The US Army: It’s Better with Vista?

Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish fact and fiction on the Linux blogs.

Take last week, for example, when Asus’s apparent decision to join hands with Microsoft and proclaim that its netbooks were “better with Windows” shook things up. Few saw that one coming, we’d bet; once it did, the shock and disbelief were enough to make many look around for the hidden camera.

Think that was incredible? Better sit down for this one, then. Following that little episode of the Twilight Zone, we now apparently have a sequel — no less bizarre, just as surprising. Yes, for the newest installment in our special “Strange But True” series here on the Linux Blog Safari, we bring to you news that the U.S. Army has decided to migrate all its Windows-based computers to Vista.

Smelling salts, anyone?

Space Encounters

Now, before we delve into bloggers’ reactions to this latest chronicle from the Far Side, it’s worth pointing out a few other tidbits — slightly less incredible, perhaps — relating to the mighty U.S. government, of late.

NASA, for instance — while embracing a Microsoft format for its images and data from Mars and the moon — recently said that it will also release as open source software the tools it’s using to convert its content into that format.

Gotta give ’em at least partial credit, anyway!

Speaking of space, bloggers on Lxer were busy pondering that bit of news when DaniWeb’s Ron Miller posted an even more intriguing topic: “What businesses could learn from the new Star Trek movie.” That one is sure to inspire geeks far and wide, and those at LXer were no exception.

‘To Bolster Internet Security’

But we digress. Enquiring minds want to know what the heck is up at the Army, so let’s take a closer look.

The rationale given in the official military announcement: “The Army is migrating all of its Windows-based computers to Microsoft’s Vista operating system to bolster Internet security and standardize its information systems.”

Close to 70 comments appeared on LXer in short order. “Bolster security … oh dear … I laughed so hard I think I wet myself,” sputtered tuxchick.

Indeed, “many will be asking why the US Army is using Windows at all, let alone Vista,” noted Davey Winder over at IT Pro.

From there, bloggers far and wide weren’t shy about adding their two cents.

‘Houston, We Have a Virus’

“Bound to be hacked by the Chinese within 2 months,” wrote Matt Parry in the comments following Winder’s post.

“It’s good to see that Microsoft’s lobbyists are still earning their keep,” added caitlyn on LXer.

“Can just see it .. “Sir! I tried to fire the missile at the incoming nuke (lets, for a moment assume this isn’t stupid), but Vista keeps asking me if I am *sure* I want to do it!” quipped Kagehi. “Almost as idiotic as the use of the same OS on British ships a while back, which took down their entire communications grid (I think it was) …”

Similarly: “Houston, Houston, we have a virus …” chimed in nikkels.

And a positive note: “If the militaries of all nations standardize on Windows, then eventually they will all be immobilized by malware — thus bringing about world peace,” pointed out jhansonxi.

And an excellent point that is!

‘What the Heck?’

Of course, this is reality we’re talking about, and the prospect of a Vista-dependent military is sure to rob more than a few Linux geeks of some well-deserved sleep. LinuxInsider’s fearless blog detective took to the streets for some more insight.

“Wow — this goes against virtually any reasonable approach to decide what technology to standardize on,” Slashdot blogger yagu told LinuxInsider via email.

Vista will be obsolete by the time the Army finishes migration, yagu pointed out. “What the heck? Why standardize on something obsolete, when you already burned in the existing (and more popular, familiar, etc.) obsolete standard?”

XP also “continues to get all kinds of grace availability extensions by Microsoft because of the embedded base,” he noted. “I doubt Microsoft has the time, money, energy or inclination to do the same for Vista. They want it gone; they want it history.”

‘Mired in Document Incompatibility’

Microsoft got its proverbial foot in the government’s door back in 1992 “with NT, and the government’s (ostensibly admirable) fiat that all government contracts be for POSIX-compliant systems only,” yagu pointed out. “Microsoft dropped a POSIX ‘subsystem’ into NT and the rest is history.

“Yes, Windows still comes with the POSIX subsystem — only POSIX.1, for the record — but try and find anyone deciding desktop technology who even remembers POSIX, its benefits or what it’s even about.”

As for the Army’s decision to standardize on Office 2007, “That’s what I want my military spending time and money on — a new interface, buggy (and slow) software with a steep learning curve,” yagu said. “Oh, and now we can be assured that they will be mired in document incompatibility muck, and any exchange with the outside will fight the compatibility battle too.”

In short, “this is not the war I want my country fighting,” yagu said.

‘Perhaps Conficker Will Educate Them’

“The U.S. military uses GNU/Linux widely,” blogger Robert Pogson told LinuxInsider. “Apparently, they care nothing for cost and reliability by choosing that other OS for desktop systems that are not mission-critical. One must assume this is a top-down decision because the computer geeks in the Army certainly know and love GNU/Linux.”

