Collaborating In The Cloud

People in more than 800 organizations, including the U.S. Department of Defense, are already using CollabNet technology to allow geographically dispersed teams to work together in “the cloud” to develop and deploy better software faster. CollabNet, co-founded by open-source pioneers Bill Portelli and Apache Foundation leader Brian Behlendorf, is one of 26 companies named a 2010 Technology Pioneer by the World Economic Forum.

Open source software pioneer Brian Behlendorf, who sports a ponytail and is the organizer of an online music site called SFRaves, is the unlikely architect of a new technology being embraced by the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD).

The DoD has started using technology from CollabNet, a Brisbane (Calif.) company 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 to remote servers across the Internet, rather than performing them on a local desktop PCs or an organization’s own servers, is referred to as “cloud computing.” The emerging technology-as well as the groupthink open innovation model called “crowdsourcing”-is catching on not only with corporations like Deutsche Bank  but also with even more staid customers like the DoD.

The DoD’s most active CollabNet project is a new meeting place in the cloud called Forge.mil. It’s a new 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 the situation.

The service brings together Web conferencing, instant messaging, geospatial mapping information, and data feeds from intelligence agencies, homeland security, and other sources. Think of it as a souped-up portal for generals, with a decidedly uncool name, the National Senior Leader Decision Support System (NSLDSS).

CollabNet is one of 26 companies named on Dec. 3 by the World Economic Forum as 2010 Tech Pioneers offering 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 act 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 leading. 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 and Microsoft.

When Behlendorf and Portelli started CollabNet in 1999, they aimed to harness the same model. It turned out that the success of Apache wasn’t due as 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 mostly volunteer developers. So they set out to create a set of tools for companies and governments that would facilitate the same sort of collective software development. Behlendorf worked 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.

The DoD started talking to CollabNet about building this sort of system some seven years ago. 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 DoD agency responsible for providing IT and communication 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 weapon and supporting IT systems in DoD became clear.”

Portelli is no stranger to the DoD. 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 DoD 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, as 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 code that was developed for the government and can be legally reused. Until now, different government departments were often unaware of the availability of such software.

“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, 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.

Informilo has syndicated its coverage of the 2010 Tech Pioneers to BusinessWeek.

 

 

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