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Open sourcing the government creates opportunity for software engineers

John P. Mello Jr. Freelance writer

With federal agencies facing a penny-pinching Congress, open source software is becoming a staple in the federal government, and that's opening up new market opportunities for engineers.

Wes Caldwell, CTO of Intelligent Software Solutions, said that government agencies are jumping on the open source bandwagon for a number of reasons, but it's mostly out of cost concerns. "If the government hires us to build a solution for them, and we leverage a mature open source project, we can gain the efficiency of building on a mature product contributed to by hundreds of developers who we do not have to pay," he says.

Open source closes the door on vendor lock-in

However, using open source code as the foundation for a desired government solution can also free up an engineer's creativity. "It allows us to put our value-add on the open source project to give the government the best bang for its buck," Caldwell says.

Getting the best bang for its buck has been something the government hasn't been very good at in the past, especially when dealing with proprietary software. "The government has traditionally done a really bad job of managing the software code that it pays for," says John Scott, founder of Open Source for America, a government and military open source advocacy group. "It tends to get locked-in to contractors."

"Government is realizing that it can't afford what it's been paying for," adds Joshua L. Davis, division head and senior researcher of innovative computing at Georgia Tech Research Institute. "That's because in a proprietary situation, someone can charge higher rent in terms of licensing fees."

While savings in cost played a large role in the initial movement by government toward open source, that changed as open source strategy matured. "Open source can provide similar capabilities for a fraction of the cost of proprietary software," says David Egts, chief technologist for the US public sector at Red Hat. "We've seen customers save 90 percent compared to proprietary vendors."

"I've seen government go from consumers of open source to creators of open source," Egts adds.

The sharing economy pays off for government, too

Egts says that participating in government open source projects can pay off down the road for an engineer. For example, the NSA found itself and other intelligence agencies spending a lot of money on secure versions of Unix. That's because it was a big engineering burden for engineers to make trusted versions of that operating system for only a few customers. "To recoup their investment, those products had to be very expensive," Egts says.

So what the NSA did was create an open source project based on Linux that met its security needs. That operating system became SELinux. Red Hat was able to incorporate the fruits of that project into its version of Linux. "It allowed us to provide a more secure baseline for our customers so today every copy of Red Hat Enterprise Linux that we ship has SELinux enabled," Egts explains.

For engineers on the fence about making software for the government, participating in open source projects can give them valuable insights and experience. "It can help you understand what the government needs and is trying to do," says Michael Taylor, lead developer at Rook Security.

Open Source for America's Scott says experience can pay off. "It can give you a leg up in being hired as a contractor because you get to look at the code, maybe compile it and use it," he says. "That's a pretty powerful way to get hired. Not only can you talk about what you can do, but you can show what you can do."

Open source is where the mindshare is

Engineers interested in taking advantage of the government's interest in open source projects have a broad array to choose from. Options range from big data projects around NoSQL, Apache Spark, and Hadoop; database tools; and embedded software, middleware, and containers, Egts says. "If you think of all the hot startups, a lot of them are built on open source software."

And they can use that experience to think to the future. "If you want to quit your day job, start your own software business and move to Silicon Valley, the open source development model allows you get your code out faster," says Egts.

It's been more than a decade since a report from the MITRE Corporation opened the door for widespread use of open source software in the federal government, a trend that's expected to continue in the coming years, says Davis. "There will be continued adoption because changing budgets will force people to consider alternatives, and many of those alternatives will be open source software."

Not only are more government agencies opening up to open source, but more engineers are opening up to it, says Scott. "There's more of an expectation from the contractor base that they will give back to open source projects if you're on contract with government agencies," he says.

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