DISA makes 50 applications available for others to use and improve

GCN Awards For seemingly as long as the Defense Department has deployed software, its leaders have pursued an elusive goal: software reuse. After a military service spent the money to develop a piece of software or commissioned a contractor to build an application, information technology chiefs have sought to find a way for other branches of the military to reuse that code. Software reuse could save money and increase uniformity of operations.

Now, the Defense Information Systems Agency has latched onto a new approach that could help achieve that goal by making its own internal software open source.

Earlier this year, DISA released as open source a suite of more than 50 different applications, collectively named the Open Source Corporate Management Information System (OSCMIS). The idea is that other government agencies and commercial firms could reuse the software for their own purposes. And if a few of the users are savvy enough to make a few changes that improve the underlying code and then share those improvements with DISA, everyone involved would reap the benefits of the open-source model.

DISA’s personnel systems support branch

Codes of honor: The team at DISA’s personnel systems support branch have written about 50 open-source applications that could not be obtained commercially.

The idea was the brainchild of Richard Nelson, chief of DISA's personnel systems support branch at the Manpower, Personnel and Security Directorate. Nelson has a team of seven hot-shot developers who developed the applications in the OSCMIS package. Like the rest of the military, DISA relies mostly on commercial software. However, for at least some office tasks, the agency could not find an affordable or appropriate commercial offering. Commercial products were either too expensive or did not fit the government's workflows and requirements. In some cases, software that could handle the task did not exist.

The OSCMIS package is a collection of programs written by Nelson's staff that fill those gaps. The developers started creating the applications in 2006, and most applicatins use Microsoft SQL Server for a database and Adobe ColdFusion for the Web-based user interfaces. They are production use programs — already used on a regular basis by more than 16,000 military personnel worldwide. The 50 programs handle duties such as human resources management, training, security, acquisition and related functions. Twenty-three were developed in the last half of 2008, including more than a few that were complex in scope.

"The merits of the team's approach are apparent in the speed, ease of use, and accuracy of the delivered solutions," said Barry Leffew, vice president of Adobe's public-sector division.

Although the suite of applications is a success story, Nelson took an uncharacteristically brave step for a program manager: He opened his code for outside inspection and use. He consulted with DISA's legal team, and in March, the agency signed a cooperative research and development agreement with the Open Source Software Institute (OSSI), a nonprofit organization that promotes the open-source model to government, to help release the source code of the programs for other organizations to inspect and possibly reuse. Because DISA, as a government agency, cannot copyright its programs, OSSI holds the copyright and offers OSCMIS under Version 3 of the Open-source License.

By making the code open source, DISA "hopes to get access to more developers in the common community," Nelson said. The programs are fully functional, but there are always more features that could be added and technical issues to be resolved.

"My people are extremely fast, though we have to keep tweaking stuff, too, as regulations and procedures change,” Nelson said. “So there is no way they'll be able to finish out the whole suite itself." By placing OSCMIS in the open-source community, others might enhance the software as a byproduct of inserting it into their own systems.

"DISA was able to recognize and leverage the open-source economic model," said John Weathersby, president of OSSI. By now, most industry observers note that the open-source model of collaborative development is one that can pay off by sharing the development among everyone who uses the product. In government procurement practices though, the open-source model is still largely a novel one.

Last month, Nelson and OSSI held a demonstration of the software's capabilities in Washington, showing a packed room how some of the programs worked. Many officials, from agencies such as the General Services Administration and Air Force, showed an interest in the applications, although just as many people in the audience had questions about the process of releasing government software as open source, which Nelson and his team are documenting.

The questions Nelson received were broad and varied. Can it still be called open-source if it relies on proprietary products from Microsoft and Adobe? Nelson replied that open-source databases could be used in place of SQL Server, though the stored procedures would need to be rewritten. Someone else asked if the code would be posted online. Not yet, replied Nelson, adding that the OSCMIS distribution could be obtained on a DVD from DISA if requested by a government agency and through OSSI if requested by a nongovernment organization.

After demonstrating the software, Nelson's office has had requests every day from other government agencies for the package. Although it’s too early to tell if the idea of government-sponsored open-source software will take off, much less pay off, Nelson and DISA have done much to generate interest in the possibility.

"It takes leadership within an organization to recognize the opportunity of open source and to have the fortitude to go for it," Weathersby said of DISA. "They're working outside the box."

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