DoD official: Open source memo doesn't mandate a support vendor


Correction appended

CHARLESTON, S.C.--The October 2009 memo on Defense Department use of open source software may have inadvertently created an additional roadblock to it, said attendees of a conference on military use of open source.

The October 2009 memo (.pdf), widely seen as a landmark for its assertion that open source software qualifies as a "commercial item" under federal and Defense acquisition policy definition of the term (and so removing a previous barrier to is wider use), also stipulated that program managers before using open source software must "ensure that the plan for software support…is adequate for mission need."

That requirement has been widely interpreted by some in military services to mean that any open source tool without a support contract is verboten, leading to instances where even basic tools such as a software compiler have been called into question for lack of a service vendor.

Open source use policies "are being used against us," said Brian Clingerman, an official with the office of the chief of naval operations. Big proprietary companies "convince our leadership to be scared of taking the open source" route, he added.

But the intention of the memo was not to issue a blanket requirement that all open source software come bundled with contractor support or else it can't be used, said Dan Risacher, primary author of the October 2009 memo and a "net-centric evangelist" within the DoD office of chief information officer.

If a Defense agency is able to sustain the open source software with "its own skills and talents" then that can be enough to satisfy the intent of the memo, he said. How robust the support plan need be can also vary on the nature of the software itself, Risacher said. For command and control software, the degree would have to be greater than for something that's not so critical to mission execution, Risacher said.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misidentified the Navy component Brian Clingerman works in. He in fact is an official with the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations. We regret the error.

For more:

- download the October 2009 DoD memo (.pdf)

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