DISA must make forge.mil live up to its potential

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When the Defense Information Systems Agency made forge.mil operational in 2009, it appeared a revolutionary step forward in Defense Department adoption of open source software.

The site would be a repository for code and an online gathering point for a collaborative community of defense open source coders, DISA officials said at the time.

Unfortunately, more than 3 years later, it does not appear that forge.mil has lived up to the promise of its potential. The number of active users is a far smaller percentage than the number of registered users, yet DISA uses the latter when touting the site. "It's a ghost town," said a military software developer speaking on condition of anonymity in exchange for frankness.

Actual software coders complain that the site is unfriendly, difficult for outsiders to access, and lacks features that can be found in GitHub. Its governance is dominated by DISA officials, meaning that a top-down ethos pervades it--the antithesis of bottom-up open source collaboration.

Forge.mil, they say, has become smothered by the hierarchical and opaque culture of DISA.

"Anytime you put a new technology out there, policies don't keep up," said a DISA official recently when asked about criticism of the site. "We're evolving," said Bruce Bennett, DISA director of satellite communications, teleport and services during a lull at a July 20 AFCEA-DC conference.

"I'm sorry, but we can't go from nothing to everything in one fell swoop," he added.

Bennett has a point, and follow-up questions to DISA revealed that the agency is "investigating an integration with Git in the next 6 months to support users who prefer or are more familiar with Git."

However, the response that DISA needs more time at this point is a thin one; in 2012, forge.mil is no longer breaking new ground, but failing to keep up with developments outside of it. Even 3 years ago, the only really revolutionary thing about forge.mil was the fact of its top-level domain. By then, SourceForge had already been in existence for a decade and GitHub for about a year--and the open source community writ large had already gone through a painful maturation period in order to reveal the contours of open source collaboration that DISA only need appropriate rather than create from new.

It's time, in other words, for DISA to stop coasting on the mere fact of forge.mil's existence. Now must come a time of making it live up to is potential. - Dave