Consultants advice to COTS vendors: quit whining

SUDBURY, Mass. - The worldwide market for commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) and rugged computers for military applications was worth $943 million in 1996, and is expected to grow by 19 percent annually to nearly $2.3 billion in 2001, yet COTS computer vendors are not satisfied, says a new report.

Oct 1st, 1997

By John Keller

SUDBURY, Mass. - The worldwide market for commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) and rugged computers for military applications was worth $943 million in 1996, and is expected to grow by 19 percent annually to nearly $2.3 billion in 2001, yet COTS computer vendors are not satisfied, says a new report.

"COTS vendors are still disappointed that the growth has not been more like the rocket predicted by some forecasters," states the report, "The COTS & Rugged Defense Computer Market," from Technology Research Institute (TRI) of Sudbury, Mass.

The TRI report, which polled 284 selected readers of Military & Aerospace Electronics (M&AE) magazine, tracks trends in the use of COTS equipment and components in military systems and system upgrades. TRI officials originally mailed 2,759 surveys to M&AE readers.

"One military consultant thinks COTS vendors should stop their whining about the lack of business," the report states.

"Most [specialized] COTS vendors are small fries compared to the huge multi-billion-dollar defense vendors who move this market," says the consultant quoted in the TRI report. "True, COTS vendors are only getting hundred-piece orders today, but many acquisition programs simply haven`t gone to production.

"Here`s the reality: we`re on a 20-year life cycle curve," the consultant continues. "COTS vendors need the patience to wait another seven years when defense programs hit their maximum production runs."

In electronics applications such as military, aerospace, telecommunications, industrial control, and medical equipment, "OEM customers are slowly transitioning from internally developed systems to those that incorporate outsourced boards and subsystems," the report states. "COTS has also blossomed slowly because of selected budget cutbacks by the U.S. government."

There is certainly optimism for the future of COTS in military systems among those polled for the study. TRI analysts asked survey participants to estimate the percentage of defense computer content that has been, or will be, fulfilled by COTS-based systems from 1995 to 2000. Respondents estimate that defense computers had roughly 35 percent COTS content in 1995, and will jump to 73 percent in 2000.

Yet when it comes to individual programs, the TRI study participants are more cautious. "When it comes to mission-critical reliability - a fundamental concern - DOD managers then seriously question COTS applicability," the study states. "Many express a concern that defense integrators will sacrifice defense computer ruggedization just to save on costs."

Other fundament concerns about COTS center on software and software support.

"Creating software drivers that accommodate new microprocessors and operating systems without a doubt presents the toughest bottleneck to new technology insertions," the report says.

"The loudest complaints TRI heard were over software support concerning I/O boards drivers," the report continues. "Alleges one angry respondent, `Too many COTS vendors out there are hardware vendors, period. They don`t do software, and God forbid if you should forget to ask them about drivers up front.`"

Although study respondents are generally satisfied with their supplier product reliability, product performance, and ability to work with them, it lists notable supplier weak points as software support, maintenance, documentation, knowledge of the military environment, and pricing.

Military systems designers who purchase COTS boards by far and away prefer VME, which continues to lead all bus architectures and captures 27 percent of the COTS subsystem market and 86 percent of the COTS board market, according to the report.

As for CompactPCI boards, the technology is still in its infancy, and the infrastructure to develop it, particularly third-party I/O boards, will take years to develop, the report says.

The TRI report is available for $4,490. For more info, or to order the report, contact Linda Krpata at TRI by phone at 978-443-4671, by fax at 978-443-4673, or by e-mail at telecom@ma.ultranet.com.

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