As U.S. businesses have increasingly adopted open source software, agencies within the U.S. Government have begun
to pick up on the open source trend as well. As in the private sector, the types of open source software the government is pursuing are becoming more sophisticated.
Last year the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) selected an open source enterprise service bus (ESB) to provide integration support for a system that uses Web-based services to handle flight and weather data for airlines. Earlier this year, a SWIM Prototype became operational at the FAA's William J. Hughes Technical Center in Atlantic City, NJ.
Use of service-oriented architecture (SOA) and open source software allows the FAA to make its own changes to a working software code base, said Ahmad Usmani, the program manager for the new System Wide Information Management (SWIM) project within the FAA.
The FAA has worked with commercial vendor Progress Software, which offers an open source version of the FUSE ESB, to create the SWIM Program. FUSE provides the SWIM Program with interoperable services that enable different applications to exchange data that is crucial to airline performance and safety.
The FAA's Usmani said just being able to go in and access the source code is a huge advantage over past processes.
"Being able to look at source code is a huge benefit over just getting a black-box executable we can't even look at," he said.
Open source software updates are publicly available, but managing such changes requires effort. "We count on Progress to provide us with formal updates," Usmani said.
"When we find issues on our own we can submit a trouble ticket to them and have fixes provided in a timely fashion. But it's always nice to be able to modify something on our own. We keep our options open," he said.
The SWIM program is integral to a new breed of NextGen FAA programs intended to transform the way the government agency builds software systems. According to Debbie Moynihan, Director of FUSE Community & Marketing, the SWIM program will "manage weather and flight data, as well as aeronautical and National Airspace System (NAS) status information."
Before the FAA implemented the ESB, developers used custom point-to-point interfaces. If one system needed to talk to another system they would need to custom code the format and connections between the two systems. Moynihan said using standardized ESBs makes it easier for the agencies like the FAA to connect multiple systems without having to custom code every single interface.
The use of open source may be spreading in Federal Government programs, even within the Department of Defense. In a memo last fall, David M. Wennergren, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Information Management and Technology and Deputy Chief Information Officer, U.S. Department of Defense, outlined the positive aspects of open source software.
Wennergren suggested that open source software allows for faster action in threatening situations. "The unrestricted ability to modify software source code enables the Department to respond more rapidly to changing situations, missions, and future threats," he wrote.
He also cited cost cutting benefits from open source, based on the fact that the Department of Defense could share the responsibility for maintenance of software with other users.
Meanwhile, Moynihan acknowledges that there are doubters within the Federal Government who argue open source software is unsafe because the source code is visible and vulnerabilities can be seen. Moynihan contended, however, that the very visibility of the source code results in vulnerabilities being found and fixed quickly.