Government open source foundation needs to happen

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Talk within the Defense Department of creating a government open source foundation hopefully will become reality despite the climate of budget austerity that might prevent its formation.

Such a foundation, said Dan Risacher, an official within the DoD office of the chief information officer during a recent conference dedicated to military adoption of open source, would provide a way for government officials to confidently distribute code--something they're often currently loathe to do.

Today, distributing open source code "sounds good in practice, but then--what bad thing might happen?" said Risacher, explaining the typical risk calculation that stops many program managers from actually sharing.

A foundation would remove that risk by providing a well-defined channel. Although sharing code directly onto GitHub or another open source code repository might sound less bureaucratic than going through a government foundation, let's not forget that in government, defined channels often promote more activity than an ad hoc status quo.

There's another good reason for centralizing distribution. The beneficiaries of a foundation wouldn't just be the public. In fact, it's arguable that the main beneficiaries would be the government itself, since the more the military and federal agencies are able to distribute open source code, the more they should be able to reduce enterprise software lifecycle costs and encourage interoperability.

There is a worry that open source promotes a return to the bad old days when government technology was specialized and without private sector counterparts, and so would drive up the total costs since specialization is expensive. It's a legitimate concern, but open source is also an ideal interchangeable part, as Gunnar Hellekson, chief technology strategist for Red Hat U.S. Public Sector, noted during the conference.

"There's zero cost to copy it, and you have a common source of designs. You can have 10 vendors making it, maintaining it over time," he said. (Hellekson didn't hide the fact that Red Hat wants to be one of those vendors.)

One way of making code a commodity, of course, is to centralize distribution while also making it as widely available as possible--hence, again, a need for the foundation.

Austerity, as I noted at the top, of course makes starting new efforts more difficult, But austerity, too, makes the argument for a foundation all that more urgent. This is truly a case where spending some money would help save it. - Dave

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