Open source software gains traction in federal IT
Open source software has at last arrived in the government space, said industry executives and federal IT officials at the 2015 Red Hat Government Symposium Tuesday.
Just 10 years ago, many agencies needed special permission to procure open source software — referring to code that’s freely available, and that users can change and improve on — said Paul Smith, vice president and general manager for public sector operations at Red Hat.
Fast forward to last year, when General Services Administration’s then-CIO Sonny Hashmi laid out a strategy encouraging agencies to pursue open source software first for new IT projects.
“We’ve really moved in the last 10 years or so in open source, from what was a disruptive technology … to the innovation engine in the cloud,” said Smith, whose company just inked a partnership with former rival Microsoft to allow its Linux operating system to run on the Microsoft Azure cloud platform. “If you take a look at Amazon, Google and Yahoo, all of their architectures are built on open source technologies.”
And federal IT executives seemed to agree. During a panel discussion, Greg Godbout, chief technology officer of the Environmental Protection Agency, touted open source as a tool to promote innovation.
“If you don’t innovate in the open, you are missing an orders-of-magnitude opportunity to discover something,” Godbout said.
A former executive director of GSA’s digital team 18F, Godbout said he used to think of open source code as inferior to proprietary code. But his opinion changed.
“The very core of our citizen government is open sourced,” he said.
The DevOps ‘unicorns’
Open source can lay the groundwork for other ideas and innovations like DevOps, a trendy IT business process theory in which development and operations teams are encouraged to collaborate so they can launch new software products more quickly. Presenters talked about the potential to use DevOps to create software more efficiently.
It’s a paradox of DevOps theory, said co-founder DTO Solutions Damon Edwards, that going faster not only cuts costs, but also results in higher quality outcomes. A shorter development cycle means less wages and lower costs — and, data also shows, leads to better outcomes, Edwards said.
“By focusing on speed, [organizations] managed to increase their quality as well as reduce their costs,” he said.
The key, he explained, was that fast feedback means “errors are caught sooner, when they are cheaper to fix … The longer you wait, the more expensive it is.” Speedier development also encourages working in smaller batches and helps the organization “learn to get better,” he said.
The “unicorns” — those rare companies that seem to have an almost magical ability to solve problems and launch new products — don’t have any special tools, Edwards said. “They’re not great, they’re not magical, they’re just good at getting better.”
Rob Palmer, deputy director of information assurance at the Department of Homeland Security, said instilling DevOps in his agencies required a culture change. “It was wrapping people’s heads around why we need to do this and what’s the benefit,” he said.
Jim Tunnessen, the chief technology officer of the Agriculture Department’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, agreed.
“It truly does come down to the culture and the people and allowing everyone to work together. You can say, ‘This tool does this and this technology does [that]’ — that’s great, but it’ll only do what the people allow it to do,” he said.
From cloud to Mars
Presenters also talked about the potential of cloud computing to help agencies better achieve their missions.
“The cloud will help us land stuff on Mars,” Jonathan Chiang, IT chief engineer with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a breakout session.
As Chiang’s group considered the massive amounts of data they would have to store as they started launching more orbits of the red planet, they became convinced the needed to move to cloud storage. Chiang said the team has been using Amazon Web Services’ private cloud for the last eight years in conjunction with the public cloud to store data.
In all, Gunnar Hellekson, director of product management for Linux and virtualization at Red Hat, said federal IT is experiencing a “renaissance,” benefitting from new tools and new ways of thinking.
He described the triumph of open source software as having led to a “renaissance-level flowering of creativity,” and as being “as important as the as the creation of movable type.”
But to harness that revolution, he said, the government must think creatively about the rules to enact meaningful change, just like GSA’s digital services team.
“Be the 18F that you want to see in the world,” Hellekson said.
Wyatt Kash, Alex Koma, Corinne Lestch, Billy Mitchell, Greg Otto, Shaun Waterman and Jake Williams contributed to this story.
Contact the reporter on this story at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @WhitneyWyckoff.
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