The case for COTS: follow the money

Feb. 1, 2004
Commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) components and subsystems have brought many things to the table in military and aerospace electronics design over the past decade, not the least of which are enhanced capability and reduced costs.

By John Keller, chief editor Military & Aerospace Electronics

Commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) components and subsystems have brought many things to the table in military and aerospace electronics design over the past decade, not the least of which are enhanced capability and reduced costs.

Despites its benefits, however, I wonder whether we are on the verge of losing COTS and moving back to the bad old days of closed systems and proprietary architectures. It's not the technological issues that worry me; it's the business issues — or more to the point, the prospect that too many people are confusing the two.

When COTS first started back in 1994, let's remember, it was all about business. Then-Defense Secretary William Perry gave birth to the COTS movement not out of concerns for technology, but because he was sick and tired seeing the government spending exorbitant sums of money developing technology for the military that already existed in the commercial sector.

Many of these technologies that the Pentagon under Perry was paying to develop were already there, ripe for the picking. For Perry, it was about the money, not about the technology. COTS was Perry's attempt — and his legacy — to save the taxpayers money by refusing to reinvent the wheel again and again.

Yet today many COTS practitioners focus on technology rather than on business, as Perry intended. A symptom of this is the proliferation of technology committees in organizations such as the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), the Government Electronics & Information Technology Association (GEIA), and the VMEbus International Trade Association (VITA) that concentrate on the technological aspects of COTS equipment.

There's nothing inherently wrong with committee work like this; much good, in fact, can come from industry organizations that seek to build consensus on the technologies that are most likely to move forward. Still, many are missing the point.

The big military COTS users — the prime defense companies and their contractors — often couldn't give a rip about industry consensus on technology, and it's hard to blame them for that.

The defense industry is out to make money, not solve technological disputes. Major defense companies want only four things from the technology they buy:

  • the best possible capability;
  • the lowest feasible cost;
  • the quickest possible delivery; and
  • specifications that satisfy their customers' demands.

It's that simple. Notice that COTS isn't anywhere on the list, and it shouldn't be. For these realists, industry consensus on technology is just fine — as long as it doesn't get in the way.

COTS piggybacks on commercial business, which moves at breakneck speed as its purveyors seek to keep abreast of their customers' needs and one step ahead of the competition in a cutthroat marketplace.

As a result, COTS works for the military because it's fast and agile. Yet industry working groups and their painstakingly produced industry standards — with all the good they can do — can slow down the pace of COTS and make it less and less attractive.

If COTS is going to continue working to the best advantage of the defense industry — and by extension, of the U.S. military — then it cannot work counter to those four stated goals; the longer industry working groups take to hash out details in their committees, the more likely it is that they will simply get in the way. Herein lies the threat.

If the progress of COTS technology slows substantially while industry working groups hammer out details of new standards, the users of COTS will be tempted to move on, and often that can mean increasing their use of custom or in-house technology that meets no industry standards at all.

Over not too long a period, this course could lead us back to the pre-COTS days when proprietary technology was the rule, and government customers often found themselves locked into custom technology that only one provider could diagnose, fix, and upgrade. When that happens, costs go up, quality goes down, and schedules stretch out toward infinity.

The industry-standards groups working today have noble goals. Everyone wants to be on the same page technologically to maintain competition, quality, and speed to market. But the working groups have to balance technology and business concerns. They have to remember why COTS came on the scene in the first place.

The case is clear: the defense industry will find a way to meet its needs — with COTS or without it.

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