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Google to NASA: Open source will not kill you

'Time to blow up some robots'

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Google open source guru Chris DiBona has called on NASA to use more open source code in its aerospace program, urging the government agency to test free software in unmanned flights and "blow-up some robots."

"I've heard people say: 'We don't want to endanger flights. We don't want to endanger lives. Open source software comes from unknown sources.' But that's not what open source software is," DiBona told gathered NASA employees on Wednesday at NASA's inaugural Open Source Summit at the Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley. "Open source software is still software. You have to make sure it fits your mission. You have to make sure it provides utility and security and the 'bug-free-ed-ness' you're looking for. It's just software.

"So much of your software is already being generated – directly or indirectly – from open source code. ... Basically, if open source software is such a problem, then why are you using so much of it?"

NASA, he said, should not be afraid to extensively test open source code with live equipment. "What you need to do is blow-up some robots. It's really OK," he said. "Be more experimental. Unmanned flights can be more risky."

The use of open source within NASA, DiBona said, would speed NASA's software-procurement practices and improve the transfer of technology to and from aerospace programs. The end result, he said, is that projects can come to fruition much faster.

To be fair, NASA's use of open source has been restricted because of the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), which apply to flight equipment. But DiBona called for these restrictions to be eased. "The rules need some looking at," he said. "We are being too conservative as a community in not releasing software that is simply geometry. It's simply trigonometry. It's simply calculus. I would consider – not pushing back – but finding out if we're being way too conservative in thinking the software we release will be used outside our shores."

DiBona advocated a freer exchange of information between the US and foreign space programs. "I know this is the wrong thing to say, but when I see the major mistakes made by space agencies the world over ... I think 'Is that something that could be avoided [if we share software]? Isn't it the major goal of software and aerospace to do good things?"

Outside of aerospace, NASA has actively embraced open source software in a big way. Notably, NASA's Nebula "infrastructure cloud" – used to run internal NASA applications – was built with several open source tools, including the Eucalyptus cloud platform, Linux, the XEN and KVM open source hypervisors, MySQL, and the RabbitMQ messaging system. And when NASA dropped Eucalyptus in a favor of a custom-built Nova compute fabric, the agency promptly open sourced Nova as part of the OpenStack project. ®

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