In an innocuous-looking, blandly-worded memo, only slightly longer than a single page long, the U.S. Department of Defense last week granted open source software equal status to commercial software.
The document, signed by John Stenbit, the Department of Defense’s CIO, simply says that DoD users of open source software must follow the same security and acquisition policies as they would use for commercial software.
It is the first official statement of policy on the use of open source at the DoD, according to Robert Gorrie, a deputy director of IT at the department.
The memo is “a huge deal,” says Tony Stanco, the founding director of the Washington, D.C.-based Center of Open Source & Government, because it legitimizes the use of open source at the Pentagon. “It allows program managers to consider open source, without having to worry about whether that would put them in conflict with official policy,” he says.
In fact, until now, the Pentagon has had no official policy on open source, putting the software in a sort of “limbo status,” according to a study completed in January by the Mitre Corporation.
Last week’s memo “eliminates the confusion about whether or not you’re allowed to use open source,” says Gorrie. “If you use open source, you treat it like any other software.”
The Mitre study found that open source software plays a far more critical role in the U.S. military than has been generally recognized, with many Web servers, domain name servers and email systems running on it.
The software’s ambiguous status, however, often made decisions regarding open source
difficult, according to Mitre. Defense Department developers are often aware of the benefits of open source products for certain types of applications, the report said, but are unwilling to share that knowledge with their commanding officers “for fear that they will be told that they are using ‘unapproved’ applications.”
Since the memo’s release last week, Gorrie’s office has been deluged with calls from internal military users wanting information on the new policy.
He has also heard from outside vendors of both open source and proprietary software, many of whom have strong opinions on the topic.
“There are zealots on both sides of the road,” he says. “People who are adamant that any use of open source will ruin the world economy, and people on the other side who say if you use anything but open source software the same thing will happen.”