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By GCN Staff

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Gitmachine creates FISMA compliant virtual machines

GitMachines offers IT admins a 'virtual depot' of software tools

A group of self-described “Washington techies” and “civic innovators” recently won a $500,000 grant from the Knight Foundation to help solve a perennial problem for the government IT community: how to streamline the welter of certifications and compliance regulations that slow adoption of new technologies in government to a crawl.

The group founded “GitMachines,” which it envisions as an “open-government virtual depot” of new public-sector IT tools. GitMachines aims to help IT administrators get projects off the ground faster by offering them sources of virtual machines preconfigured for government compliance settings, what it calls “IT building blocks chocked full of open-gov and open-data goodness.”

GitMachines was one of eight projects awarded grants by the foundation in a challenge to software developers to improve how citizens and government connect.

GitMachine’s founders advocate a more open-government and open-data approach to technology adoption, portraying most IT administrators as overwhelmed by small regulations that get in the way of big improvements.

“When it comes to all the techie energy of civic hackers out there, there's a big gulf between how the private sector develops IT and government develops IT,” said Greg Elin,  one of GitMachines co-founders, in accepting the grant last month. “We felt lowering the burden of IT certification and accreditation could improve how civic innovators and government IT administrators interact.”

GitMachines would also “dramatically lower the IT operational costs of open-government projects while also making them more robust on the security and compliance front to improve adoption,” GitMachines founders say.

GitMachines launched earlier this year, so it’s just getting underway with its current offerings. One of them, dubbed Minus, started at an Open Data Day event hosted in February by the World Bank and embodies the group’s philosophy. The tool is a “ready-to-run” virtual machine, targeted at researchers and government data publishers, that can be easily downloaded onto a host laptop and auto-configured with useful software and data.

Another GitMachine project called Trailhead provides step-by-step guides on securing software libraries to government specification. “Our long-term goal is to help open-data teams and projects go from zero to hero as fast as possible with a range of ready-to-run (tools),” the group said.

In describing the challenges faced by government IT administrators, the group paints a picture of government IT administrators who would like to streamline government but are lost in a regulatory thicket.

“You want to do an open-government project,” the group said in describing its approach, “but you need a server, maybe two, maybe more. You don’t do servers, not well anyway. Servers are hard. The command line is scary.”

As a consequence, “many good programmers are not up to date on how to install ever increasingly complex server software stacks.” Further, government staffers lack administrative rights on their workstations and are thus limited in their ability to experiment. Others are reluctant to adopt more open data and open solutions because of software compliance hurdles.

“Lots of great open-government software … are under-adopted because instalation is just too damn hard,” the group said.

The solution? GitMachines wants government to borrow lessons learned by Amazon, Flickr and Netflix and other large Web business operators that have “figured out how to automate the stuffing out of configuring and maintaining their back-end servers at scale.”

“We want to make it automatic to address the most common configuration and operation gotchas developers run into who do not do system configuration for a living,” said GitMachines’ founders.

To do so, the group proposes offering agencies downloadable, preconfigured virtual machines customized for open-government applications. Certification-ready VMs could be customized for the job and operate behind firewalls, bundled into existing projects or services.

Posted by GCN Staff on Jul 25, 2013 at 1:29 PM


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