Case against proprietary software on government systems

This has been sitting as a draft for more than two years now so I figured I should publish it.

The modern government is an information processing entity where public servants and software collaborate to serve the people. If you take away any of those two components, governments cease to operates. So it is crucial that government maintains control over its processes to shield itself from interference by outside interests; it is at the basis of sovereignty and part of what makes its area of jurisdiction a country.

You wouldn’t hire foreigners as public servants, so why would you trust your software to outside interests?

Software was introduced into governments by individuals who had no idea of what software was in the first place. It was and is still purchased, managed and used like off the shelf physical goods, but it was already too late when people figured out that replacing a vehicle fleet is a lot less work than migrating from on operating system to another.

Nowadays, companies like Microsoft could make every developed country’s government grind to a halt very easily or severely compromise it. Take the US patriot act for instance, which lets the government request any data from companies based in the US if they deem it necessary even if that data does not belong to an american entity. Another yet even more disturbing example uncovered by Edward Snowden is Microsoft handing out the keys to its encryption systems to the NSA thus actively collaborating in their espionage projects.

The European Union is starting to come to grips with this reality and is moving towards drafting rules and regulations that will make the interaction between software corporations and governments more open and directed towards giving their citizens security and value; unless this initiative gets killed by a lobby. This has obviously positioned open-source software as a preferred choice, prompting changes such as a migration to Ubuntu by the French Gendarmerie Nationale and the creation of Trustedbird by the french department of defense and British Telecom, a more secure fork of Mozilla Thunderbird (an e-mail client) whose code they intend to contribute back to the main Thunderbird tree for everyone to benefit from.

The procurement process in its current form cannot consider open-source technologies as it depends on active bids by companies. Software developed by volunteers is systematically left out for a lack of an imperative to market itself using conventional challenges. A few consulting firms on open-source technologies are trying to turn the tide but they only advertise the tip of the iceberg when it comes to all the available open-source solutions. There has been litigation lately in Quebec following decisions from the government to award a contract to Microsoft without a call for tenders based on criteria purposely crafted to exclude other vendors. A similar conflict occurred more recently when another governmental organization decided to procure MS Office licenses using the same scheme. This begs the question of whether the procurement process is really providing the government with the best value for its dollars.

I could go on detailing how companies are consciously locking governments in their own system by not following industry standards (Internet explorer has systematically been failing the ACID test) and violating anti-trust laws but I believe the previous paragraphs have been sufficient at getting my point across. I have nothing against Microsoft, IBM, or any other software corporation, they make quality products that are most often superior to the open-source equivalent (things would be the other way around if governments took part in helping developer communities improve their software). In fact, they themselves are  increasingly embracing the open development model because they have figured out that it provides them with the best value. Individuals and private businesses are free to spend their money in whatever manner they want, but government are not. They are not profit making machines or fashion following teens; they exist to bring security and prosperity to their citizens and basing information processes on closed-source software is an hindrance towards the achievement of those goals.

The lobby is strong so it is unlikely that change will come from atop. And even down at the individual level, most are incapable of dissociating Windows from a computer as Microsoft has made it certain in concert with the rest of the industry that every new computer around will be provided with a license of that operating system for very cheap (again sparking anti-trust lawsuits), thus never giving the user a real choice. Apple is starting to grind away at Microsoft’s market share thanks to the visibility it gets from its massively popular IPods and IPhones, but at the root, this company is not a whole lot different than its main competitor and in some cases practices even worse methods of locking customers in such as with their closed platform policies.

OD3D: a software oscilloscope for 3-dimensional visualization of signals

Project

OD3D stands for the french « Oscilloscope Digital 3 Dimensions » which means Digital 3D Oscilloscope. It was me and my partner’s 4th year university project. Simply put, it’s a completely functional computer based oscilloscope that works on three axes instead of two. This permits more complex visualization of waveforms, especially in the historical mode, where you can see what the signal looked like many samples ago. Any way, If you want to better understand what it does more than a classical oscilloscope, I urge you to look at the video above and the screenshots below.

It was developed under the course of a year mostly during our free time. Even if it did not ranked very well compared to other projects (try to match the bling factor of a motion-sensing automated gun-turret …), we had plans to continue its development until life took us somewhere else (and made us switch to Unix based OSes). Sadly, it sat on our hard drives for more than four years before we decided that it would be a shame to let so much work rot to obsolescence so we decided to release the whole source under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license so someone can hopefully use it in another project or draw inspiration from it.

The goal of this project was to offer greater possibilities in signal visualization, build a complete, powerful and versatile software oscilloscope suite and more generally explore something new. Someone told us it could have interesting applications in conjunction with sonars (3D waterfall display) and we almost go it to act as a semiconductor curve tracer (Id vs Vds vs Vgs).

Short architectural descriptions

The whole project is actually made of two programs, the oscilloscope itself and the generic 3D engine.

We did not get as far as commenting the whole thing. In fact, there are almost no comments at all in the code but if you actually follow the logic and understand the pipeline architecture, you should have no problem figuring out how the oscilloscope part of it works. As for the 3D engine, I suggest you start with checking the demo that comes with it. Furthermore, it is not completely debugged, so you should expect it to crash pretty often.

 Oscilloscope

During the actual implementation of the oscilloscope, we tried to abstract things as much as possible in order to make the project extensible. For now, it can only use sound cards or a virtual signal generator as an input, but it would not be too hard to use a USB device (another thing we were working on) or some other custom solution. This also holds true for all the modules that sit in between the source input driver and the actual display (trigger and resolution filter), where the architecture enables you to easily build and integrate one of your own (like a spectrum analyzer or a data logger). The whole thing becomes an oscilloscope when you order and connect those modules in a specific manner: Input->Trigger->Display.

Many Inputs can connect to the same display or many displays can be connected to the same input. There are no limits on the number of channels or displays; you can go as far as your hardware resources will permit you. Back in 2008 when we presented it, we ran it on an Athlon 800 with 256MB of RAM and a GF2 MX400 to show that it was not very taxing on resources. If you want more technical information, go take a look at the specificities section.

3D engine

The 3D engine (named Motr3D) was developed as a standalone solution as opposed to being totally integrated in the oscilloscope, this means that it can be used for other stuff, like in the demo that comes in its executable folders, where we recreated a the solar system. As opposed to the oscilloscope, which is pretty functional, the 3D engine is very primitive and will not get you beyond displaying and moving polygons and basic shapes around. From the start, it was programmed to be as abstract from graphics API as possible (it uses Direct3D but it could be implemented with OpenGL), be fully object oriented and have a runtime architecture like a tree, where every 3D object (even the camera) is part of a tree and inherits from a common type. Even if the project consisted of an oscilloscope, the 3D engine is the part we are most proud of because it was both very challenging (80% of the programming time) and by far the most fun we had programming something. If you want more technical information, scroll down to the specificities section.

Specificities

Oscilloscope

  • Supports as many channels as your hardware will permit.
  • Supports as many displays as your hardware will permit.
  • Abstracted pipeline architecture for modularity.
  • Can work with any type of input, but only sound cards or a virtual signal generator are implemented.
  • Programmed in C# for the Microsoft .NET framework 2.0.
  • Has been tested on Windows 2000/XP/Vista.

3D engine

  • Fully object oriented in architecture.
  • Supports many primitives (cube, line, spheres, etc.)
  • Programmed in C# for the Microsoft .NET framework 2.0.
  • Works with Direct3D (managed) but can be made to work with OpenGL.
  • Has been tested on Windows 2000/XP/Vista.

Source: OD3D.zip

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Screenshots