The NGA Turns to Open Source
By Mark Lucas

asktrik BACKGROUND The author and RadiantBlue Technologies Inc. have been heavily involved in introducing open source software and practices into the federal government over the last several years. Our Open Technologies Division has helped shape Department of Defense (DOD) policy with the “Open Technology Development Roadmap” in 2006 and more recently with the “Open Technology Development (OTD): Lessons Learned & Best Practices for Military Software,” released in May of 2011. As an integrator of open source technologies, we have deployed mission-critical systems such as Omar (Online satellite image processing) into the intelligence community.

arrows03 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,, 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).

This article outlines the NGA’s business case for moving towards an open source software technology strategy. The financial, technical, and operational reasons behind their policy change are discussed.

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 Infrastruc- ture 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, ondemand access to all GEOINT and a fresh trans- formation 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 Inno- Vision office said, “The last three directors, including the current one, have said that IT costs are too high and growing.” The concern is that absent a change in technology strategy, more of those costs will go to “non-productive,” non-mission-critical IT maintenance. The OST outlined the resources, time to market, and competitiveness concerns behind the financial, technical, and operational reasons for change:

FINANCIAL: Current resource projections do not permit transformation to an architecture that would support significant innovation, exploration, and exploitation of emerging candidate technologies; in order to fund the future of NGA, we must reduce the costs of today’s infrastructure.

TECHNICAL: Traditional commercial software
development often requires multiple years and several generations of software before a product is considered mature and operationally viable; in order to respond to emerging threats and exploit dynamic opportunities, we must reduce the time required to identify, select, implement, tailor, and deploy technology products.

OPERATIONAL: Continued reliance on slowly-evolving commercial technologies, at a time when our adversaries can improvise, adapt, and place new capabilities into operation in near real-time, places NGA, and more importantly, our operational military partners, at signi cantly increased risk. In order to match and exceed the pace of tactical operations, we must expedite the e ective delivery of relevant capabilities to the point of the spear.

The NGA has determined that the current technology framework is a financial obstacle to meeting the future needs of the agency, and that it can “no longer afford to continue with business as usual.”
The NGA recognizes that this is an enormous undertaking and has initiated an outreach effort to publicly announce their intentions and solicit assistance in this transition. Related presentations have been given at the USGIF, MIL-OSS, FOSS4G, and GEOINT conferences. Outside consultations with other government agencies, open source and geospatial communities, as well as leading open source software advocates are also in progress.

Benefits/advantages of adopting an open source software plan:

→ Reduced total cost
Increased quality and reliability
→ Increased security
→ Increased exibility to tailor or customize to meet our requirements
→ Simpler, more user-friendly interfaces
→ More network-friendly
→ Greater interoperability
Significantly easier/simpler license management
→ Greatly reduced dependence on commercial vendors
→ Competition and transparency drive increased quality

Crossing the Culture Chasm

As with other organizations, this new approach will be introduced carefully so as to not impact security, operational commitments, or requirements for technical excellence. Open source alternatives for enterprise infrastructure, geospatial technologies, databases, collaborative tools and advanced social networking solutions will be prototyped, tested, and evaluated for transition into the agency.
The problem is not technical; it is cultural. Government attendees at the recent Free Open Source Software for Geo-spatial Conference (FOSS4G) in Denver were amazed at the variety and depth of open source geospatial offerings. According to OSGeo, “There are now 19,471 unique subscribers to OSGeo, more than 400 mailing lists, and more than 15 million lines of code, with 740 contributors, and 269 who have contributed for more than 12 months.” Additionally, a wide range of businesses and consultants now provide technical support and professional services around these projects.

In summary, the need for technological agility and planned budget cuts is influencing federal agencies to adopt open source software solutions and approaches. RadiantBlue Technologies and the OSGeo Foundation are examples of corporate and organizational resources that are assisting the government as they make the transition. This approach promises more efficient use of government resources by applying the latest technology and standards that are being driven by the open source software world.

Additional policy and background material can be found at:

lucas_portraitasktrik BIO Mark Lucas has pioneered e orts in Open Source Software Development in remote sensing, image processing and geographical information systems. Mark established and has led several government funded studies and development e orts since 1996. These e orts include the Open Source Software Image Map (OSSIM) projects for the NRO, the Open Source Prototype Research and Open Source Extraordinary Program projects for NGA. He was one of the authors of the Open Technology Roadmap for the Department of Defense. Mark has a BS in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from the University of Arizona and an MS in Computer Science from West Coast University; he was commissioned in the Air Force and assigned to the Secretary of the Air Force Special Projects organization. He has experience as both a government and contractor program manager through a number of classi ed programs. He is on the Board of Directors of the Open Source Geospatial Foundation, the Open Source Software Institute, and the National Center for Open Source Policy and Research. Mark is currently a principal scientist at RadiantBlue Technologies Inc. He can be reached at: