Israeli Army Opts for Open-source Technology

Ruby on Rails and Python among the new open-source software courses being taught to recruits

One of the incoming classes of Israeli army recruits specializing in computers is about to get training on Python, among the most in-demand software languages in the high-tech sector. Another software language in widespread use in the commercial sector, Ruby on Rails, is already being taught.

These courses are part of a broader technological shift in the computer technology taught by the Israel Defense Force.

Unlike closed-source software, which is licensed by a particular company and cannot be altered by outsiders, open-source software is free and can be modified by users. In recent years high-tech companies, including many of the world’s largest, have favored open-source products. But the army − a key training ground for Israel’s future engineers − had deprived its recruits training and experience in open-source. Thus, the IDF’s decision has important implications for Israeli industry.

The shift within the IDF is particularly apparent in a new joint platform, called Yohanan, which was put in place in August that enables soldiers from various units to use open-source software components created within the Israeli military, components that have been adapted and verified to ensure that they meet information security standards. The U.S. Defense Department developed a similar system in 2009 called Forge.mil.

In the case of Yohanan, it has been introduced for use in dozens of projects, mostly for land-based forces but also to a small extent in the air force, and some of the software is already operational. In a few instances, open-source computer code developed by Yohanan has found its way into the civilian sector for unrestricted use around the world.

“We’ll adopt open code for most of the places where it’s feasible,” said Brig. Gen. Danny Bren, the commander of the IDF Computer Service Directorate’s Lotem unit. “In another few years, I expect that open code will be used in over 50% of the IDF’s systems.”

Bren said the shift was not necessarily driven by cost considerations, but rather by the desire to ensure the army’s capacity to quickly meet operational needs. “It’s obvious, however, that it can’t happen everywhere,” he said, citing as an example that open code would not be used in operational weaponry such as missile systems.

“Until 10 years ago the operating systems were proprietary − technology from companies like Microsoft and Oracle,” Bren explained, “but they were also of the type that was difficult to adapt quickly to changing needs. Like other entities, we got ourselves into a situation in which we were locked into suppliers, some of which had gained very high [market] dominance.”

Bren said the IDF was moving forward with determination in the shift toward open-source code, but was doing so carefully and with an eye to cyber security.

Moti Milrod