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Sunday 18 Feb 2018 | 19:55 | SYDNEY
Sunday 18 Feb 2018 | 19:55 | SYDNEY

Defence's IT mess



6 April 2010 13:47

Major Gen (Retd) Jim Molan is author of Running the War in Iraq.

Graeme Dobell's recent post raised two issues. The first, on Defence 'jointery', I addressed here. But Graeme also talked about Defence's information and communications technology (ICT).

My long term education on ICT leads me to state simply that what Defence's chief technology officer, Matt Yannopoulos, says is quite simply wrong. It was under the watch of Yannopoulos and his present Chief Information Officer, Greg Farr, that the Tax Office commissioned an e-business web-page that could only be properly accessed by PCs using Microsoft's Internet Explorer and Windows. That portal has so far cost the Australian taxpayer more than $700m and counting.

Defence and other departments have long had a policy of buying Commercial-Off-The-Shelf (COTS), and specifically Microsoft. Since 1995, Defence has spent in excess of $10 billion to end up with the most dysfunctional systems imaginable (for the uninitiated, PMKeyS, Roman, SDSS and DRMS are some examples; all of them are supposedly COTS). 

The Farr-Yannopoulos solution is to concentrate Defence applications and databases and centralise their processing in the hope of saving money. 

They then put computing further away from users and cause Defence to be vulnerable to interdiction or even simple communications failure. Worse, their plan is to further reduce the number of vendors providing ICT to Defence and so eliminate any chance of competition while substantially reducing the intellectual base upon which they can draw for innovative solutions.

Much of the expense is for software licences. In my area of interest, aviation, the US FAA uses open source software, particularly a database (PostgreSQL) in safety-critical applications where stability and security is an absolute must. 

Both Farr and his successor at the ATO have expressed concern about the security of open source software. In doing so, they expose the ignorance which is at the heart of Defence's ICT problems.

Not only is open source more secure for an organisation like the FAA, there are no licence fees. You have full access to all of the source code and you can alter it as you wish. Before I left the military in 2006, Army asked the Chief Information Officer to accredit PostgreSQL and another lighter open source database (Firebird SQL) for use on Defence networks. The Chief Information Officer Group said it would not agree to the use of open source software. So much for Matt's open standards!

When Yannopoulos was asked about using open source software at a recent conference, his response was that Defence might consider it if it could be supported. But with open source, the source code is freely available. So what's the problem?

The solution to this mess is to equip the military with small modular systems that can provide useful support even when communications are severed. The applications running on these systems could exchange data through any available links — civilian or military — on an opportunistic basis, using open source encryption systems (exactly the same ones used by the major banks). 

Importantly, these applications would be written by a wide range of contractors to standards, building on existing open source applications. In this manner, Defence would have full access to the source code and could use any number of contracting companies to support its software. That's how you deliver cost-effective systems capable of satisfying the demands of the military, not through centralised databases.

Photo by Flickr user Don Solo, used under a Creative Commons license.

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