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

Commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) military embedded suppliers have done well in recent years, but many misperceptions still remain about the term COTS and how it affects the final product deployed to troops in the field, says Doug Patterson, vice president of sales and marketing at Aitech in Chatsworth, Calif.

Jun 1st, 2008

By John McHale

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz.—Commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) military embedded suppliers have done well in recent years, but many misperceptions still remain about the term COTS and how it affects the final product deployed to troops in the field, says Doug Patterson, vice president of sales and marketing at Aitech in Chatsworth, Calif.

Patterson made his remarks during the opening keynote address at the Critical Embedded Systems (CES) MediaFest 2008, held at the Hilton Scottsdale Resort and Villas in Scottsdale, Ariz., last month.

“The military critical embedded computing market has enjoyed an excellent run of sustained and long-term growth,” he explained. “We’ve kept an even pace with commercial/PC driven market advances” and future demand looks bright but confusion with the concept of COTS threatens its reputation.

“COTS alone is not a statement of durability or lack of durability... it is a purchasing concept. Yet some people including some representatives of industry manufacturers continue to disassociate rugged from COTS.”

Many engineers and sales people are coming in from other disciplines and do not completely grasp the differences between commercial and rugged COTS.

This lack of understanding is creating a situation where “COTS products are failing in the field, Patterson said. “COTS failures are affecting the availability of sophisticated complex, electronic equipment needed by our troops. We as industry need to be aware of and address this situation and the factors behind it.”

The root of the problem is that COTS is still “wildly misunderstood in the market,” Patterson explained. COTS suffers when some ruggedized commercial technologies brought to the market have not been thoroughly tested and qualified to every hostile environment

Many companies claim their product is “mil-qualified, but qualified to what level?,” Patterson asked.

Users need to ask for the environmental qualification test reports, he said. “Mil-qualified means whatever story the storyteller wants to convey—tested and qualified for the most robust military service or something less?”

Patterson then went on to define what makes a product COTS.

First, he says, COTS involves “products and subsystems designed and manufactured to accepted ‘commercial’ standards and practices, which may then be modified, tailored, or customized to some minor extent for specific uses.” This does not mean developed under government funding and generally available from vendor stock, he says.

Yet COTS products still need to meet a military programs operational requirements documents (ORD), he added. Defining and understanding the word commercial is still critical, Patterson said.

Commercial can be interpreted in different ways. For example, “commercially available” means items offered under established market pricing terms and conditions, he explained. Whereas “commercial environment” covers products designed for shirt sleeve (0 to 50 degrees Celsius), indoor commercial application environments.

“This is still the crux of COTS misapplication problems,” Patterson added. He then went on to describe a new directive from the U.S. Army to ensure testing and reliability requirements to meet the ORD.

The directive calls for “HASS (highly accelerated stress screening) and HALT (highly accelerated life testing) programs to be in place with repeatable results, mandated close FRACAS (failure reporting, analysis, and corrective action system) and FMECA (failure mode effects and criticality analysis) programs, and incorporated diagnostics, prognostics, testing, and training,” Patterson says.

“To some any commercial product that’s not developed under a government contract and is commercially available is considered COTS—and can therefore always be used for any and all military applications where the use of “COTS” is mandated.

That premise is just plain wrong, Patterson insists. “Products used for military applications, whether commercially developed or not, still need to meet the program’s ORD, which clearly mandates tat the product must operate reliably through the end-use application,” he explained.

Noting that there is a feeling among some industry players that “COTS is a failure and William Perry’s infamous 1995 COTS initiative memo was wrong,” Patterson said they “are right—if someone selected the wrong COTS.”

There are many military COTS products out there that “are available from vendor’s stock and are commercially available and off-the-shelf,” he said.

Patterson then added that COTS does not mean customized off-the-shelf, that rugged military COTS products can do meet the intended end-users requirements right off the shelf.

He concluded by advising the audience to “stop applying the wrong type of COTS for programs that potentially affect the health and well-being of in-service military personnel.”

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