The COTS Alliance: as strategic as NATO

July 1, 1998
Since World War II, international alliances have been critical to the defense of the free world. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), for example, played a key role in outflanking - and eventually sinking - the battleship that was the Soviet Union.

By Dan Baker

Since World War II, international alliances have been critical to the defense of the free world. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), for example, played a key role in outflanking - and eventually sinking - the battleship that was the Soviet Union.

Today, the task of uniting commercial computer development with military engineering cries out for a new type of commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) alliance. This community is not an alliance of nations, but of three very different groups: the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD), defense integrators, and commercial computer suppliers.

Working together, these three partners must produce - quickly and efficiently - weapons systems that employ cutting-edge technology that is easy to upgrade, can function reliably in the harshest of military environments, and carry reasonable life-cycle costs.

Sound daunting? It is. Yet the COTS Alliance partners have at least one compelling - and rather frightful - reason to work together: anyone can purchase the commercially developed technology that will form the technology backbone of future weapons. That means friends and foes alike - allies, enemies, oppressors, or terrorists.

Thus, the success of this three-way COTS alliance is arguably as strategic to winning today`s "technology war" as the NATO alliance was to winning the Cold War.

During the past year, my company - Technology Research Institute (TRI) - intensively researched the status of this new alliance. Our findings suggest that, while the alliance is making progress, the COTS partners are like newlyweds after the honeymoon; they need to iron out their differences to live together compatibly.

Still, the numbers are impressive. The COTS computer market (consisting of boards, subsystems, workstations, and portables) reached $943 million in 1997. Even more promising indications come out of surveys and interviews with 285 defense integrators: the number of computer boards that military systems integrators buy from commercial manufacturers will increase from 42 percent in 1995 to roughly 71 percent in the year 2000.

Of course, today, military leaders deploy commercial computers on only a handful of ships, ground forces, and aircraft. But the big production wave is on the way, according to our findings. This is inevitable because the level of computer standardization and interoperability inherent in COTS-based gear promises speedy development, quick deployment, and an economic infrastructure - with little or no sacrifice in performance or availability.

The DOD - key mediator to the COTS Alliance

The weapons-procurement mindset among DOD leaders is undergoing a vast overhaul; it`s got to. Long, 15-year acquisition cycles are senseless in an age of rapid technology turnover. As a result, military leaders are abandoning mountains of obsolete specifications built up since the post-World-II days. This cultural change promises to bring rewards. Future military systems, with commercial technology at their cores, will eventually boost capabilities by an order of magnitude.

In making the transition, however, a big problem arises: the military is used to equipment lifecycles measured in decades, an attitude and approach that clashes with the commercial sector where the measuring stick is years - or months. Hence, influential members of the COTS Alliance must reconcile these two philosophies.

Enter "technology insertion" - the concept of designing defense systems from scratch to accept periodic computer technology upgrades. Plug in a new board or chassis when the time is ripe, and you maintain a cutting-edge system - with no disruption to the larger weapons environment and no spare parts waste.

Of course, how often to insert is a pressing question, and DOD officials now believe their best strategy is to determine a time when they can replace as many parts of a given system simultaneously as possible. Here again, close communications with vendors is the key to planning - and to success.

Vendors: bargaining with service & support

Large computer manufacturers like Compaq/Tandem and IBM are neglecting the emerging military computer market by paying too much attention to their consumer and business customers. Likewise, a lack of tactical information continues to handcuff many of the small niche-oriented vendors who might otherwise sell to the defense sector. But here`s the bottom line for both types of suppliers: The DOD`s determination to integrate commercial technology has opened up a big opportunity for computer vendors large and small.

To succeed, however, COTS vendors must provide that extra measure of service and support the defense customer requires. At the top of the list, they need to guarantee some level of backward compatibility. Contractors need the assurance that future boards will match the performance characteristics of those they buy today. The last thing an integrator wants to hear is `Sorry, you can`t buy that one anymore."

Defense vendors are tired of hearing COTS computer vendors talk about the performance of their products. What defense integrators treasure most - good communication, cooperation, and flexibility - are qualities tough to find today in the COTS vendor marketplace.

Here`s one example: one who manages an airborne system decided to make his COTS vendor selection first by stress testing the VME boards of two vendors side-by-side in a chassis installed aboard an actual aircraft in flight.

The boards of both companies failed in flight when components popped off the boards. But when the program manager requested that each vendor replace his socketed components with soldered ones, one vendor wouldn`t budge. Meanwhile, the other vendor, though unwilling to completely redo his board design, offered to compromise by documenting for the integrator exactly which components were not soldered. With this information, the program manager was able to add wiring harnesses to curb flight vibration and also to apply epoxy to nail down parts prone to coming loose. That sensitivity to the military customer`s special needs closed the sale.

