through their git repositories. As an agency they are not only taking advantage of FOSS but they are doing it right by giving back to the comunity. (ec2-mapper is a great tool and its FREE)

CFPB is definitely a leader. We included them on chart, though it's difficult to see in the video:

We also talk about the open source leadership from the CFPB in the following posts:
<li><a href="">Consumer Financial Protection Bureau on open source and "growing the pie"</a></li>
<li><a href="">How Consumer Finance made open source both a policy and a mission</a></li>

The fact is, the DoD has been using FLOSS for at least as long as any department in the Federal government. Please see the Mitre study covering the "Use of Free and Open Source Software in the Department of Defense" from 2003. A key quote from the Executive Summary:

<cite>The main conclusion of the analysis was that FOSS software plays a more critical role in the DoD than has generally been recognized. FOSS applications are most important in four broad areas: Infrastructure Support, Software Development, Security, and Research. One unexpected result was the degree to which Security depends on FOSS. Banning FOSS would remove certain types of infrastructure components (e.g., OpenBSD) that currently help support network security. It would also limit DoD access to—and overall expertise in—the use of powerful FOSS analysis and detection applications that hostile groups could use to help stage cyberattacks. Finally, it would remove the demonstrated ability of FOSS applications to be updated rapidly in response to new types of cyberattack. Taken together, these factors imply that banning FOSS would have immediate, broad, and strongly negative impacts on the ability of many sensitive and security-focused DoD groups to defend against cyberattacks.</cite>


I will concede that there was a faction of the DoD's leadership at the time that wanted to eliminate FOSS use within the DoD. This report was key in demonstrating just what a bad idea that was <strong>because</strong> it was so deeply and thoroughly embedded in key areas throughout the DoD.

That's the same report I refer to in the talk.

When I'm talking about reluctance, I'm talking about organizational reluctance, not the individual actors. DOD as an organization felt it had to issue policy, commission reports from MITRE, etc. while DOE just went ahead and did it. In both cases, it only happens because of the decisions made at the grass roots.

Your article states that ".... doing it for years". So what relevance does mentioning Obama have ? Outside of the USE of open source by his staff, I do not remember ONE THING that Obama has done PERSONALLY to CHAMPION the OPEN SOURCE movement PUBLICLY.

I think that industry trends made broader adoption of open source more-or-less inevitable. Open source is much more broadly used everywhere, so it makes sense that we're seeing more of it in government. Kids who installed Slackware on their computers in their freshmen dorm rooms are now at the age where they can start writing policy and managing projects.

That said, the Obama Administration has been far more vocal in its support for open source than previous administrations. I'll submit, the Federal Register,, the Technology Neutrality memo, and the Shared First policy as a few examples. These were not radical, skunkworks projects or research artifacts. Across agencies, they've made a deliberate decision to use and publish open source at an increasing rate.

Based on your all-caps words and conflation of the President with the Administration, I have the sense that you feel I'm being partisan. I'm not. I suspect we'll see further moves in this direction whoever the President is after the election.

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