Open Source Software in Defense

Sep 1, 2023 | Johnelle Walker, Kevin Martelon

In the realm of national defense, staying ahead of emerging threats is not only a priority, but a necessity. To achieve this, the Department of Defense (DoD) has been embracing open source software (OSS) as a powerful tool in its arsenal. OSS, with its transparent and collaborative nature, has become an essential asset in enabling the DoD to tackle challenges effectively, innovate rapidly, and enhance its capabilities while maintaining cost-efficiency.

We will explore the growing use of open source software in the DoD, the benefits it brings, and how it is reshaping the landscape of national defense.

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Cost-Effectiveness and Budget Optimization


According to a study by Dr. Chesbrough from UC Berkeley, funded by the Linux Foundation and based on feedback from 431 Fortune 500 CEOs and CTO/CIOs, cost savings rank as the most highly-rated benefit of adopting open source solutions. In the world of the DoD procurement process, money is a deciding force, and balancing the budget while ensuring top-notch defense systems is of utmost importance. With tens of billions of dollars allocated to contracts for innovative professional services, OSS has emerged as a game-changing cost-effective alternative, transcending its origins to fuel diverse sectors like automotive, cybersecurity, and telecommunications. Startups, businesses, and even once-resistant large companies now embrace open source’s potential, reaping benefits such as reduced costs and accelerated time to market. Uncovering the true economic value of OSS requires probing its application in various domains, made possible by its open repositories. Embracing open source software allows the DoD to save on licensing fees, customize software to meet specific needs, and leverage continuous support from the open source community, ultimately bolstering national defense capabilities.


Open Source Software Enhances Collaboration and Innovation


Even more important than money, OSS stands as a catalyst for enhanced collaboration and unparalleled innovation in support of national defense. The power of OSS lies in its ability to foster a culture of collaboration, where source code and ideas are shared openly among various government entities and industry partners. This sharing of knowledge and expertise enables the DoD to develop robust solutions with unprecedented efficiency. Through a collective effort, stakeholders break down traditional barriers, share best practices, and rapidly address emerging challenges. This past week I went to see the new film Oppenheimer, and I was amazed at not only the peaks of human intelligence but the depths we could reach together in collaboration. Throughout the Manhattan Project, the brilliant minds of Oppenheimer and his team collaborated to create the atomic bomb, marking a turning point in modern history, and while I’m definitely not comparing the use of OSS to the development of the atomic bomb, there are parallels to be drawn through the embracing OSS, and redefining the landscape of national defense, unleashing a wave of innovation driven by joint efforts. By harnessing the power of open source, the DoD propels itself into a new era of collaboration and innovation, ensuring its capabilities remain at the forefront of safeguarding the nation’s security.


Agility and Rapid Prototyping


OSS enables agility and rapid prototyping in support of national security through its transparent and collaborative nature. By providing access to the underlying source code, open source software allows the DoD to rapidly prototype and develop new solutions in-house. This accessibility eliminates the need to wait for vendor updates or lengthy procurement processes, accelerating the development and deployment of innovative security solutions. Having spent over a decade as an intelligence analyst with the United States Air Force (USAF), I’ve encountered this firsthand with undisclosed programs. Participating in feedback focus groups for these companies, I’ve offered straightforward fixes that should be easy to implement, yet it takes over a year for them to take action. Moreover, the flexibility and customizability of OSS enable the DoD to tailor solutions to specific mission requirements and adapt quickly to emerging threats and changing operational environments. The previously mentioned collaborative development model of open source projects fosters a culture of information sharing and expertise exchange within the DoD and across the open source community, leading to faster problem-solving and the exploration of multiple approaches to security challenges (more on this later). 

Agile development methodologies, often embraced by open source projects, promote iterative and incremental development, allowing the DoD to release software updates more frequently, respond rapidly to new threats, and continuously improve existing solutions. The ability to experiment with different configurations and features using OSS enables the DoD to test hypotheses and identify optimal approaches without the constraints of proprietary software. Furthermore, the open source community’s collective vigilance in identifying and resolving security issues ensures that vulnerabilities are addressed swiftly through updates and patches. Ultimately, open source software’s interoperability and integration capabilities enable the DoD to build comprehensive and interconnected security solutions that can adapt and evolve alongside evolving threats, enhancing national security readiness and response capabilities.

