Ten years ago, it was hard to use Linux in the U.S. government. Sure, it was being used by research scientists. Sure, it was running the occasional web server. For the most part, though, Linux was something hard to buy, hard to use, and forbidden in many parts of government.
But all that changed, and it happened quickly. Based on engineering collaboration with Red Hat, the National Security Agency (NSA) released a new security feature for Linux, SELinux, in 2001 and contributed it to the Linux community. This was seen by many as a tacit endorsement of Linux, which had been thought by many people in government to be an unreliable amateur project. It was also significant because the NSA was *improving* the project with their own software.
In 2003, the U.S. Army commissioned a study on ‘The Business Case for Open Source Software’ and the then DOD CIO John Stenbit released the first DOD-wide guidance on open source software, which implicitly permitted its acquisition, development, and use. Nine months later, in July of 2004, the Office of Management and Budget issued a similar memo that covered the government as a whole.
At the same time, Red Hat released the first version of Red Hat Enterprise Linux, Red Hat Enterprise Linux 2.1. The Army deployed Red Hat’s operating system in its Blue Force Tracker system, which lived in jeeps and tanks on the battlefield. Major General Nicholas Justice, the man responsible for Blue Force Tracker, said later:
"When we rolled into Baghdad, we did it using open source."1
To this day, the U.S. Army remains one of Red Hat’s largest customers by volume. Red Hat was recently made part of the Army's Common Operating Environment, which is their enterprise standard.
We were also making inroads in civilian government around this time. NASA, NOAA, the Department of Energy, and the National Weather Service all began moving their workloads to Red Hat Enterprise Linux. The U.S. Census Bureau consolidated all their datacenters in 2003 and chose to standardize on Red Hat.
For the next several years, the U.S. government followed its counterparts in the commercial sector, and began adopting more and more Linux as they were moving from expensive, proprietary hardware to commodity, x86-based systems. The city of Chicago, the Federal Reserve, the states of Tennessee and North Carolina, the U.S. Courts, and the California Public Employees’ Retirement System and hundreds of others switched to Red Hat. In 2006, Red Hat’s collaboration with the NSA, the open source community and other industry partners on the SELinux project bore fruit: Red Hat Enterprise Linux received the internationally recognized Common Criteria security certification and would go on to receive additional certifications in the next six years with 15 certifications to-date. We had a response for those still skeptical about the security of open source and Red Hat Enterprise Linux. This development helped open the doors to the DOD and intelligence communities.
That’s also when the conversation changed. As the government became more comfortable with open source in general and Red Hat specifically, we saw it begin to think about open source in a more strategic way; they wanted to contribute code back to the communities that were helping them, and Red Hat Enterprise Linux was a catalyst.
In 2007, for example, the U.S. Navy collaborated with Raytheon, IBM, and Red Hat to add real-time features to the Linux kernel, which it needed for its new DDG-1000 destroyer. The Navy insisted that the patch be released back to the Linux community.
This kind of deep engagement between Red Hat, the open source community, and government was becoming more commonplace. By 2008, the government was only equal to the financial services sector as a user of open source. We also saw open source policies appear from governments at the federal, state and local level. On the heels of the Obama administration’s election, the Open Government Memo was issued, the DOD announced its own open source community, forge.mil, and Open Source for America was founded. In August of 2008, Macon Phillips, the White House New Media Director, called open source "the most concrete form of civic participation."2 He would later release portions of the software for whitehouse.gov, which runs on Red Hat.
By the end of 2011, the Steve VanRoekel, the federal CIO, announced a ‘Shared First’ policy, which mandates re-use and sharing among civilian agencies. NASA released code.nasa.gov, a project to centralize all the source code released by NASA in one citizen-friendly web site. Open source and Red Hat, were now officially mainstream.
The adoption of Red Hat Enterprise Linux and open source in government is an evolution: the first furtive steps in the early 2000s, and leaders like the Army and the Census Bureau taking us to the close of the first decade of Red Hat Enterprise Linux where the government appears to be comfortable not just using open source, but creating its own open source communities. Red Hat is proud of the critical role Red Hat Enterprise Linux has played in this transformation, and so grateful for the deep and meaningful collaboration we have with our government customers. With Red Hat and open source at the heart of initiatives like Shared First, big data, and cloud computing, we expect the next ten years are going to be even better.
1Red Hat Government Symposium, Washington D.C., November 16, 2011
2Gov 2.0 Summit, September 9, 2009