Open-source software pioneer Brian Behlendorf, who sports a ponytail and organized an online music site called SFRaves, is the unlikely architect of a new technology being embraced by the U.S. Defense Dept.
The DOD has started using technology from CollabNet, a Brisbane, Calif., company that Behlendorf co-founded with Bill Portelli, another open-source veteran, to provide an online meeting place in the Internet "cloud" for U.S. military agencies to build software through "crowdsourcing".
Parceling out computing tasks and storage to remote servers across the Internet, rather than to local desktop PCs or an organization's own servers, is referred to as "cloud. The emerging technology—as well as the groupthink open-innovation model called "crowdsourcing—is catching on not only with corporations such as Deutsche Bank (DB) but also with even more staid customers such as the DOD.
The Pentagon's most active CollabNet project is a new military meeting place in the cloud called Forge.mil. It's an online service that will let the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other senior defense officials use Web 2.0 mash-up tools in times of crisis to confer quickly and share a common picture of a situation. The service brings together Web conferencing, instant messaging, geospatial mapping information, and data feeds from intelligence agencies, the Homeland Security Dept., and other sources. Think of it as a souped-up portal for generals, with a decidedly unsexy name: the National Senior Leader Decision Support System (NSLDSS).
Behlendorf led Apache server project
CollabNet is one of 26 companies named on Dec. 3 by the World Economic Forum as 2010 Tech Pioneers that have dreamed up new technologies or business models that could advance the global economy and have a positive impact on peoples' lives.
Software development has been moving for some time away from a traditional "silo" approach, in which companies acted on their own to build standalone systems, toward a more distributed and shared model. Indeed, one secret of CollabNet's success can be found in the Apache open-source Web server project in the 1990s that Behlendorf is credited with having led. The free software was developed by a very small set of software programmers—most of whom never met each other—collaborating around the world. It managed to quickly seize the leading Web server market position away from giants IBM (IBM) and Microsoft (MSFT). (CollabNet itself is also competing in a sense with collaboration tools from both companies, IBM's Lotus Notes and Microsoft's Sharepoint.)
When Behlendorf and Portelli started CollabNet in 1999, they aimed to harness the same open-source model. It turned out that the success of Apache wasn't due so much to its low cost as to the fact that its development (and continued improvement) tapped into the collective intelligence of a global community of mainly volunteer developers. So they set out to create a set of tools for companies and governments that would facilitate a similar sort of collective software development. Behlendorf served as CollabNet's chief technology officer until 2007, and now maintains an active role on the company's board.
Today, CollabNet has more than 800 customers, with over 2 million users in more than 100 countries. The company generates subscription revenue through software licensing, as well as fees earned for support, services, and add-ons for its software.
Forge.mil: 3,700 users, 160 projects
The Pentagon started talking to CollabNet about building this sort of system in 2002. Progress was slow until about 15 months ago, when two things changed, says CollabNet chief executive Portelli. First, the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA), the Defense Dept. agency responsible for providing IT and communications services to the White House and the military, was encouraged to move in this direction under the Obama Administration, says Portelli. Secondly, the "notion of centralized cloud computing has became an accepted and understood way of doing software development and deployment," he says. "So the path to reducing the cost of developing defense weapons and supporting IT systems in DOD became clear."
Portelli is no stranger to the Defense Dept. In a previous job he helped streamline the economics of building F-22 fighter planes in the 1980s by introducing the DOD to the benefits of simulation software.
The Pentagon contracted with CollabNet to build Forge.mil in order to build better software faster and cut costs, says Rob Vietmeyer, project director of Forge.mil, which is operated by DISA. The secured site, accessible by DOD personnel and supporting contractors, has 3,700 registered users involved in some 160 projects.
Forge.mil not only helps software developers collaborate, it also aims to cut down on duplication of IT efforts in military branches. Services can check to see if a component has already been developed elsewhere before commissioning it, says Vietmeyer. What's more, it can serve as a hub for software that was developed for the U.S. government and can be legally reused. Until now, different government departments were often unaware of the availability of such programs.
"Major software programs for the DOD took too long and cost too much, and we couldn't rapidly adapt new technologies to mission needs," says Vietmeyer. CollabNet's tools, he says, "give us greater speed and greater agility."
CollabNet says that in general it can offer productivity improvement of 10% to 50% and reduce the cost of software development by up to 80%. That's bound to be welcome news for a military fighting wars on two fronts.