An Open Letter to the US Navy (that everybody should read)

Marv Langston served as Department of Defense Deputy Chief Information Officer (CIO), where he helped initiate the Global Information Grid, Public Key Infrastructure – Common Access Cards, and led the Defense Department Year 2000 transformation. Prior to that he held positions as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Navy for C4I, Navy’s first CIO, and Director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Information Systems Office. In 1999, Government Computer Week magazine honored him with an Executive of the Year award. More recently he wrote an Open Letter to the US Navy leadership that I believe applies to all who are thinking about the right go-forward IT strategy for the new year and the new decade.

The highlight that he excerpts is this:

Although it will seem unbelievable, this analysis shows that it is possible to bring the estimated current annual $1.7B IT costs down to between $600M and $750M, and easily pay NGEN infrastructure conversion within annual operating budgets […] making it possible to repurpose as much as $1B annually, for other critical priorities!

His analysis follows very closely the observations I’ve made over the years about the seemingly unbelievable costs of proprietary software, and the fact that unquestioned investment in the most questionable businesses and technologies have led to near ruin of the Information Age. Namely, while Moore’s Law (2x price/performance imporvement every 18-24 months), Disk Law (2x price/performance improvement every 12 months), and Fiber Law (2x price/performance improvement every 9 months) lay the foundations for exponential improvements in IT cost and performance (see The Only Sustainable Edge for a thorough treatment of this idea), this economic nirvana has not been attained. As the United Nations lamented in 2003 (and many have echoed since), there has been no Moore’s Law for software. And the cost of Bad Software (somewhere between $1T USD and $6T USD per year) now threatens to eclipse the entire profitability of the global economy taken as a whole. Economically it is as if the entire world is slaving away to make a handful of monopolists rich. But strategically it is far more serious than this, which is no doubt why Marv Langston can not longer remain silent. Wasting so much money is worse than mere insult: it is genuine injury.

Marv correctly understands that making decisions to “protect” propreitary platform “investments” militates against the paradigmatic shift to information-denominated assets. As a result, IT is a lost cost, not a true investment, and instead of building assets, we are wasting them. His argument uses terms I have frequently heard in Washington DC, but those terms have analogs in boardrooms across the country and around the world. Every company right now is struggling to recover in an economy that is not very generous or forgiving right now. But the key to recovery is to put an end to the bad practices that prevent one from transitioning to 21st century economics. By fundamentally reconsidering the role of IT, which does have the power to revolutionize the economics of the business based on the three laws of hardware and the exponential improvements demonstrated by open source software (as compared with proprietary development methods and quality metrics), change can be a liberating experience rather than a terrifying one.

What I like most about this letter is that it ends with an apology:

I was Wrong!

In January 2008, I briefed a group of senior leaders chaired by Vice Admiral Mark Edwards (then DCNO for Network and Communication Systems, N6) on preliminary findings from an earlier NGEN Review sponsored by Dr. Gary Federici, DASN C4I & Space. This briefing asserted the potential for 50% “total cost of ownership” saving for DON telephone and IT services. I stated verbally my professional opinion that DON could reduce the associated telephone and IT services cost by $500M per year. At the time, I did not have concrete examples to help validate this assertion. The analysis contained in this short paper convinces me that I was wrong. The potential savings are much higher than I had assumed two years ago. It also helps me understand how fast wave 3 technology is moving forward!

Are you ready to move forward at the speed of open source? You should be, because that’s what’s required to reach escape velocity from the gravitational pull of proprietary platforms.