Defence open source sold by commerce, not ideals

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Defence open source sold by commerce, not ideals

Fanaticism doing the industry no favours.

Open source software companies haven't done a very good job pitching the technology to the defence sector, according to IT consultant Tom Worthington.

Worthington, who was a senior IT officer at the Department of Defence for nine years from 1990, said the industry wrongly believed that the department frowned upon open source.

While open source policy may not be as well defined in the Australian defence sector as it is in the U.S., "the Australian Government isn't adverse to open source," he explained, pointing to its 2005 'Guide to Open Source Software'.

Rather than policy, the greatest hurdle for open source sales was poor communication between the industry and government, he said.

"They [open source vendors] haven't done a very good job," Worthington told iTnews.

"Defence [staff] are not wanting to be converted to a religious cause; [vendors] need to talk the commercial language and work within the way the bureaucracy does things."

When he was working at the Department of Defence, Worthington was approached by open source software developers seeking funding for a new project.

He was interested in the product and said the department would pay for it if the developers could ship him a copy -- but the developers refused, saying it was freely available online.

"In part, it is an ideology; it's very similar to the idea of research at universities, where somebody pays for it but the results are for the common good," said Worthington, who also lectures at the Australian National University.

Instead of selling open source as a concept, Worthington said vendors should focus on selling software and systems that may or may not rely on open source technology.

Justin Freeman, director of Canberra-based software vendor Agileware, agreed that businesses should approach bureaucratic Defence customers from a more commercial perspective.

Agileware was founded in 2002 and sells open source systems and services to private and public sector organisations, including those in the defence sector.

"Open source is a little confusing for them," Freeman said, explaining that government organisations were used to either completely owning intellectual property (IP) or being under restrictive licensing agreements.

"The challenge is IP and understanding what it means to adopt open source software and what they are permitted to do within the bounds of the license," he told iTnews.

SMEs like Agileware were unlikely to spark major infrastructure changes in the Australian defence sector, Freeman said, highlighting better opportunities in leveraging existing platforms and "riding the coattails of businesses like Red Hat, IBM or Oracle".

But "there's no silver bullet," he said. "You've got to come at it on a case-by-case basis and sometimes you win, sometimes you lose."

Read on for a few tips for selling open source to the defence sector.

Tips for selling open source to Defence:

1. Target the right stakeholders -- ministers, military officers and civilian staff -- within specific organisations instead of hoping to gain favour with the Defence CIO.

"Keep in mind that the Defence Department is relatively decentralised, with lots of people making decisions," Worthington said. "There's no point in lobbying a senator to pass legislation that says open source must be used in defence."

2. It is easier to sell systems that users do not directly interact with, as retraining staff is difficult and costly. Desktop software is likely to disrupt user expectations far more dramatically than Apache web servers, or embedded software for purpose-built mobile devices.

"Defence equipment is bought on such a large scale that it is difficult to make a financial case for change. The further you get from the desktop, the easier it is," Worthington said.

3. Address concerns like compatibility and support, and not just value-for-money. Leverage existing infrastructure because "for an SME, your chance of getting a new platform into Defence is basically zero," Freedman said.

"You can't sell it [an open source system] based on cost savings alone," he said. "Their major considerations are support and whether they are compatible with existing platforms."

4. Consider engaging consultants who have worked in the Department of Defence in the past, for their knowledge of people and procedures within the department. Consider holding events such as public seminars to attract attention to technological capabilities.

Worthington recommended discussions with lobbyists, technical organisations and "quasi-academic think-tanks" such as the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, ANU's Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, and Australian Defence Association.

On Monday 19 April, he will address around 50 businesses in Adelaide at an OpenSA event titled 'Engaging the defence sector with open source'.

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