Results are in: industry suggests new terms to replace COTS

Jan. 21, 2014
THE MIL & AERO BLOG, 21 Jan. 2014. Three weeks ago I put the question to the aerospace and defense electronics industry: do we need a new term for COTS? Well the first results are in, and the answer, overwhelmingly, is yes.

Editor's note: GE Intelligent Platforms changed its name to Abaco Systems on 23 Nov. 2015 as a result of the company's acquisition last September by New York-based private equity firm Veritas Capital.

THE MIL & AERO BLOG, 21 Jan. 2014. Three weeks ago I put the question to the aerospace and defense electronics industry: do we need a new term for COTS? Well the first results are in, and the answer, overwhelmingly, is yes.

It all started with The Mil & Aero Blog posted 31 Dec. 2013 headlined COTS still an awkward description two decades later; is it time for a new term? In this posting I claimed that the term COTS -- short for commercial off-the-shelf -- began its life as a poor term, and it remains a poor term to this day.

The problem with COTS is it covers a too-broad range of technology, lacks specifics, and is too-easily misinterpreted. COTS can describe Radio Shack- and Best Buy-types of consumer-grade technology, right up through the most rugged and reliable electronics available off the shelf, rather than as a custom order.

Related: COTS still an awkward description two decades later; is it time for a new term?

So when we say COTS, what is it, exactly, that we mean? See the problem? A tablet computer purchased at Walmart certainly is COTS. At the same time, however, a ruggedized tablet computer that meets a wide variety of military specifications also is COTS, just as long as it's available for purchase off the shelf and not as a custom design.

For years we debated COTS vs. Mil-Spec, or what we mistakenly saw as separate poles in electronics design. On hindsight, it never should have been COTS vs. Mil-Spec, but instead COTS vs. custom. Nevertheless, misperceptions and misinterpretations of COTS have muddied the waters now for two decades now, and I'd say the damage is already done.

This is most unfortunate for the companies that do COTS right. By these companies I mean Curtiss-Wright Controls Defense Solutions, Mercury Systems, GE Intelligent Platforms, Aitech, Extreme Engineering Solutions, Phoenix International, and so many other deserving companies that over the past two decades have refined COTS products so as to offer the military the best of both worlds -- commercial design and military-rugged quality.

Related: The revenge of COTS: an ageing commercial technology base complicates military supply chain

If we stick with the term COTS we lump the COTS military suppliers together with the Best Buys and the Radio Shacks, and perhaps it's time that we acknowledged that this is neither fair nor accurate.

So, what to do? Is it actually time to scrap the term COTS and come up with something new? For many, the answer is yes.

Now to be sure, the push in industry to retire the term COTS is far from unanimous. "Nowadays the acronym COTS is well known and should not be thrown away too easily," says Con Kranenburg of the National Aerospace Laboratory (NLR) in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Still, he acknowledges the breadth of the term, and suggests a new one: R3-COTS, which is short for rugged, reliable, and remaining for decades COTS.

Related: Sick of the COTS acronyms yet?

Another suggestion is CORT -- short for commercial origin ruggedized technology -- which comes from Tom Forselles, product support engineer at Rantec Power Systems Inc. in Los Osos, Calif. Several suggestions involve a term many of us have heard before: MOTS, short for military off-the-shelf. Others suggested MIL-COTS for military commercial off-the-shelf.

Suggested terms:

A&D-COTS -- COTS designed for aerospace and defense applications
ASD-COTS -- aviation, space, and defense COTS
C-COTS -- commercial COTS of commercial-grade quality (Radio Shack or Best Buy)
CORT -- commercial origin ruggedized technology
D-COTS -- defense COTS
MIL-COTS -- military commercial off-the-shelf
MOTS -- military of the shelf
R-COTS -- rugged COTS with program and life cycle support
R3-COTS -- rugged, reliable and remaining for decades COTS
Rz COTS -- standard COTS with ruggedized packaging
Standard COTS -- COTS with program and life cycle support
X-COTS -- extreme COTS designed for harsh, extreme environments

Humorous and derisive terms:

COTS -- cannot operate to specifications
COTS -- continuously obsoletes the software
COTS -- common ordinary telecom stuff
SLUT -- short-lifetime, unspecified technology

Other suggestions for COTS technology that clearly is appropriate for military and aerospace applications include D-COTS for defense COTS, R-COTS for ruggedized COTS, A&D COTS for aerospace and defense COTS, ASD-COTS for aviation, space, and defense COTS, Rz COTS for standard COTS with ruggedized packaging, and X-COTS for extreme COTS built specifically to handle harsh-environment applications.

Related: Misunderstanding of COTS can hurt the military, says embedded computer expert

We received several suggestions for terms to describe commercial- or consumer-grade COTS, as well. One of them is Standard COTS, which describes commercial-grade electronics that is appropriate for benign-environment military applications because it has program and life cycle support. C-COTS would describe commercial COTS of the Radio-Shack and Best-Buy quality.

I got some tongue-in-cheek suggestions, as well, about what COTS actually stands for. Might COTS actually mean cannot operate to specifications, continuously obsoletes the software, or common ordinary telecom stuff? Many in our industry have experience with components that meet these descriptions.

My personal favorite humorous suggestion, I save for last. Anders Svensson, product manager for underwater weapons at the Swedish Defence Materiel Administration FMV in Stockholm, Sweden, had the best suggestion of all: short-lifetime, unspecified technology, or SLUT for short.

Related: COTS: the reality

So there you have it, our first pass at coming up with a new term for what we've lovingly come to know as COTS. If we want to pursue this, then let's have at it. Suggest additional terms that better-describe commercially developed technology appropriate for aerospace and defense applications, or vote for your favorite term.

Send your suggestions and votes to me at [email protected]. See the table that accompanies this blog to see what we've come up with so far.

About the Author

John Keller | Editor

John Keller is editor-in-chief of Military & Aerospace Electronics magazine, which provides extensive coverage and analysis of enabling electronic and optoelectronic technologies in military, space, and commercial aviation applications. A member of the Military & Aerospace Electronics staff since the magazine's founding in 1989, Mr. Keller took over as chief editor in 1995.

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