Matra BAe Dynamics derives a strategic advantage from implementing process configuration management

Jan. 1, 1998
A joint venture between Matra and British Aerospace called Matra BAe Dynamics incorporates almost half the French and the greater part of the British missile industry. It is Europe`s leading guided weapons company and the fourth largest in the world. The organization offers leading-edge solutions for most types of guided weapon systems, unmanned aerial vehicles, and countermeasures for navies, armies, and air forces across the world. The company`s customer base spans almost 40 countries.

By Tani Haque

A joint venture between Matra and British Aerospace called Matra BAe Dynamics incorporates almost half the French and the greater part of the British missile industry. It is Europe`s leading guided weapons company and the fourth largest in the world. The organization offers leading-edge solutions for most types of guided weapon systems, unmanned aerial vehicles, and countermeasures for navies, armies, and air forces across the world. The company`s customer base spans almost 40 countries.

Within the organization, the Computing Systems Technology Department in Filton, England, relies on PCMS. Dimensions, a process configuration management (CM) system by SQL Software in Vienna, Va., to manage all changes its engineers make to software in state-of-the-art missiles that company officials seeks to introduce to the tightly controlled U.S. defense market.

What makes this advanced configuration-management system unique is its ability not only to empower users to automate the various functions of process workflow, change management, version control, automatic building, software release, incidents management, and help desk, but also to assimilate their organizational processes into the tool.

"We selected our CM solution against the competition five years ago because we were looking for a tool that suited our ways of working," says George Woodward, head of the Computing Systems Technology Department. "While other CM products would have forced us into a particular approach, our CM system accommodated our processes and was thus the only tool fitting our requirements."

This capability is essential to support the rigorous process improvement program that organization officials have instituted in software engineering. "Our CM system has assisted us considerably in defining and understanding our processes in order to optimize them," says James Doulton, senior software engineer within the department. "Specifically, we have been able to capture our processes into the control plan of the system and this has provided a reliable mechanism for ensuring that our overall software development process is complete and consistent."

This approach to configuration management has put Matra BAe Dynamics engineers on a winning path for process improvement. "If you capture a process into an automated process-based CM system, then any deficiency in the manual system you are replacing - deficiencies, which were previously overcome by the action of people - will become immediately apparent," Doulton says.

Most importantly, the system enables organization designers to continuously tweak their processes to increase their competitiveness in the marketplace. "We are always striving to improve our processes. The way we are doing businesses is changing fast and our software processes have to reflect the needs of our business," Woodward says.

There is a great leverage to be gained from understanding and enhancing software processes, Woodward says. "This is why, for us, our CM system is a lot more than just a solution; it is a strategic investment. Its flexibility allows us to embed process changes and to ensure our ability to produce high-quality software products."

Doulton explains that getting the software right through process configuration management is paramount for the organization because software holds much of the functionality of today`s weapons. Therefore, the software is a major competitive discriminator for the end-product, in this case, a missile. Also, software offers flexibility in the deployment of weapons in unexpected scenarios such as rapid deployment task forces. "The bottom line is that we have to guarantee to our customers that our software will do what we say it will do," Doulton says.

In the past, it was harder to offer this guarantee because department officials relied on a paper-based, homegrown system and on low level configuration-management tools. "We controlled CM at the project level by what we wrote on paper," Doulton says. "This system was labor intensive because many people were involved in reviewing changes. The possibility of human error was great due to the large volume of items which had to be read. So we spent a lot of time making sure that the software was right." Without automation, it was difficult for developers to ensure that what they were building was what they intended to build.

"We had to quarantine the software to prevent ad-hoc changes and to ensure that all parts of the software were the ones intended," Doulton says. "Any process like that takes a lot of time. During this time, the development team would then discover undesirable items and seek to correct them. In such an environment, we had to go through considerable pain to ascertain that the version delivered was supported by the tests that we had carried out."

Department leaders quickly realized that they would inevitably deliver an incorrect build at some stage unless they adopted a rigorous approach to control software and system building. "This is where our CM system came into the picture," Woodward says. "We wanted to achieve greater efficiency and productivity by automating our operations and by making them less manpower intensive."

His team was also looking for some reassurance that the configuration of the software was correct. "Our organization is required to certify that the product conforms to the customer requirements," Woodward says. "Thanks to the traceability provided by our current CM system, we can offer this certification effortlessly. We can also submit evidence of the testing that we have carried out to our customers. Moreover, we can ensure that the version delivered was the version tested in all the different stages. And, we can certify that the source code was the original source."

Currently, engineers from the Computing Systems Technology Department deliver software progressively to provide the functionality for various stages of each project. "We seek to relate the partial delivery to the complete objective," Doulton explains.

Engineers do this by identifying the tasks, or "trials" involved in launching weapons and tracking of targets. Then they match the software development process with each of these phases. "In essence, our software development efforts keep track of these trials under the strict control of process configuration management," Doulton says. "This is the case because we cannot afford to deliver the wrong software version since it would mean consequential delays to the project as well as repeat trials - and these are enormously expensive."

Developing sophisticated weapons requires designers to rely less on trials and more on modeling how a real system would behave, Woodward says. "For this purpose, we establish trial requirements, which define the parameters we want to explore. Then, we design an experiment to obtain telemetry. Throughout this entire effort, our configuration management system comes into play to provide a common umbrella for managing software changes across the board."

Configuration-management applies to all facets of developing guided weapons including missiles and associated equipment. In this beehive, about 85 software engineers use this configuration-management system to actively control all phases of the development process. "For instance, we use PCMS. Dimensions to store all our software products including our files and the items we produce, and, in many cases, even the documentation, Doulton says. "We are now seeking to automatically collect metrics and generate cross-reference information and test matrices."

All this work is conducted on a mix of heterogeneous platforms including VAX, Sun, and PCs. "We actively support different platforms so that we can make use of any software development tools, which can be useful to our development process," Doulton says. "Our CM system offers the significant advantage of supporting a client/server environment. We were turned off by other vendors, which sought to dictate how we should carry our development efforts and the platforms and processes we should use."

Woodward says it is important for his development organization to maintain a multi-platform approach for two reasons. "We operate on an international and joint-venture basis, frequently in large multinational projects, and these projects impose their own standards on top of ISO 9000 and various national defense standards. Also because we are at the leading edge of current technology we need to retain platform and tool independence to be able to exploit the best tools and techniques on what ever platform they are available," he says.

At Matra BAe Dynamics, software development is a continuous process. "All the products are changing all the time. Thanks to process configuration management, the software engineering team knows precisely what it is doing at any given time" Doulton says. "Our CM system enables us to have an appropriate, and in our case, rigorous configuration control. It is not possible for human beings to control complex projects without a process configuration management system. Maybe the Martians can-but we can`t. Our strength is in knowing our weakness and conquering it with the right tool."

For information, contact SQL Software by mail at 8500 Leesburg Pike, Vienna, Va., 22182, by telephone at 703-760-0448, by fax at 703-760-0446, by e-mail at [email protected], or on the World Wide Web at

Tani Haque is chief executive officer of SQL Software, a process configuration management tool vendor based in Vienna, Va. He can be reached by phone at 703-760-0448 or by e-mail at [email protected].

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