Will Open Standards Keep the Navy Afloat?

by Ostatic Staff - Mar. 14, 2008

According to an article in the March 6th issue of Federal Computer Week, the US Navy will only acquire systems based on "open technologies and standards."

This is another major win for open-source software; the size of the Navy, and the amount of software that it buys each year, means that open source is making its way into government, just as it has already made its way into the corporate world. However, it's important to understand the difference between "open source" and "open standards." The two are not identical, even though they are related.

"Open source" describes the license under which software is distributed. Almost all software is released under a license, and that license typically restricts the rights of the end user. For example, most software licenses forbid the end user from copying and redistributing the program, or from reverse-engineering it to figure out how it works.

Open-source licenses, by contrast, encourage the end user to copy, redistribute, and modify the software. This often has the effect of driving the software's cost to zero, or near zero -- although there are certainly companies, such as Red Hat and Sun's recently acquired MySQL, that earn money by offering add-on services and support to the base software.

Open standards, by contrast, typically refer to the ways in which computer hardware and software communicates with other pieces of hardware and software. The fact that you can use your WiFi laptop anywhere, without having to worry about whether you're using the Toshiba, Dell, HP, or Apple version of WiFi, demonstrates the usefulness of such common standards. These standards are often developed and approved by international committees and standards organizations, and the process can often get political or difficult. Moreover, companies often try to fudge their adherence to such standards, either by failing to comply with them completely, or by extending the standard in a way that only their equipment can use. But overall, open standards promote interoperability, which gives customers the freedom to choose from a variety of vendors.

Open-source developers don't benefit financially from locking their customers into a particular product. And besides, it's not clear how they could lock someone in; a customer could always look at the source code, learn about the problematic format, and create an alternative. These reasons, along with a strong allegiance to open standards among members of the community, mean that open-source software is typically more adherent to standards than its proprietary counterparts. This gives open-source developers an advantage over its competition, even when the software license itself is not an issue: When open standards are made a priority, those programs that also make it a priority tend to rise to the top.

I should note that the Navy's policy shift comes about 10 years after an infamous incident in which the missile cruiser USS Yorktown was effectively shut down because of computer problems. Open-source activists snickered at the fact that the Yorktown's computers were running Windows NT, and said that the Navy would have been wise to use open systems at the time. I'm not sure if the use of Windows, or any other proprietary technology, was really the cause of the ship's navigation and other problems. But it is reassuring to know that the US Navy will not be locked into a single vendor in its future IT purchases.

Do you think the Navy will stick to this proposed openness?