The use of open source software might seem paradoxical inside the Defense Department or at best, a relatively recent development.

It would be a mistake, however, to assume that the government has only recently discovered open source software, said Dan Risacher, associate director for information enterprise strategy and policy in the DOD Chief Information Officer’s office.

Risacher, speaking at technology symposium last week, noted that the DOD has been using open source software for more than a decade, adding that the reach and scope of those applications continues to grow, especially with the widespread adoption of cloud computing environments.

Open source software, offers a number of advantages to DoD and government agencies, he said. It allows agency IT staffs to move away from proprietary applications and single vendor contracts. It also lowers the cost of long term development and lifecycle management. And it avoids vendor lock in – where an agency is reliant on a single firm for maintenance and upkeep of a system.

Open source also means that the government gets to own the intellectual property associated with the software. This is a standard procedure for the DOD, Risacher said during the Red Hat Government Symposium in Washington, Oct. 23. The government gets unlimited rights to using the software. All of the rights specified in the Copyrights Act that affect private firms also holds true for federally developed intellectual property, he said.

But there are also qualitative benefits, in part because a broader community of developers helps to continually enhance open source software, giving it greater stability, flexibility, reliability and a competitive edge, said John Marshall senior information systems technologist for the Joint Staff Intelligence Directorate, Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Defense Information Agency.

The open source developer community tends to attract very motivated and innovative developers who are not part of corporate culture and tend to think outside the box. Marshall noted that open source software also has better access to source code and debugging tools. Users are also treated as co-developers. This coupled with modulization, frequent updates and the dynamic environment in development circles leads to very high quality software, he said.

He also noted that the peer review, common in the open source community, is important to developers, and leads to better code and more reliable software that adheres to the standards of the community, Marshall said. “You’re able to build tools for a larger customer base, and therefore you’re able to share that back into the community,” he said.

Flexibility is another point for open source software because it allows the user community to choose solutions suitable for their needs. This is critical for software components because in building the back end of an IT system, Marshall said that open software allows organizations to pick and choose their providers, which is important for cost and control reasons.

He added that open source systems tend to feature reduced copies in use, reduced overhead, reduced need for upgrades, and lower management costs. There are also longer uptimes, reduced need for expensive systems administrators, and the ability to run on older hardware, which saves on lifecycle costs, he said.

That helps keep costs down. From a business perspective, Marshall noted that software cost is just one facet, it is the total cost of ownership that really matters.

“In practice, the track record of open source projects is good to exceptional when dealing in the commercial market,” Marshall said.

But despite its use, many misconceptions remain about open source software within the DOD and government, Risacher said. One common misconception is that open source software is free. There may be no upfront expenses associated with the software, but there are costs, he said. When deploying open source software, organizations must think about its lifecycle and maintenance, all of which impact their budgets.