Open source software is free to license, the preferred choice of geeks everywhere, and secure and reliable enough to be used by the U.S. Department of Defense to protect the nation from being flattened by missiles and bombs. Yet many civilian government agencies still don’t take open source seriously.

The military uses open source both in mission-critical software deployments and in its development practices. For instance, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) routinely employs crowdsourcing to find new ideas, and recently published an open catalog of its projects.

Activities like these earned the Department of Defense the top ranking from Open Source for America, an open source software consortium that issues annual report cards to show how government is doing with open source adoption and implementation.

Open source adoption is high in the military because it's hard to beat from a strategic and efficiency standpoint, says Kane McLean, co-chair of Open Source for America and a member of the steering committee for Mil-OSS, a community of civilian and military open source software developers.

Because military agencies are so siloed, it’s difficult to identify exact adoption rates of open source software and practices, but in cybersecurity applications, it’s common, McLean said. The ability to quickly write code internally for a needed function and then share it is a big shift away from the American software vendor economy, but the military wouldn’t be using it if it didn’t work, he said. “The approach is, ‘Find the right solution to the task,’ rather than, ‘Find the right licensing structure for the job.’ The way we look at OSS should not be as a product, per se, but raw material for whatever job we need to use it for.”

Former federal CIO Vivek Kundra cleared the way for open source in his 25-point implementation plan to reform federal information technology management. Though Kundra never specifically mentioned “open source,” he did emphasize the family of non-proprietary concepts, such as open architectures, open standards and platform independent data-protocols. These principles all promote improved interoperability -- and they save tax payers a lot of money, McLean said.

“We’ve kind of won the battle of using open source,” he said. “Now it’s kind of a matter of moving out and educating and getting the right tools in the right places.”

McLean pointed to instances like impromptu mapping projects to help victims of the 2010 Haiti Earthquake where open source delivered results much faster than traditional methods. “It probably would have taken a year to come up with a product to do that,” McLean said. Earthquakes and other disasters create urgency, but there’s no reason that government should be less efficient or effective under normal circumstances, he added.

Open source software also plays a role in drone research and development. In December, researchers at Camp Shelby in Mississippi demonstrated a collaborative Open Source Unmanned Remote and Autonomous Vehicle Systems (OS-URAVS) program, showcasing how work can be shared among the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force, Department of Homeland Security and Defense Acquisition University to create a common framework and standards for developing and grading drone software.

In non-military applications, open source software is less popular, but it's catching on to some degree, said Deb Bryant, independent open source consultant and former deputy CIO for the state of Oregon. Bryant also worked for Oregon State University (OSU) for six years, where she helped run the Government Open Source Conference (GOSCON), a now defunct platform for government officials to share their experiences and best practices with open source.

Open source software isn't the right solution every time, and comparing open source to commercial software is apples and oranges, Bryant said, but a lot of governments are interested in the collaborative potential of open source. There is a move toward a more deliberate policy of promoting open design in government, she said, especially with the proliferation of the open data movement.

“As a good steward of public funds, it would be foolish to not take the time to consider open source as an alternate solution,” Bryant said. “And we’re not just talking about financial benefits, but in terms of scalability and interoperability. There’s no reason by default that it’s not suitable. It’s really a matter of the application or the tool, whether it meets the needs of the agency.”

As an example of what open source can do, Bryant pointed to an open source prison management software platform developed and shared by CIOs of state prisons. Developed by the National Consortium for Offender Management System, the software is now the most widely used prison software solution in the nation.

“It was a great way to save tax dollars and to solve a problem,” she said. “I saw the same thing back east with Tennessee and South Carolina. They pooled their first responder dollars a few years back and created a records management system for law enforcement data, and it's used by hundreds of agencies now. Those kinds of stories are very encouraging.”

Colin Wood Colin Wood  |  Staff Writer

Colin has been writing for Government Technology since 2010. He lives in Seattle with his wife and their dog. He can be reached at cwood@govtech.com and on Google+.