Collaborative Opportunities in Our Backyard with Our Government Counterparts at Mil-OSS

Mil-OSS is a grass-roots organization that connects and empowers an active community of both civilian and military developers using, improving, and releasing Open Source Software (OSS) and hardware across the United States Department of Defense (DoD).
Most members of Mil-OSS work with the DoD either directly or as contractors and see their work in open-source DoD projects as patriotic support for our country’s Warfighters. OSS allows the DoD to improve software security, control development costs, and increase innovation -- all of which benefit the Warfighter.

As stated in the 16 October 2009 memorandum from the DoD CIO, “Clarifying Guidance Regarding Open Source Software (OSS),” the DoD defines OSS as “software for which the humanreadable source code is available for use, study, re-use, modification, enhancement, and re-distribution by the users of that software.” In other words, OSS is software for which the source code is “open.” The history of Mil-OSS goes back to 2003 when Josh Davis (Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI)), one of the founders, began a dialogue with Maj. James Neushul (USMC) about opensourcing a project on which they were working. Next, Josh met Heather Burke (SPAWAR LANT) with whom he shared the idea of pulling together a military-based OSS conference. Heather then introduced him to John Scott (Radiant Blue), the other founder of Mil-OSS. Over the next several months, key individuals joined the conversation, including Michael Howard (Agilex), Gunnar Hellekson (Red Hat), Kit Plummer (Radiant Blue), and Kane McLean (BRTRC).

By 2008, the organization had taken shape, and the first annual Working Group (WG1) was being planned for the summer of the following year. Needing a quick online rally point for the new community, the Mil-OSS Google Group was started, along with other
social media outlets to support the organization. About the same time, the Mil-OSS decided to team up with Open Source For America (OSFA). Mil-OSS decided that operating as a working group under OSFA’s umbrella would benefit both communities more than working separately.

Why OSS in the Military?
The military faces virtually every information technology problem that industry does; however, the primary focus of technology research for the DoD is focused on systems that directly support the Warfighter. Less visible systems tend to have slower improvements and fewer newcomers due to the bureaucratic policies and practices within the infamous military-industrial complex(1). In spite of the operational tempo, these challenges must be met in a practical, adaptable, and affordable way.

Re-Deployable Solutions to Redundant Problems
The nature of the military lends itself to redundant problems at a variety of geographically distant locations. Redundant problems should never be met with redundant problem solving(2). Open Source enables the re-use of solutions to common problems as well as the adaptability to expand from a basic problem into a new solution or service.

Vendor Neutral Rapid Deployment
Because the source code is readable, it is impossible to become locked in with a specific vendor. Although this has the obvious benefit of future vendor competition, the potential for rapid deployment is a strong case for OSS in the DoD. Open Source enables the DoD to efficiently and cost-effectively pull together large short-term ad-hoc tiger teams(3) that need quick IT tools for evolving mission solutions. An outstanding example of such an effort was the disaster relief efforts in the wake of the earthquake in Haiti -- mapping teams worked together to rapidly map the new areas to aid in coordination with emergency workers’ movements around Port-au-Prince.

Cost Effective Solutions
One of the most compelling arguments for using OSS, especially in tight economic times, is that it is cost-effective. By utilizing pre-built foundations, it is quicker and easier to build from them rather than starting from scratch. Development costs are a driver in the decision to use OSS. A report by the 451 Group found that 43% of decision makers said that lowering costs was the single most important reason for adopting OSS. The report also noted that 84% of respondents acknowledged that the implementation of OSS had met or exceeded their cost savings expectations(4).

Highly Adaptable
Having the availability of human-readable source code makes adapting that code to meet requirements a practical method of meeting requirements. This practice is what open source developers want, expect, and mean when discussing “free software” -- free to study, modify, and distribute. This flexibility is the keystone that makes OSS a pragmatic, practical solution for the DoD. The 451 Group’s Report(5) found that before deploying Open Source as a solution, 43% of decision makers felt that cost was the most important benefit of OSS. After their Open Source project deployments, 13% of the same respondents no longer felt that cost was the greatest benefit of OSS; instead, they found Open Source’s flexibility to be its primary strength -- a view held by 69% of OSS decision makers.

Open Source Policy in the Military OSS is allowed and preferred as it relates to both federal government and DoD acquisitions; OSS is considered “commercial computer software” products. The United States Code, Federal Acquisition Regulations, and Defense Federal Acquisition Supplement all concur in the classification of OSS as a commercial software product because OSS is commonly licensed to the general public for purposes not uniquely governmental and can be modified to meet various requirements. In many cases, OSS products can also be considered “commercial off-the-shelf items” (COTS), a specific subset of commercial items. COTS items are ready to use and require little if any customizing.

To ensure efficiency and reduce the potential for waste, the federal government has enacted legislation directing its agencies to exercise a preference for commercial and non-developmental items (NDI) “to the maximum extent practicable.” The law’s intent to prefer COTS and NDI products is echoed in both the FAR and the DFARS. As a commercial item, an OSS product that is found to viably meet an agency’s requirements must be considered alongside other commercial products being evaluated.

Mil-OSS created a local chapter (Mil-OSS LANT) in 2012 under the direction of Rebecca Howard (LCE), Ryan Lemire (Geocent), and Michael Howard (Agilex). Mil-OSS LANT hosted a Working Group for the SPAWAR Systems Center Atlantic (SSC LANT) Community last year to increase awareness of open source technologies. The event offered training classes, hosted federal leaders of the open source community, and hosted several partners that offer Open Source solutions to the DoD services and federal agencies. Mil-OSS LANT will be hosting this annual event again this year. It will be offered as a free event on Aug 6-8, 2013, in Charleston, SC, with the theme of Cyber Security with Open Source.

The event is located at The Crowne Plaza, 831 Tanger Outlet Blvd., North Charleston, SC 29418. If you are interested in attending or for any information regarding Mil-OSS LANT, please visit:

1 Coined by President Eisenhower in his farewell address, January 1961, and describes the relationship between the military and industry.
2 “Open Source Software Efficiencies and Obstacles Across the United States Department of Defense” presentation, 2010
3 “Tiger Team” now generally refers to any team that attacks a problem aggressively, Wikipedia
4 “Neither free as in speech, nor free as in beer” by Matthew Aslett for The 451 CAOS Theory blog, April 15, 2009, downloaded 4/17/09
5 “Turning the Tables?” by The 451 Group, March 2008, downloaded 4/17/09