Integrators are pivotal to COTS Alliance

Back when defense appropriations were flowing freely and custom engineering was flourishing, defense contractors enjoyed near total control over weapons system development and maintenance. The primes monitored system configuration, application continuity, and logistics support. They also decided exactly when to introduce changes or upgrades.

That was then. This is now: the commercial market drives configuration changes, particularly when pieces within the systems go obsolete. What`s more, major weapons systems may require "gluing together" 40 to 50 COTS software and hardware subsystems in a single integrated environment.

To manage such complexity, defense integrators say they believe the best approach is to lock in a particular operating system environment at each technology insertion point. The trick, then, is to focus development efforts on ensuring compatibility with the multiple subsystem pieces in the puzzle.

Integrators are finding that COTS can be effective even in harsh vetronics environments. The United Defense M109A6 self-propelled howitzer is a good example, and a remarkable one at that. "Remarkable" because its computer must withstand incredible shock loads. The howitzer delivers twice the muzzle velocity of the 120-mm main gun of the M1 Abrams tank and literally jumps off the ground during firing.

The existing computer in this howitzer, developed in the mid-80s, was a full-mil-spec design using 16-bit processors. Prices to upgrade to a 32-bit processor ran in the high $26,000 range. So the integrator did a little creative engineering. He eventually came up with an Intel Pentium-based motherboard solution that cost less than half the mil-spec price.

Today the design has proved so successful that it may eventually be used to retrofit the Army`s entire fleet - more than 800 artillery pieces in all.

Tips on working with COTS suppliers

Integrators need a sound, rational strategy for selecting and dealing with COTS vendors. One of the chief goals of TRI`s research was to identify winning tactics that can smooth the path to COTS. We identified 13 key areas. Here are just a few:

- Many integrators falter when they fail to communicate their COTS computer requirements precisely. Yet military applications and environments are unique, so many COTS vendors may not be familiar with them;

- Defense vendors need to plan their COTS insertion carefully. Since so many players are involved in a commercial integration project, it pays to flesh out problems and hammer out differences well in advance; and

- Selecting several suppliers is another good idea. Commercial computer vendors are like wheat stalks swaying in the field - they bend to the forces of market winds. To better ensure future support, it pays to find secondary sources and use several different suppliers.

Widespread acceptance is key to computer standards

Defense integrators need to put the latest computing standards battles in perspective. Widespread market acceptance and product availability are largely driving computing standards today, not approval by standard bodies such as IEEE, ANSI, or even Microsoft.

The bus architecture scene is a good case in point. Recently, CompactPCI has been basking in the media limelight as the "future bus" (pun intended) of the real-time computer world. What`s sometimes lost in the smoke of vendor performance claims, however, is a rather glaring problem - only a handful of CompactPCI boards actually exist today to build with.

VME continues to be king of the hill in high-performance specialty computers - in industrial as well as defense applications. But VME`s real strength lies less in its bus performance than in its widespread acceptance. Thousands of VME boards are available today for defense systems integration. And, if you need a commercial supplier of rugged or mil-spec VME boards, suppliers such as DY 4 Systems Inc. of Kanata, Ontario, Radstone Technology in Montvale, N.J., Blue Wave Systems in Carrolton, Texas, and Vista Controls Corp. of Santa Clarita, Calif., have them in stock.

Of course, the best I/O options are those not restricted to a particular bus standard at all. Here`s one intriguing solution that`s gaining widespread acceptance: IndustryPacks developed at SBS GreenSpring Modular I/O of Menlo Park, Calif. IndustryPacks are low-cost, plug-in mezzanine cards that are credit card sized and mount to single-board computers of any bus structure. Hundreds of I/O options are available.

So ultimately, the fate of COTS lies in the cooperation of its three alliance partners: DOD, defense integrators, and COTS vendors. Whatever the motivation - national security, lucrative contracts, or basic corporate survival - the rewards for success are substantial. And the consequences of failure range from lost revenues to catastrophic defense lapses.

Compromise, flexibility, and a willingness to see the other party`s perspective are the forces that bind nations together. It is also these same qualities that will ultimately spell the success or failure of COTS, and for members of the COTS Alliance community.

Dan Baker is the research director and founder of Technology Research Institute (TRI), a market research firm in Sudbury, Mass., formed in 1994 to track critical issues in defense computers and telecommunications information technology. Baker served for nine years in the naval surface warfare community of U.S. Pacific Fleet. For more information on TRI`s recently published study, "The COTS and Rugged Defense Computer Market," contact Linda Krpata of TRI by phone at 978-443-4671, by e-mail at [email protected], or by post at 730 Boston Post Road, Sudbury, Mass., 01776.

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