Military Embedded Systems

Interoperability: The dilemma


April 02, 2007

Jerry Gipper

VITA Technologies

Is the DoD doing enough to enable standards in embedded computing?

Is the DoD doing enough to enable standards in embedded computing?

The interoperability of COTS electronic modules is a common problem that faces anyone developing a complex embedded computing platform. Getting all of the modules to work together is a formidable integration challenge for system integrators. Components and modules need to connect easily and quickly into the system: plug-and-play, not plug-and-fight. Unfortunately, though industry standards may exist for these modules, the interoperability of the devices is not always as it should be. Are design standards enough? Should something else be done to ensure compatibility and interoperability? Should the standards be strengthened or new standards added?

Integrators are under program deadlines and are pressed to complete the system integration as quickly as possible. The bottom line is that defense program integrators want common, interoperable, yet flexible standards for their electronic programs. Most of these modules are already designed to their relative industry standard yet they still fail to interoperate in many cases, often because the standards leave a lot to interpretation or are incomplete in key areas.

Pressure on system integrators is only increasing because the current users of defense embedded computing systems are young and very computer savvy. They know how to use computers and expect the latest in computing technology. Their experience with Windows-based PCs has become relatively pleasant over the years as PCs have become much better at plug-and-play. The large volume of users and devices has forced the PC industry to make improvements in integration. Standards such as USB and the Windows API have made adding devices to a PC very painless. New recruits are going to drive demand for the latest in technology advancements, as they will expect components and modules that quickly integrate with no or minimum difficulty.

Defense applications are often based on a combination of hardware and software that is uniquely developed or integrated for that specific application. They may be running one of dozens of real-time operating systems. They are using one or several different computer platforms. The applications are often custom developed from the ground up. The device interconnects often include some arcane military computer standard unique to defense applications and supported by, at best, only a handful of suppliers.

The Future Combat System (FCS) program is one example of what the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) is doing to improve the interoperability situation. FCS is one of the most complex systems integration and development programs ever executed by the DoD. The FCS network allows the FCS Family-of-Systems (FoS) to operate as a cohesive system-of-systems where the whole of its capabilities is greater than the sum of its parts. The program’s goal is to develop an evolving system toolset based on open system architectures and standards-based interfaces.

The scope of the FCS program includes the development of manned and unmanned systems and their integrating network, the integration of complementary and associated programs, and development of the underlying doctrine, organization, training, facilitization, and other functions needed to develop and field a fully functioning unit of action. This required a new approach to complex systems integration. The DoD’s approach is to use a single, accountable lead systems integrator to integrate the FCS family of systems. This integrator has to optimize operational capability, maximize competition for systems development, ensure interoperability, and maintain commonality to reduce life-cycle cost.

Using a lead systems integrator does not solve the underlying problem though. You will still have multiple vendors competing with multiple variations of standards-based technology that will continue to make a nightmare of integrating all of the embedded computing technology. Open-system architectures and standards-based interfaces that are not interoperable will continue to drag down the integration. For example, the numerous choices in VMEbus technology are making it very challenging to select products from multiple vendors and ensure interoperability. Different processor, interconnect, and software API choices add even more to the challenge.

The DoD has also published a DoD Architecture Framework (DoDAF) document. This is a framework for development of a systems architecture or Enterprise Architecture (EA). All major DoD weapons and information technology system procurements are required to develop an EA and document that architecture using the set of views prescribed in the DoDAF. The DoDAF also has broad applicability across the private, public, and voluntary sectors around the world. But is this enough? Figure 1 depicts the DoDAF architecture development process.

Figure 1: DoDAF: Architecture Development Process

(Click graphic to zoom by 1.8x)



The DoD has a great start with the DoDAF but an opportunity exists to step up and work with the embedded community to drive what it expects. It must push unification and interoperability of standards for all to follow. It should team up with integrators such as Lockheed and Boeing. Together they should work with the Standards Developing Organizations (SDOs) that shepherd the technology. The DoD needs to assign leaders with the influence to make things happen, who can unify their own internal differences and work with the appropriate industry SDOs to influence them to work collectively. The framework is in place. It’s time to solve world interoperability!

For more information, contact Jerry at
[email protected].