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Security and Transparency


Security is a top priority for the DoD, and OSS aligns well with this goal. The transparency of open source code allows for rigorous security audits and peer reviews by experts worldwide, helping to swiftly identify and address potential vulnerabilities. For instance, the OpenSSL project demonstrated how the open nature of OSS led to the quick detection and patching of the “Heartbleed” bug in 2014, averting disastrous consequences for various organizations. To address their own security challenges, the DoD and federal government are actively developing ways to evaluate and minimize risks associated with using OSS. The Army Software Factory, for instance, teaches soldiers proper software security practices as the Defense Department ecosystem increasingly relies on open-source code, mitigating cybersecurity risks like the Log4j incident within hours of discovery.

Furthermore, the collaborative nature of open source development enables a large pool of developers to contribute to the software’s security. The more eyes scrutinizing the code, the higher the chances of detecting and fixing vulnerabilities. This community-driven approach fosters a continuous improvement process, where security flaws are addressed promptly with regular updates and patches.

On the other hand, some critics argue that the openness of OSS exposes the code to potential attackers, who may exploit vulnerabilities once discovered. However, this concern is mitigated by the swift response of the open source community, as security issues are rapidly addressed and distributed updates are made available to users. Additionally, the transparency of the development process enables the DoD and other organizations to assess the security of the software they are using actively.

Overall, the security and transparency benefits offered by open source software align perfectly with the DoD’s mission of safeguarding national defense. The ability to conduct thorough security audits, leverage the collective expertise of the open source community, and quickly address vulnerabilities make OSS a valuable asset in ensuring the utmost security and reliability of defense systems and critical infrastructure.


Open Source Software Avoids Vendor Lock-In


Vendor lock-in can lead to dependency, restricted flexibility, and higher costs for the DoD. By adopting open source solutions, the DoD can steer clear of these limitations and maintain greater control over its technology ecosystem. One significant example of how OSS helps avoid vendor lock-in is through the adoption of open standards. Open standards are specifications and protocols that are publicly available and not controlled by any single vendor. By using open standards, the DoD ensures that its systems can interoperate with multiple software solutions and platforms, reducing the risk of being tied to a specific vendor’s proprietary technology.

Additionally, OSS allows the DoD to customize and modify the code to fit its specific needs and requirements. This level of flexibility is not typically available with proprietary software, where the source code is usually inaccessible and locked by the vendor. The DoD can modify the open source code to add new features, fix bugs, and optimize performance, thus eliminating reliance on a vendor for necessary updates and changes.

Furthermore, OSS often boasts a robust and active community of developers and contributors. This diverse community ensures that the software is continually developed, maintained, and updated, even if the original creator or vendor discontinues their support. The DoD can leverage this vibrant community to receive ongoing support, security patches, and new enhancements without being beholden to a single vendor’s roadmap. The Department of Defense has recognized the value of avoiding vendor lock-in, and various initiatives have been undertaken to promote the use of open source software. For instance, the Defense Innovation Board, an independent advisory committee, has recommended the DoD embrace open source practices to enhance flexibility, innovation, and cost-effectiveness.


Open Source Software in Practice: Success Stories


Numerous projects within the DoD have successfully embraced open source solutions, demonstrating their effectiveness and value in national security. Linux serves as a foundational operating system for critical systems, providing stability and security. The Apache Web Server hosts government websites, while SELinux enforces mandatory access controls to protect sensitive data. Open source cybersecurity tools like Snort, Bro, and Suricata bolster threat detection and incident response capabilities. Kubernetes streamlines application deployment and management, ensuring high availability. Open source intelligence tools gather valuable insights from publicly available sources, aiding in threat monitoring. Apache Hadoop and Elasticsearch process vast amounts of data for advanced analytics, and communication systems like Signal and Jitsi ensure secure messaging and voice communication. Open source machine learning frameworks enable cutting-edge AI applications, while collaboration tools like Jupyter Notebooks and GitLab foster innovation within the DoD workforce. These success stories exemplify how open source software empowers the DoD to achieve cost-effective, secure, and innovative solutions in its mission to safeguard national security.

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The use of open source software is transforming the way the Department of Defense approaches national defense. Its collaborative nature, cost-effectiveness, security advantages, and ability to drive innovation have positioned open source as a driving force in enhancing the nation’s defense capabilities.

As the DoD continues to invest in open source software, it will remain at the forefront of technological advancements, ready to tackle evolving threats and safeguard national security. Embracing open source principles will unlock unprecedented potential and reaffirm the DoD’s commitment to protecting the nation in an ever-changing world.