open box (amasterphotographer/


Why open source is government's ready-made pilot project

You've seen the demos, you've checked references, but in the back of your mind you know there is still a risk to your project. It's time to make a big commitment and start rolling "new-to-you" software into your production environment, and that unfortunately means committing funds that you can't get back after your requirements inevitably change.

For all the excitement and promises of new tools, the same burning question that’s been around for years still comes up: "Why spend millions on technology that still might not work?"

Ground-breaking innovations enter the federal marketplace every year. No matter how compelling the individual components may be, software purchases can still seem more like a leap of faith than an iterative approach to system modernization.

Technology integration is a massive, costly effort that can take years of both project schedule and labor to complete. Agile methodologies have been adopted to adjust to changing requirements. Agencies can fail fast and pivot quickly in all things -- except commercial off-the-shelf software purchases. COTS products can be "sticky" and come with a lock-in ecosystem familiar to anyone who has purchased a smartphone.

But once that perpetual commitment to a proprietary tool is made, the project is committed and agility is sacrificed. Making a change after software platforms are purchased often means new objectives must be put on hold until a new budget is found, putting government’s plans for modernization further behind.

The federal government has adopted cloud-first strategies to deliver infrastructure agility and shift its focus to a more deliberate, incremental and measured approach. Commitments to individual servers, networks and appliances have been reduced by leasing cloud resources. Now agencies need the same agility in software decision-making so that solutions can be validated before spending millions of taxpayer dollars and embarking on a multiyear COTS acquisition.

Open-source software is the industry trend meeting this request. A shift is occurring in the way software is evaluated, piloted and taken into production, and more agencies are turning to open-source technology. Let’s dive into why open source has become so popular for federal developers.

How open source changes the game

Despite its lean approach, a traditional pilot project still requires significant time and resources to get started. While it’s not the 18- to 24-month procurement cycle that accompanies a million-dollar acquisition, every day counts as government pushes innovation forward.

Open source changes the game because it is: 

  1. Accessible: Open-source software is free to download and play with, no money or sign-offs involved.
  2. Flexible: Leading open-source tools have survived hundreds of iterations of improvements suggested by their massive user communities, which means they are battle tested to be flexible and configurable.
  3. Time-saving: Instead of waiting months to see results, a developer can show positive momentum in just a couple of weeks or even days.

It’s important to note here that open-source technology is not always the answer and that it might not provide the necessary results for every agency. Open-source software is valuable to developers because of the speed at which they can move from problem to solution, even if it means deciding a certain platform isn’t the right fit and moving on to test the next. By failing fast, agencies discover more chances to get it right, still within the same budget and time. The project is not completely lost if the first iteration fails.

While procurement reform is a hot topic for many in federal IT, the use of open-source technology could be the mythical silver bullet that alleviates many concerns. Most of the complaints around federal IT -- from the contractor community to Congress to the White House, as evident in the President’s Management Agenda -- stem from a deeply encumbered procurement cycle that does not keep pace with the rate of innovation. Open source changes that.

The way forward using a data-first approach

The Aha! moment for agency leaders considering open source comes when discussing data. For years, there has been a high-level focus on how to properly harness the data that agencies collect and store on a daily basis. This is being driven at the policy level, through the new Federal Data Strategy, which was announced in summer 2018 and will be updated in 2019.

Empowering developers with open-source technology is the quickest way to turn a mountain of data into insights and action. The right tool enables them to manage, search and analyze various data types in real time, which in turn gives IT leaders the visibility and transparency they need to truly implement a data-first strategy to modernize their systems.

Your pilot project may already have started

If you’re an agency leader or CIO reading this, you may be interested in pursuing open-source technology to improve data analytics, streamline delivery of citizen services or develop a strong cybersecurity posture.

You may also be interested to know that your agency’s open-source pilot project may already be under way. And that’s the true beauty of open-source technology. It costs nothing. There is no risk; there is only opportunity.

I like to recall an anecdote about a military leader who, upon hearing the potential for open source to improve the use of technology, said, “We need to get tiger teams on this.” In reply, he was told, “Sir, your tiger teams are already stood up.”

About the Author

David Erickson is director of solutions architecture with Elastic.


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