Open-Source Obama

The U.S. government has long used open-source software. Beowulf, the popular Linux-based clustering and super-computer program, for example, got its start at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. Under President Obama, open-source software though is showing up in more and more places.

That shouldn't be too surprising. You can argue that one major reason why Obama became president was because of his team's skill in combing old-fashioned grassroots politics with 21st-century social networking. Obama, although a lawyer by training, is easily the most technical of our presidents since Hoover, an engineer, held office in the late 1920s and early 30s.

With a tech-savvy president in the Oval Office, it makes perfect sense for Obama and his team to be adopting open-source software. For example, Obama and his team started using Drupal (a popular open-source CMS [content management system]) and Linux to run Web sites back in February. The first Federal site to make the jump to Drupal was, which tracks Recovery Act spending.

You probably only noticed that transition if you were a Drupal user. Now, though, Obama and his staff have switched the White House's own Web site to Linux and Drupal. The executive branch's programmers made the change to the White House site not because they wanted to change its look; according to an AP report and my poking around the site, the White House site looks the same as ever. The reason why they made the change was the reason why many people switch to Linux and open-source programs: it's more secure.

We don't know a lot about how it was done. We do know, thanks to NetCraft, that the White House is running a typical LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL, and PHP) stack to support Drupal. The actual credit for designing the new Linux-based infrastructure goes to GDIT (General Dynamics Information Technology), a well-known government IT contractor.

The word is we can expect to see more Executive branch Web sites to make the switch to LAMP and Drupal. But that's not the only switch to open source that's coming out of Washington, D.C.

The Department of Defense — which has long clung to proprietary software despite such wonderful memories as when the Yorktown Aegis missile cruiser went dead-in-the-water thanks to a Windows NT problem back in 1997 — is finally embracing open source as well.

In a new DoD Clarifying Guidance Regarding Open Source Software (OSS) memo (PDF), the DoD's acting CIO declared, "To effectively achieve its missions, the Department of Defense must develop and update its software-based capabilities faster than ever, to anticipate new threats and respond to continuously changing requirements. The use of Open Source Software (OSS) can provide advantages in this regard."

I don't think Simon Phipps, Sun's Chief Open Source Officer, overstates the case when he writes, "This ... allows the US Defense Department to proceed with clear guidance, ending much of the FUD that the vested interests have used to keep it at bay. DoD consulted very widely and did the politics carefully so I believe this is a landmark moment for the FOSS movement."

Why? Because the memo blows away all the FUD that's ever been thrown at open-source software over the years. It clearly states that open-source software is more likely to be secure, far faster and easier to change to meet new demands, isn't tied to a particular proprietary vendor, and — oh by the way, did we mention that it tends to be cheaper?

An advocate for open-source couldn't have put it more firmly. But, this isn't from a Linux company or an open-source business. This is from the government trying to improve both the cost and utility of its software use.

Is this as exciting as today's release of Ubuntu 9.10? No, not to Linux fans. But in the end, these strong, positive moves away from proprietary software by the U.S. government may do far more for open source than the arrival of even the most exciting new Linux distribution.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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