DOD rethinking build versus buy for software apps

Over the past decade, the Defense Department, and federal agencies in general, have embraced the idea of using commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) software whenever possible. Why build when it's less expensive to buy? Why reinvent the wheel?

But the DOD is undertaking a number of initiatives that seem to be questioning this assumption.

Defense Information Systems Agency, for instance, has just released as open source a suite of applications built in-house, many of which had no commercial equivalents, noted Richard Nelson, DISA's chief of personnel systems support branch at the Manpower, Personnel and Security Directorate.

Nelson spoke earlier this month in a presentation in Washington in which he introduced this collection of 50 DISA-built office applications called the Open Source Corporate Management System (OSCMIS). The agency is releasing these apps in hopes that other agencies will reuse and modify them.

DISA had to build these applications for a number of reasons, Nelson noted. In some cases, no commercial applications existed in the marketplace that could do the tasks needed. In other cases, software was available, though it was too expensive. Or the software did something similar to what DISA needed, but the agency would need to modify its processes to meet the workflow of the software. Or, lastly, commercial software providers or software-development-focused contractors told DISA that the software the agency sought just couldn’t be built at all, Nelson said.

"That happened twice, with major products," Nelson said of the last case. "So we built them anyway."

By releasing the OSCMIS as open source, DISA hopes to take advantage of many of the same benefits that COTS software enjoys — especially how the cost of development can be spread out among all those users willing to make modifications to the programs to suit their own needs. In March, DISA awarded the Open Source Software Institute (OSSI) a cooperative research and development agreement to help release OSCMIS for broader use. OSSI holds the copyright and offers OSCMIS under version 3 of the Open Source License.

One such tool in the suite is the Flash-based Personnel Dashboard, which summarizes how DISA deploys its workforce. The software shows how many personnel each office has, their gender and ages, as well as each person's qualifications. Users can drill down to find details on the qualifications of each employee. As the employee's certifications come close to expiration, the software generates e-mail messages that are sent to the person and that person's supervisor. Unlike commercial human-resources software, this program takes into account the agency's manpower allotments and doesn’t have an equivalent in the private sector.

Another application in the suite summarizes the acquisition workforce. The software tallies the exact number of qualified project managers, contracting officer representatives and other pertinent personnel with in each office and across the agency as a whole. "The acquisition vendors told us this could not be built. The acquisition community told us it could not be built," Nelson said.

DISA's Balanced Scorecard is another application in the package that has no commercial counterpart. The program shows DISA directors how the agency is hitting each of its strategic measures and initiatives. Originally, this program the agency had put out a request for proposal to have this software developed by an outside party. One vendor responded that it would undertake the project for $750,000 and that it would take a year of development time, but could offer no guarantee that the application would be completed. Two members of Nelson's team built a prototype of the software in six weeks, Nelson said.

In yet another case, commercial software was available, but couldn't do everything that DISA needed the software to do. DISA already had built several pieces of its Learning Management System, when DISA had found the money for a commercial application. The agency picked one of the five commercial products that the Office of Personal Management recommends for the task, for about $1 million. The commercial product, however, didn’t do many of the tasks that DISA's own software did, so the agency went back to finishing its own LMS system.

The LMS handles all aspects of management personnel training. One component, the Online Training System, has a course catalog with all the programs that DISA offers. Users can select by title or category. It shows the times the courses are being offered as well as how full each class is. Once a person selects a class, the person's supervisor automatically gets an approval request. "It's an automatic workflow system, nothing ever gets lost," Nelson said.

DISA is not alone in looking outside the COTS/government-off-the-shelf world of software procurement. At the O’Reilly/TechWeb Gov 2.0 conference, held last week in Washington, Army chief information officer Lt. Gen. Jeff Sorenson announced that it would be running a new competition called Apps for the Army that would look to volunteer warfighters to put together new tools that the service could use. DISA's Forge.mil would serve as the development center for the contest.

This contest was inspired by the ad-hoc development that has already taken place in the field, Sorenson said. In many cases, personnel have modified existing systems to better meet their needs. "We have given these systems that we have developed to the warfighters, and now they are using them in ways we never though about," he said.

The contest would be based off of an earlier effort conducted by the District of Columbia, called Apps for Democracy, as well as a contest conducted by the Sunlight Foundation for federal applications, called Apps for America.

Gen. Nicholas Justice, Program Executive Officer, Command, Control and Communications-Tactical, Army, added at the Gov 2.0 conference that the key to greater internal development of capabilities is to identify those points of the infrastructure that can be expanded by the end-users.

One such project along these lines is the Tactical Ground Reporting System (TIGR), being developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. TIGR uses online maps and wiki software to allow ground troops to collect and share information among each other.

“If I can get my soldiers, noncommissioned officers and warrant officers to create new applications that solve problems for me, then I'm not having to go into the Pentagon to fight the budget battle to get more money, and I can deliver more capabilities to the warfighter," Justice said.

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