Military Embedded Systems

Dancing with wolves: The COTS illusion


May 09, 2008

Ian Colville


Dancing with wolves: The COTS illusion

Enhanced Voice Processor (EVP) units are at the heart of many a military communications system. When sourcing Commercial Off-The-Shelf (COTS) enabling technology for these communications, there are always two key requirements that come to the fore: high density and low cost per channel.

Enhanced Voice Processor (EVP) units are at the heart of many a military communications system. When sourcing Commercial Off-The-Shelf (COTS) enabling technology for these communications, there are always two key requirements that come to the fore: high density and low cost per channel.  Although COTS is perceived as a one-size-fits-all solution, COTS products rarely meet military systems' needs all by themselves; often add-on or enabling technologies must be implemented, too. Thus, companies offering COTS equipment for integration into military standard communications systems should be aware of the contradiction in the real-world use of the term "off-the-shelf." Equally, systems suppliers looking to win defense contracts  -  and needing to source components to fulfil their procurement specifications ? should be prepared for Non-Recurring Engineering (NRE) costs for adapting COTS products.

Military technology has come a long way since the days of William Wallace, who advised his troops before the first battle of Falkirk (on July 22, 1298), "I haif brocht ye to the ring, hop if ye can!" This translates in part as "dance as best you can."

These days, it is no longer a case of simply doing the best you can - making do with what you've got in terms of skill, weapons, and equipment. Today's military forces, from NATO and KFOR to Iraq and ISAF, demand and get the latest in weapons and technology systems. This is also true of communications, with forces around the world being better equipped than ever before in terms of Command, Control, Communications, Computers, and Intelligence (C4I).

Key to these communications systems are Enhanced Voice Processor units (see sidebar below), where interoperability and high functionality are required. However, it is clear that COTS products are unlikely to meet all such requirements themselves, without utilizing "add-on" functionality to provide increased channel density and low cost per channel, for example. Thus, systems suppliers desiring to win defense contracts should be prepared for NRE costs when adopting COTS products.

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Enabling technologies

In light of modern military communications systems' stringent requirements for high levels of functionality, what is typically most important to a defense contractor is a high-density channel count. However, most COTS products cannot meet such stringent requirements on their own. But such requirements can be met via technology "add-ons" to the COTS hardware variant. Often the core enabling technology has to be adapted, such as adding a new codec, for example. And in providing high density, the contractor benefits are twofold: gaining reduced cost and increased value per channel.

Enabling technology encompasses a wide range of hardware and software building blocks for the development of high-performance, wired and wireless, IP- and TDM-based, enterprise and telco communications solutions.

Accordingly, enabling technologies for EVPs embrace two main categories: media processing resources and digital network access. Classic examples of media processing resources include voicemail and Interactive Voice Response (IVR) functionality, where record and playback is used alongside Dual Tone Multi-Frequency (DTMF) detection.

For digital network access, it is important for the vendor to offer connectivity regardless of network type or geographical location. Requirements for COTS amendments could incorporate any or all of a wide range of CAS, H.323, ISDN, SIP, and SS7 protocols. In addition to support for the "vanilla" protocol specifications, the ability to offer national or country-specific variants is vital. Thus, for a contractor, finding a vendor with the willingness and ability to make changes (usually under NRE arrangements) is vital.

NRE and NDI: One-size COTS doesn't fit all

Contractors are following a trend of incorporating a growing proportion of COTS products to take advantage of technological breakthroughs in commercial markets. These commercial products have the advantage of being more powerful, more adaptable, and less costly than militarized products.

COTS products are characterized by:

  • Reduced risk, because the equipment is available and has been proven commercially
  • Faster time to market
  • The latest technology, because vendors operate in a competitive environment
  • Open architecture
  • Support of international standards

Notwithstanding this, COTS doesn't often fit the bill "out of the box"; hence, the recurrent need for NRE. COTS procurement is about making effective use of commercially available enabling technology that can be readily adapted to enable the completion of an end-user system. Since one-size COTS doesn't fit all, again, "add-ons" must be implemented.

There is no formula for the percentage of NRE costs; however, it should be clear that, besides the aforementioned benefits, choosing COTS is fundamentally less costly than scratch development.

Of the many selection criteria for COTS - functional, performance, environmental, reliability - choosing the right vendor is key. COTS products offer functionality that often only partially meets a project's specific needs; therefore, a supplier with the temperament to offer an adaptable, responsive approach to Non-Developmental Items (NDI) is critical. An illustration of this required vendor flexibility in a COTS adaption within a military communications application follows.

Case study: Blending COTS and NRE

One example of how an established COTS product was enhanced through an NRE project to meet high-density requirements within tight timeframes follows:

The client - a major defense contractor in the UK - recently sought a COTS solution featuring an adequate channel count for G.711 A-law, G.729d, and MELPe codecs to develop a voice and data gateway with secure interoperability features to offer into the defense market. The technical challenge was to provide a guaranteed channel count performance, regardless of the combination of codecs in use, within a three-month timeframe.

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Having the other codecs already available, Aculab agreed to port the Compandent delivery of MELPe to its COTS product under an NRE project. This was done for an agreed cost, enabling the client to meet its specifications and deadlines, with a high-density, small form factor, RoHS compliant, single board CompactPCI gateway (see sidebar).

The result: the first such compliant device in the UK, with secure interoperability features. It was designed to provide up to 120 channels of secure, high-density voice and data to operate in either a red or black network. It allows many conformant devices to achieve end-to-end encrypted communications between secure networks as illustrated in Figure 1. Supporting both commercial and military standard voice codecs, the gateway converts speech and V.32/V.14 modem data from ISDN (Q.SIG and Q.931-based EuroISDN) to RTP/UDP/IP packet data.


Figure 1

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Aculab's Prosody X CompactPCI board was chosen as the enabling technology platform employing Freescale's multicore StarCore DSP technology, which functions under Aculab's proprietary DSP operating system. The available suite of media processing algorithms operates under the DSP kernel, which readily enables porting of new firmware, such as the MELPe codec.

The board's architecture offered the inherent flexibility needed to cope with the tough demands made by the client's requirements specification. The end result is a classic example of NDI being applied to an industry-proven COTS product through a short-term NRE project. The contractor's project was brought back on track, averting failure or a doubling of costs from using two boards.

Stand easy

When sourcing COTS enabling technology for military communications, two requirements come to the fore - high density and low cost per channel. However, it is clear that functionality is the overriding consideration as the application or system must clearly deliver on the specification. It is apparent that a responsive commitment to NDI through bespoke NRE is often needed from COTS suppliers. This is likely to be true for media processing resources, the kind of functions found in commercial media servers or gateways.

Dancing as best you can is no longer OK when it comes to military equipment, and companies offering COTS equipment to this sector will realize that "add-ons" must usually be implemented. Equally, systems suppliers looking to win defense contracts should be prepared for those NRE costs.

Ian Colville is a product manager at Aculab, where his key role includes support for the company's global sales force. Ian has spoken at a variety of customer seminars on various subjects since joining the company in 2000. He has also contributed technical documentation, including product literature and several published articles. He has broad communications industry knowledge gained during a number of years employed in a variety of management roles by a major telecommunications manufacturer. Ian's industry experience spans marketing, sales, customer service, and project management. He can be contacted at [email protected].



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