Malware outbreaks that have occurred in Iraq should have “had some effect between the ears of the brass,” Pogson added. “Perhaps Conficker II or III will educate them. Certainly, forming a monoculture of that other OS makes them a bigger target for malware.”

Speaking of malware, “they probably got tired of being humiliated by script kiddies and decided that spending the money on the upgrade is less painful than being owned on a regular basis and humiliated in the press each time they find out and make news out of the event,” Montreal consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack told LinuxInsider.

In fact, in the short term, “this will probably help security — since now each system will be fully updated with security patches, and Vista is unarguably more secure than XP,” Mack admitted.

‘They Need a Single Vendor’

Indeed, “by all accounts, Vista with the service pack is a credible enough operating system,” Slashdot blogger drinkypoo agreed in an email message — “not that I’ve ever really given it much of a chance. It has significant security features over Windows XP, and it’s here today. It seems only rational to move to *something*.”

Linux would not have been the right choice, Slashdot blogger hairyfeet told LinuxInsider by email.

“The US military are practically the definition of ‘long-term support’,” hairyfeet said. “Heck, I have had buddies in the Air Force tell me of systems that are being used now that are still programmed with DIP switches!”

In fact, Intel only recently stopped making the P2, he explained, having continued so long not for embedded devices but “for the US military, which still used them because the P2 is easier to shield from EMP than a modern chip.”

When the U.S. military needs an OS, then, “they need as much of the underpinnings as frozen as they can get, and they need a SINGLE vendor to follow the procedures for submitting patches,” hairyfeet asserted.

Linux ‘Would Be a Nightmare’

“With Linux you have pieces made all over the planet, from everyone from major corps to guys in their basements; there is NO standard ABI, so drivers will be a problem; and everything from the kernel to desktop is constantly having new releases at an insane pace, and all of those will have to pass submission and review before they are allowed to be added to a military machine,” he explained. “Do you have any idea how much work it would take to have all those constant releases reviewed, tested, graded and approved? It would be a nightmare!”

With Vista, however, “the devil is in the details,” Mack warned. “What custom apps do they run? Will they need to be run as administrator? How secure are their custom apps? Given their history, will they manage to keep all of these machines updated?”

Others also worry about the government’s ability to manage the software.

“I oppose government, so I don’t like this,” Monochrome Mentality blogger Kevin Dean told LinuxInsider. “Even with the best operating system, access to the best programmers, the latest hardware and all the time in the world, if any group of people are capable of ruining something, it’s folks calling themselves government. They simply have no incentive to perform well or efficiently.”

‘Gotta Give Microsoft Credit’

Are there any upsides to the story?

“I’m sure Web designers everywhere will be celebrating the huge drop in machines running old copies of IE,” Mack said.

Looking at the big picture, “you gotta give Microsoft credit — it’s a brilliant strategy to find large demographics and convince them to ‘upgrade’,” yagu pointed out. “The early adopters pull the rest along because it’s too important not to stay compatible.”

The reality, however, may be another story.

“I don’t know about anyone else, but I find it disturbing to think that Army personnel saving a Word document in compatibility mode for someone else not upgraded loses information critical to our national security,” yagu concluded. “It’s a not-so-funny joke that our military may be reading different versions of what should be identical information that could be vital to our nation’s security.”

1 Comment

  • Honestly, you can’t claim a "standard driver ABI" is an advantage for Vista. Each release of Windows changes the driver ABI, and a major reason that Windows 7 is performing better than Vista with the same feature-set and more, is because Vista had such a terrible driver ABI that 7 is cleaning up. Drivers were handled extremely poorly in Vista, and many manufacturers had trouble putting out decent drivers for Vista.

    The military will soon learn that some of their hardware and peripherals won’t have drivers under Vista. Not only does Vista need higher system specs to begin with, but old printers suddenly have to be replaced as well.

    Microsoft "signs" drivers, but doesn’t host them completely in a centralized place, and third-party vendors stop hosting drivers on their sites. Finding Windows drivers is often a complete pain. Furthermore, just because Microsoft "signed" a driver, that doesn’t mean they looked at the code, or verified the quality of the driver.

    Conversely, Linux does have a standard driver ABI which hasn’t changed too drastically since the advent of the 2.6.x kernel line. All drivers are in the kernel, so you don’t have to hunt for them. More hardware is supported. And if and when the ABI changes, since the drivers are open-source and in the kernel, all the drivers get updated along with the ABI change.

    Certainly Linux has some failings in hardware drivers (proprietary video drivers, and some wireless chipsets come to mind) but that doesn’t mean Linux doesn’t have several advantages over Windows when it comes to drivers.

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