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Interview on Open Source Software

Bob Gourley of ctovision.com discusses open source software

Bob Gourley, publisher of CTOvision.com and former CTO of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), spoke with trajectory about open source software via email on July 27, 2012.

Q: What is CTOVision’s involvement with open source software?

A: We report on open source and track it as a megatrend in the IT community.

Q: Many people are familiar with the term, but don’t fully understand what open source software is. How would you explain it?

A: Open source is a term used in a variety of ways, but I always prefer the definition used by the community-focused organization called OSI, the Open Source Initiative. To the OSI, open source means access to source code, free distribution, and a license of the software that is not restrictive.  

Q: What are some of the most common misconceptions about open source software?

A: Regarding security, it is a common myth that open source is less secure since anyone can see the code. Since developers are given access to open source code, you can look for any flaws or vulnerabilities in the code. If there were a bad actor trying to plant something in the code they would have a much harder time. By analogy, remember the story of the Trojan Horse? During the Trojan War, Greeks hid in a huge wooden horse and entered the city of Troy this way. What if they had a see-through horse? What if the Trojans would have been able to see the Greeks hiding there? We should all dwell on that analogy as we consider whether developers should be able to see source code.

Q: What are some open source software success stories, specifically in the defense, intelligence, and/or homeland security communities?

A: Some of the greatest open source success stories are in our data centers. All data centers today run on open source. Communications software, server software, and management applications are increasingly open source.  So are most "big data" solutions like Hadoop. Open source software, like Apache Hadoop, is driving most ecommerce properties on the web today, including Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and Pinterest. Open source software is the foundation of my web application, TwitChimp.com.

Q: Can you comment on the idea that open source is a commoditization of technology that drives down costs for dealing with “old problems” thereby enabling investment in “new problems” that require new technology solutions?

A: Open source does drive down cost and also increases interoperability, maintainability, and affordability. When management time and attention and IT costs can be optimized the mission benefits. This is very virtuous. Cost savings are important and visible, but keep in mind that mission critical systems require support, whether or not they are based on open source or proprietary. CIOs and CTOs want commercially supported open source, and that costs money. The software may be free but you must pay someone to maintain it and configure it and support it.