If you come across the name Booz Allen Hamilton, it’s usually in connection with defense-agency IT services contracts worth tens of millions of dollars. The tech consulting and engineering giant, more than 100 years old, is primarily in the business of solving big technology problems for government agencies, although it does also work in the private sector.
What you don’t see is Booz Allen mentioned in the context of open source technology. But that’s something that may soon change, as the company’s recently formed group charged with driving the giant’s participation in the open source community picks up speed. Most of this group’s work is focused on data centers and cloud, Jarid Cottrell, a Booz Allen senior associate who leads its cloud computing and open source practice, said.
The reason Booz Allen now has an open source practice is the same reason companies like GE, John Deere, Walmart, and Target dedicate resources to open source. Like the manufacturing and retail giants, Booz Allen’s customers in government and in the private sector want to build and run software the same way internet giants like Google, Facebook, or Amazon do, and they want the kind of data center infrastructure – often referred to as hyper-scale infrastructure – those internet giants have devised to deliver their services. Market research firm Gartner calls this way of doing things “Mode 2.”
“The desire [to add Mode 2 capabilities] is there,” Cottrell said. “There’s a lot of desire. Everybody wants it. We do a lot of architecting work around that.” But while the desire is there, things don’t move quickly in government. Agency tech leaders may be on board with application containers and microservices, but agencies are limited to lists of approved technologies, layers upon layers of review and approval, and a lot of compliance requirements. There’s also a lot of investment sunk in legacy solutions that aren’t yet due for replacement.
It’s the combination of desire and good timing that marks the departments and agencies that are adapting Mode 2. The others will do it when the time is right, which for some of them will be this year. “We’ll start to see more migration where it makes sense, especially for [things] early on in the application lifecycle, like development, test, and those kind of environments,” Cottrell said.
Government agencies and private companies have similar needs but in different orders of priority. “We all want to save money, we want to be efficient, we want to do things higher-quality,” he said. But while for private companies Mode 2 is primarily about bringing new products to market faster, its biggest appeal to the public sector is the savings it promises.
Cottrell’s group’s job is to explore the latest technologies, invest in them, and to do its own research and development. “Go get smart; go to conferences; do training; hire really smart people; just look at what’s new, in particular around data center and cloud; that’s what our team does,” he said.
Although Booz Allen is not a products company, it builds software tools. And because it’s not a products company, there isn’t much resistance to open sourcing those tools. Its biggest open source project so far is Project Jellyfish, a platform that allows a company to manage multiple cloud services. Built in collaboration with Red Hat – the biggest success story in open source enterprise software – the tool has project and financial management capabilities, as well as analytics for better efficiency.
Cottrell’s team invested in building the tool and used it to help several customers fill a gap, but then open sourced it. “We’re not a products company, so we open sourced it,” he said.
Open sourcing a software tool alone by itself is only part of the equation. It’s when a project attracts a critical mass of outside contributors that it becomes a valuable open source project. Creating a community around a project is “the hard part,” as Cottrell put it. Project Jellyfish has some outside contributors, but most of the participants are from Red Hat. Some are from Microsoft, and a few are from companies that contributed from behind the scenes and didn’t want to be named.
For Booz Allen, participating in the open source community is partially an exercise in resume building, Cottrell said. Putting projects out there helps customers better understand the breadth of capabilities the company has. The community-development aspect of open source is another reason to participate.
Much of the innovation in IT today happens in communities around open source projects, and traditional enterprise IT users have started to pay attention. For a company like Booz Allen, which serves some of the largest of those enterprise IT users, it is crucial to participate in open source, since its customers look to it for innovation.