Military Embedded Systems

Has crummy old technology survived?


July 01, 2006

Don Dingee

Contributing Editor

Military Embedded Systems

Has COTS worked, or has crummy old technology survived? There are examples for both sides.

The seminal February 1994 Mandate for Change speech called for Commercial-Off-The-Shelf (COTS) computing equipment, targeting:

  • Reduced system costs
  • Decreased system design time
  • Improved system performance
  • Reduced dependence on single-source suppliers
  • Combined effects reducing total acquisition costs

Has COTS worked, or has crummy old technology survived?  There are examples for both sides.

Direct hit
One case where COTS has gone right is the U.S. Navy’s AN/BQQ-10 Acoustic Rapid COTS Insertion (A-RCI) program. A-RCI integrates COTS technology into submarine sonar systems in the Los Angeles SSN-688I class and has greatly increased anti-submarine warfare processing power at the Navy’s disposal.

The A-RCI design teams at Lockheed Martin packed more than twice the sonar processing power onto a single sub than existed in the entire submarine fleet theretofore. Living the philosophy of maximum density, they traversed several form factors – 6U and 9U VMEbus boards and packaging from various suppliers, 2U rack-mount Pentium servers, even Apple Xserve boards repackaged to fit, looking to pack more processing into each design generation. The result: reduced system costs of about 20 percent over each generation of deployment. This program definitely hit the target intended for COTS.

Wide left and wide right
I’m aware of two recent examples of COTS selection that I believe went wrong, for different reasons:

The SSGN program converts U.S. Navy ballistic missile submarines to cruise missile firing and special operations deployment capabilities. Its Vertical Launch Subsystem (VLS) called for a VMEbus processor board. During competitive bids in 2002, the prime contractor requested the bill of material for each board. Fifteen obsolete parts were found on the winning board at the time of selection, and the plan was for the U.S. Navy to procure a lifetime inventory for each of those obsolete parts. Buying and storing more and more crummy old technology as the list of obsolete components on a board grows over time doesn’t make much sense.

The Digital Airport Surveillance Radar (DASR), jointly managed by the U.S. Air Force and Federal Aviation Administration, detects aircraft position and weather conditions near civilian and military airfields. The ASR-11 – or its analog predecessor – is the large, orange, rotating cattle gate seen on the perimeter of most large airfields today. ASR-11 decided to borrow proven COTS technology from the Mode Select Beacon (or Mode-S) program, which completed a successful upgrade to a 68040 VMEbus board between 1998 and 2003. One small problem: By the time ASR-11 started deployment in 2003, the 68040 VMEbus board was ready to retire and finally did in 2004. The selection of crummy old technology for a compute engine can be a major setback, even if it feels safer at the time.

Old habits die hard
What conditions help COTS computing gear work for a program? Three seem to be important:

  1. Aligned thinking. Directorate and program office teams and the contractor management teams must not only stand behind the concept of COTS but proactively break down traditional bureaucratic barriers and thinking. And vendors need to be involved in the thinking, too.
  2. Shorter life cycles. Keeping design cycles as short as possible provides greater freedom in selecting computing technology, and planning for faster insertions of new technology keeps the total system life cycle short.
  3. Fixed scope. Design teams should know more about their scope such as how many units they have to field, when decisions must be made, and when systems must be deployed. This helps contain risks, leverage knowledge from previous design cycles, and succeed while moving forward quickly. If the scope increases, the technology should be able to change.

Get off that crummy old technology
Creating any significant change is hard. Vendors, contractors, and the military need to work together to get COTS right more often. COTS board and system vendors are very hard-pressed to satisfy demands for the latest and greatest technology while simultaneously keeping older generations of product alive for what in today’s technology cycles can be an epoch. Get off of the old stuff.

Is COTS working for your program or not, and why? We would love to hear from you, and you can reach me at [email protected].

. . . . .

Don Dingee brings more than 23 years experience in embedded computing as editorial director of Industrial Embedded Systems and author of Perspectives for OpenSystems Publishing. He co-founded Embedify LLC and is currently a marketing professional there, with previous stints in marketing and sales at Motorola and design engineering at General Dynamics. Don holds an MSEE from the University of Southern California and a BSEE from Cal Poly Pomona.

For further information, contact Don at [email protected].


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