NAIS is sold on open source

NAIS is sold on open source

Recent switch to MySQL cuts NASA office's costs for software support

By John Sudderth

Special to GCN

The NASA Acquisition Internet Service (NAIS) development team adopted open-source software several years ago and we plan to expand its use in the agencywide procurement system.

NAIS began in 1994 as a group of simple Web sites to display static contract and solicitation data. At first the cadre development team at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., made all the updates manually to the Hypertext Markup Language files.

NAIS subsequently has grown to support back-end databases of solicitations and vendor proposals for the entire NASA procurement community. It handles all acquisitions valued at more than $25,000 and has thousands of internal and external users. Over the years, the NAIS applications have matured into a mixed suite of commercial and open-source products.

NAIS operations cost about $100,000 and save NASA and its trading partners about $4 million a year, according to Jim Bradford, a procurement official at Marshall Space Flight Center. The NAIS model is being adopted under the FedBizOpps universal electronic access program for contracting opportunities governmentwide, Bradford said.

The NAIS developers at Marshall Space Flight Center are John Sudderth, seated, David Hieber and Laura Allen.

Like in-house developers elsewhere, the NAIS team at Marshall faces many questions before starting each new application. First is the 'make or buy' decision. This means assessing costs of products, training and maintenance as well as infrastructure compatibility and scalability. If just one aspect is missed, problems will arise. When no existing product meets the requirements, the team then begins development on its own.

The first attempt at producing a database-driven Web application taught us as developers a valuable lesson. We were using a proprietary Web development application that promised interoperability with another vendor's database software. It failed to interoperate, however, and months were lost.

Then we discovered Perl, a leading open-source development language, and has been using it for the last five years to develop and support all NAIS applications.


Recently, price restructuring for a commercial database management product threatened to consume most of the NAIS budget. We evaluated several open-source alternatives and decided to convert all NAIS applications to the MySQL database manager.

Our tests showed MySQL could perform NAIS functions faster. The cost of the optional technical support for MySQL was about 1 percent of that for the commercial product previously used.

Technical support for MySQL has been excellent when we needed it, plus there are hundreds of Web sites that offer free help and support for such open-source products.

We have plans under way to evaluate additional open-source software, for example, the Apache HTTP Server from Apache Software Foundation of Forest Hill, Md., to correct limitations of the commercial Web server we currently use. Linux shows promise for us as a standard development desktop PC environment.

While the industry tries to sort out what licensing will fit free distribution of open-source software, the NAIS development team will continue to use cutting-edge, open-source tools, applications and languages.

John Sudderth is a senior computer scientist at Computer Sciences Corp. and a member of the NAIS development team at Marshall Space Flight Center.


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