Military Embedded Systems

COTS: That which can change, changes


June 24, 2008

Peter Cavill

Abaco Systems

The COTS market has unquestionably changed over time. The question is: Does COTS still deliver the values that it was originally envisaged would be delivered?

There can be little doubt that Defense Secretary William Perry's primary objective in mandating the use of commercially available products for military programs was to save money. Stories of huge amounts of money being invested in developing a military-specific version of common-or-garden items such as hammers and ashtrays were becoming embarrassing. Specifically in relation to computing, the thinking was that substantial money could be saved by leveraging the capabilities of products that were already in the public domain. Thus, the COTS phenomenon was born.

But 14 years later, is it still alive? The answer is a qualified "yes": All major U.S. military programs are still mandated to use COTS solutions. (Large parts of the world are much less committed to the concept of COTS.) However, since 1994, computing technologies have become far more diverse and more capable than was even remotely imaginable back then. Military imaginations have, in parallel, increasingly conceived of new, more diverse, more demanding applications - while often demanding backwards compatibility or integration with an ever-expanding base of legacy systems. The fact is that under those circumstances, it is highly unlikely that any COTS vendor would have exactly the right products on the shelf at exactly the right time.

The military, however, cannot afford to compromise its requirements. What to do? Simply, in the very large majority of cases, the major prime contractors now develop a specification - typically with minimal regard for existing commercially available products - and ask vendors to supply a COTS product to that specification. Here, the implication of "COTS" is clearly that this is a product for which the prime will not incur any upfront development cost; it is also a product that will be based on leading-edge, commercially available technologies and for which the chosen vendor will assume all long-term responsibilities using long-established programs. (One example is GE Fanuc Intelligent Platforms' Product Lifecycle Maintenance.) In any case, the resulting product is, in effect, a custom-developed product - at a fraction of the long-term cost of ownership of a custom-developed product. Part of "the deal" is, of course, that the product will be supported by all of the infrastructure associated with a true COTS product: It will have a data sheet, appear on the vendor's price book, and be available to any other customer who requires it (as unlikely as that may ever be).

In fact, it is rare - but certainly not unheard of - that such a custom product will be truly custom. Rather, it is likely to be based on an existing platform. It therefore becomes a custom variant of that platform; so, in effect, one COTS product "becomes" another COTS product. For the prime contractor, selecting the COTS vendors to whom an RFP will be sent is based on the existence on those vendors' websites of a product or technology that will form the basis of negotiation. Of course, it is also fundamental to a COTS vendor's business to be closely aware of the emerging requirements of the prime contractors, and to have roadmaps that reflect those requirements.

The fundamental principle of COTS is still alive, in that the Department of Defense continues to meet its objective of substantially reducing its spending. Accordingly, the DoD no longer incurs the huge Non-Recurring Engineering (NRE) costs previously incurred in developing military-specific products; these are absorbed by merchant vendors. Similarly, it no longer incurs the substantial costs involved in managing the life cycle of computing products through the lifetime of multiyear deployments. This responsibility, too, has been, in effect, outsourced to embedded computing vendors. Those same vendors also bear the responsibility for staying ahead of the technology curve, allowing program refresh in a much more timely and cost-effective fashion.

But are the major programs sourcing existing, commercially available products to fill their needs? The answer is, at best, "rarely." It is now the principle of COTS, rather than the fact of COTS, that is widely observed. This is a classic win-win-win situation: The U.S. government saves money, and the major prime contractors get exactly the products they want; meanwhile, embedded computing vendors such as GE Fanuc Intelligent Platforms develop healthy businesses by doing what they do best - providing the right products at the right prices. This, in turn, leaves the prime contractors to do what they do best. Thus, it's hard to see why the COTS market wouldn't continue to thrive, even if it's not quite the market that Senator Perry envisaged.

Peter Cavill is General Manager, Military & Aerospace Products at GE Fanuc Intelligent Platforms. He graduated in Electrical Engineering, then earned a Masters degree in Microelectronics and Semiconductor Technology. He has worked at GEC Semiconductors, Fairchild, Inmos, and Anamartic. He joined Radstone Technology in 1995 and was Managing Director of its embedded computing business until its acquisition by GE Fanuc in 2006. He can be contacted at [email protected].

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