Military Open Technology Development (OTD) Strategy
“In a real world of limited resources and skills, individuals and groups form, dissolve and reform their cooperative or competitive postures in a continuous struggle to remove or overcome physical and social environmental obstacles. Technological agility should be a metric.”
– Col John Boyd (USAF) [Boyd1976]
Open Technology Development (OTD) has become an approach to military software/system development in which developers (outside government and military) collaboratively develop and manage software or a system in a decentralized fashion. OTD depends on open standards and interfaces, open source software and designs, collaborative and distributed online tools, and technological agility. [OTD2006]
These practices are proven and in use in the commercial world. Open standards and interfaces allow systems and services to evolve in a shifting marketplace. Using, improving, and developing open source software minimizes redundant software engineering and enables agile development of systems. Collaborative and distributed online tools are now widely used for software development. The private sector also often strives to avoid being locked into a single vendor or technology and instead tries to keep its technological options open (e.g., by adhering to open standards). Previous studies have documented that open source software is currently used in many of DoD’s critical applications and is now an inseparable part of military infrastructure [MITRE2003] [OTD2006].
OTD methodologies rely on the ability of a software community of interest to access software code or application interfaces across the enterprise. This access to source code, design documents and to other developers and end-users enables decentralized development of capabilities that leverage existing software assets. OTD methodologies have been used for open source development, open standards architectures, and the most recent generation of web-based collaborative technologies. The most successful implementations come from direct interaction with the end-user community. The open source software development model is successful because communities of interest involve both developers and users.
OTD includes open source initiatives but is not limited to open source software (OSS) development and licensing regimes, which enforce redistribution of code. It is important, in the context of this report and resulting policy discussions, to distinguish between OSS and OTD, since the latter may include code whose distribution may be limited to DoD, and indeed may only be accessible on classified networks. Nor does the promotion of OTD within DoD impinge on the legal status of software developed by with private sector money by commercial vendors.
Some key benefits of OTD are listed below and in the following articles in this issues of DACS:
- Increased Agility/Flexibility: Because the government has unrestricted access and rights to the source code it has paid to develop, and can therefore make that code discoverable and accessible to program managers and contractors alike, it is possible to find an “80% solution” and modify it for a new mission. Likewise, pre-existing government-funded components from different programs can be assembled without having to hack through a thicket of intellectual property rights which require lawyers to negotiate. Instead of having to start from scratch every time it wants to develop a capability, the government can find what works and draw from a broad base of developers and contractors who can rapidly assemble and modify existing systems and components.
- Faster delivery: because developers only need to focus on changes to, and integration of, existing software capabilities, instead of having to redevelop entire systems, they can cut the time to delivery for new capabilities. Even when a module or component is developed from scratch to replace an outdated one, it benefits from open interfaces and standards in the systems with which it interacts. With “goes intas and goes outtas” in hand, development and deployment time can be cut.
- Increased Innovation: Because they have access to the source code for existing capabilities, developers and contractors can focus their time and effort on innovation, i.e. writing the code that takes existing capabilities to a new level, or synthesizes components into a whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts. This is particularly important because of a projected shortfall in the number of U.S. citizens with engineering and computer science degrees who will be clearable to work on military projects in the coming decades [National Academies 2008]. As a greater proportion of software engineering degrees are held by foreign nationals, and U.S. programmers are lured by innovative and lucrative work in the private sector, the military will face a long-term shortage of software engineers to work on military-specific systems. The Defense Department therefore must focus on the long-term challenge of getting more innovation out of a restricted talent pool. It will be important to leverage that human capital by having engineers focus on the 10% of source code that actively improves a system, vs. the 90% that’s there just to allow a system to plug into existing networks and perform pre-existing functions.
- Information Assurance & Security: One of the biggest values of open source development is enabling wider community access to software source. In this manner all bugs become shallow and more easily found. Wider access to software source code also is key for forming and maintaining a software security posture from being able to review software source code to seeing what is actually present within that software.
- Lower cost: The first cost to fall by the wayside with OTD is the monopoly rent the government pays to contractors who have built a wall of exclusivity around capabilities they’ve been paid by the government to develop. They may have internally developed source code (IRAD – internal research and development) that’s valuable, but in an OTD system that code has been modularized so the government can make a rational decision about whether they want to re-license it for a new project or pay to develop a replacement. The entire value of the government’s investment hasn’t been voided by the mingling of IRAD into a government funded system as a means of ensuring lock-in to a particular vendor. With unlimited rights and access to government-funded source code, the government can draw on a broader pool of competitive proposals for software updates and new capabilities that leverage current systems. The elimination of monopoly rent, combined with greater competition, will drive down costs and improve the quality of resulting deliverables, because any contractor who works on a system knows that they can be replaced by a competitor who has full access to the source code and documentation of an OTD system.