Agility and Innovation

The NGA Turns to Open Source
By Mark Lucas | Published December 27, 2011

Federal agencies within the US government are often slow to adopt new technologies and practices. Over time, these agencies become policy- and process-driven – often due to legislative and acquisitions requirements. Changing the culture in these agencies is extremely difficult and typically requires a high level crisis or action-forcing event.

Deep and looming budget cuts are driving radical change in the way government agencies procure, develop, and deploy technology solutions. Until recently government agencies have been reluctant to change rigid procurement policies that precluded the use of open source software. Several government agencies are seriously looking at open source software and its associated rapid development practices in response to oncoming budget cuts. An added benefit is the technical agility that comes along with open source practices.

The Department of Defense, Intelligence Agencies (notably the NSA, Whitehouse.gov, and the Veteran’s Administration) are just a few examples where policy for open source software use has been reversed, encouraging the use of open source software in critical mission areas. The most recent agency to adopt an open source technology strategy is the National Geospatial-Intelligenc Agency (NGA).

Making the Change at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency

The NGA is part of the intelligence community. It collects and provides geospatial intelligence (GEOINT) information about the Earth for navigation, national security, U.S. military operations, and humanitarian aid efforts. The NGA’s motto is “Know the Earth…Show the Way.” The need for technological agility to meet ever changing threats and planned budget cuts has resulted in a significant initiative to adopt open source software and practices. In a recently released document (NGA approved for public release 11-401), “Taking Ownership of IT Infrastructure through Open Source Technology (OST),” senior management discussed the reasons for the shift in policy.

The OST states that the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency depends upon a very large and steadily growing array of technologies – hardware, software, and complex information systems – to discover, collect, store, manage, process, and deliver raw data, intermediate products, finished intelligence, and related value-added services for customers, partners, and other national security stakeholders. This infrastructure currently consumes a significant portion of NGA’s annual budget to develop and maintain, a cost that continues to grow.

While infrastructure costs continue to increase, the government at large is facing future budgets cuts. If current trends continue, the costs to maintain the enterprise will exceed even the most liberal resource projections. Therefore, we need to reduce expenditures in order to execute the vision for online, on-demand access to all GEOINT and a fresh transformation of the analysis process. It is clear today to the senior leadership that a significant comprehensive change is urgently required.

The Business Case for Change

Licensing costs in particular are killing the budget. Bert Beaulieu, director of NGA’s InnoVision office said, “The last three directors, including the current one, have said that IT costs are too high and growing.” The concern is that...

The complete article is available in the Fall 2011 Digital Edition of LBx Journal.