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NASA hosts its first open source summit

Mar 31, 2011 — by LinuxDevices Staff — from the LinuxDevices Archive — 2 views

With tight budgets ahead as far as the eye can see, NASA is increasingly looking toward open source technology and the help of a volunteer community to help out. The U.S. space agency hosted its first Open Source Summit this week to reach out to the open source community and explain its often confusing and incompatible open source license.

NASA has a simple, one-word answer for those who have ever asked any of the following questions: Does the U.S. government space agency use open source software in research, testing and production? Does it develop its own software and work within a community in an open source manner? And does it distribute open source software back to the community, once it's been vetted and sanctioned as ready for prime time by federal IT chiefs?

The answer to each of the above, of course, is yes. But legal caveats, fine print and the amorphous character of software itself make it much more complicated than all that. 

NASA on March 29 and 30 hosted its first-ever Open Source Summit at the Ames Research Center at the former Naval Air Station (NAS) Moffett Field, now known as the Moffett Federal Airfield. Located in Mountain View, Calif., this is generally the destination for Air Force One and Air Force Two when the president and vice president visit the San Francisco Bay Area.

Speakers at the event included Google free and open source evangelist Chris DiBona; Pascal Finette, director of Mozilla Labs; Bob Sutor, vice president of Open Systems at IBM; and Red Hat CTO Brian Stevens.

The main point was to bring open source and government software development into the front court, so more conversations can start up around the topic. It's well-known that the U.S. government needs to freshen up its whole IT apparatus, and with budgets being as tight as they are, open source and the help of a volunteer community looks like an awfully good answer for some of that project building.

NASA's open source license "incompatible" with others

NASA has its own open source license, but potential contractors should understand that it is "incompatible with every other known open source software license," explained NASA's open source legal guru, David Wheeler to a group of journalists and assorted guests on Day 1 of the conference.

In fact, it shouldn't be a surprise to anybody who's ever worked with the federal government that each federal department in its massive bureaucracy has a slightly different approach to open source software use, development, and distribution as it pertains to each of their missions.

Thus, it behooves software developers who are interested in various government projects to make sure they have all the legalese in front of them before committing to work on the project, said Wheeler, who works on behalf of NASA at the Institute for Defense Analysis in the Department of Defense. This legal homework is necessary whether the job's as small as writing a widget for a control panel or as complicated as helping out on an ultra-sensitive aerospace initiative, he added.

So much for keeping things simple.

"We have to do it this way," said Wheeler:

We all have to develop different software for the missions we have to do, and we have different needs for community support. For example, NASA tends to build things [IT] on a truly cosmic scale, as you might imagine. We can and do release a lot of software to the open source community, but how many other organizations are realistically going to have use for that kind of scale-out software?

Wheeler also made a point with which most open source community members probably will not agree. "All software — open source or not — is commercial software," he declared, without equivocation.

Wheeler added:

There is no such thing as non-commercial software. Period. All software leads to some kind of commercial usage, whether it is for monetary compensation or whether it is for some other kind of softer compensation, like recognition or publicity or whatever. All of these types of compensation have some kind of value to the developer.

Most open source software uses a give-away-for-free "hook" version that is intended to become so useful to the user that he or she eventually wants to buy the full-featured version, Wheeler said. "What is that but commercialized software?" he asked.

DiBona: Blow up more space robots

Google's colorful Chris DiBona (right), speaking on Day 2 of the event, told attendees at the summit that NASA should not be afraid to be more experimental and consider using more open source code to test software in unmanned flights.  "They should not be afraid to blow up some robots once in a while," said DiBona.

"Unmanned flights can afford to take more risks," DiBona continued. "People say, 'We don't want to endanger [manned] flights. We don't want to endanger lives. Open source software comes from unknown sources.' But that couldn't be further from the truth. Open source software comes from communities who've worked closely on it."

However, open source software is just software, and you still have to make sure it fits your mission, DiBona said.

"You have to make sure it provides utility and security and the 'bug free-ness' you're looking for," he said. "So much of the regular software we use is generated — directly or indirectly — from open source code. If open source software is such a problem [to deal with legally], then why are we using so much of it?"

NASA's use of open source has been restricted in past years due to the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) of the U.S. State Department, which apply directly to aerospace equipment. DiBona argued that these restrictions ought to be eased.

If NASA's IT group used more open source software, DiBona said, the help of the community would save time and tax dollars, as well as speed up transfer of technology to and from aerospace programs. It also would accelerate NASA's software-procurement practices, he said.

The result, he said, is that projects would be completed much faster and for far less capital expense.

"The rules need some looking at," DiBona said. "We are being too conservative as a community in not releasing software that is simply geometry or trigonometry or calculus."

In other NASA coverage this week on eWEEK, Computer Sciences Corp. (CSC) secured a $59 million contract option from NASA for supercomputing support, and an Inspector General audit found security vulnerabilities in NASA networks that could have endangered Space Shuttle, International Space Station, and Hubble Telescope missions.

Chris Preimesberger is a writer for eWEEK.

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