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Commander Belke and Captain English are business consultants at Booz. Allen & Hamilton, Inc.

To avoid wholesale system obsolescence, more systems are incorporating large amounts of commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) products within an open system architecture (OSA) framework. Recent experience with OSA and COTS solutions to military system requirements highlights the need for caution in adapting commercial technology to defense systems (as well as recognition that some COTS products may be unsuitable for some military environments). The introduction of OSA and COTS products into DoD systems represents an enormous challenge that encompasses virtually all elements of design and life cycle management

Changes in a Complex Culture

Use of COTS and OSA is being increasingly mandated for new and legacy defense systems. Both OSA and COTS products have advantages and disadvantages, however, that must be considered when carrying out that mandate. The advantages include faster system development, reduced design costs, reduced reliance on original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), use of the latest technology, a wider product choice, easier upgrade pathways, and system flexibility.

The disadvantages, mostly resulting from the use of COTS products, can include system upgrade downtime, incompatible formats, lack of control over suppliers, possible lack of design documentation, a short product life, the need to comply with evolving open system interface standards, and the need for ongoing product management.

Accommodating OSA. OSA for combat systems is based on a SECNAV mandate and driven by the need to achieve cost, schedule, and risk reduction coupled with flexibility and performance improvements. To accommodate OSA, traditional acquisition and engineering approaches will require modification. Program managers will be faced with evolving standards that will be updated frequently based on the findings of prototype demonstrations and testing. Like COTS, OSA represents a program wide problem and challenge. OSA components must be selected with great care, as they will have an impact on testing, integrated logistics support, configuration management, modeling, and integration/interface.

Ongoing Standards Analyses. The standards for the fundamental building blocks for all combat systems-operating systems, communication networks, back planes, application program interfaces, databases, and programming languages-will need to be analyzed frequently. Approaches and methodologies include monitoring, reviewing, and upgrading of OSA standards; trade-off analysis of OSA components; and systems engineering of COTS components.

Comprehensive Systems Engineering . Comprehensive system engineering will be required to achieve the maximum benefits of open system acquisition. The system or components to be developed, modified, or upgraded should be designed from the start using open system and COTS building blocks. System performance requirements often must be decomposed and altered to fit into open system and COTS products available in the commercial market.

The traditional requirements analysis and allocation engineering processes are applicable to open system interface standards. The detailed specification process is not. In a system applying open standards, detailed specifications are directed toward compliant non-developmental item (NDl)1 open system products. Therefore, in conducting technical assessments, the emphasis should be on interface compatibility, not solely on the form, function, and fit of the components.

Market Analysis and Upgrades. As an open system is developed, functional obsolescence and upgrades of system components become central issues. Information derived from market analysis becomes an economic driver for reviewing and possibly revising requirements. If requirement modifications to fit new OSA/COTS building blocks are possible, the rewards in cost and schedule may far outweigh any difficulties.

OSA: The Right Framework for COTS. COTS and OSA issues overlap in many areas. Use of OSA originated with commercial computer systems to allow new technologies to be inserted into a system yet to leave ample room for future growth. Open systems are composed of COTS components that work together or work interchangeably because of a compatible interface. The focus of OSA is not to optimize or integrate the system or to make the system seamless throughout all its parts. Rather, the aim is to have standard interfaces that allow the equipment and its components to work together.

COTS Uses and Its New Challenges. DoD guidance to include non-military specification (non-MIL SPEC) items with MIL SPEC items in defense systems using military logistics support presents a problem more complex than that faced by most commercial organizations. COTS equipment is now being combined with legacy military systems that are integral to combat systems operation but are not easily upgradable due to outdated technology or unreasonable cost. The challenge is to ensure that the integration of old and new technology is achieved. To maximize the benefits presented by COTS, some cultural changes will have to be accepted within the DoD acquisition system For example:

  • The prime contractor will be more of a system integrator than a system designer, and will be concerned more with interfacing cars products as they exist than with designing their functions.
  • Commercial vendors will not be willing to change their products, processes, or practices for small purchases. The former government method of product specification-“Build me this product and build it this way” -will be replaced with the query: “Is a product with this capability available?”
  • Requirements for post-development engineering support will be greatly expanded. The entire life cycle of COTS products will be shorter than the development cycle of the typical new DoD system. This shorter life cycle will require system engineering and product supportability upgrades throughout the system life.

Thorns in the COTS/OSA Bed of Roses

Much has been written about how commercial market forces have resulted in an ongoing revolution in DoD acquisition policies. Analysts generally agree that the significant use of COTS products in new systems provides opportunities such as:

  • Increased performance-to-cost ratio
  • Access to the latest technology
  • Accelerated development
  • Reduced development costs

However, the COTS/OSA bed of roses has its thorns. The use of COTS and OSA presents inherent risks and a new set of problems, including the dangers associated with unauthorized, ad hoc changes.

Inherent OSA/CQTS Risks. Rapid configuration changes resulting from advancing technology mean a looser approach toward standardization and new challenges in support ability for the 21st century. Open system and COTS environment risks arise from ambiguities that exist within commercial standards. These ambiguities result in vendors’ offering incompatible versions of the same standards in their products. Also, support and obsolescence of COTS parts become major concerns because of the commercial marketplace’s here today, gone tomorrow philosophy.

A New Set of Problems. The problems inherent in open systems and commercial electronics products demand new ground rules.

Loral Federal Systems cautioned users about some of the negative aspects of open systems/COTS products as follows:

  • Do not expect the products to be exactly what you want.
  • Upgrades will be frequent and unsynchronized across products.
  • Support of obsolescent versions may be expensive, if even possible.
  • Products may conflict with each other.
  • Vendors do not advertise what is wrong with their products.
  • Conformance to a standard does not guarantee interoperability.
  • Customized features are costly and may not be supported.
  • Riding the leading edge of technology is expensive.

Danger of Ad Hoc ChangesĀ· The officially sanctioned introduction of COTS products can be further complicated by ad hoc, unauthorized changes. Crew members, for example, may introduce systems aboard ship. A recent check aboard a combatant surface ship disclosed three unauthorized tactical software systems and at least two unauthorized digital hardware products operating. These products, which were purchased directly from a retail electronics vendor, included a video teleconferencing capability.

Such ad hoc, unauthorized introduction of system components causes serious problems with configuration management, integrated logistics support, reliability, safety, and other logistics features. Therefore, program managers must maintain their position as the arbiters and final authorities on processor integration into digital systems at sea. Proliferation of unauthorized computers or peripherals must be carefully monitored and controlled.

Caution Amid Innovation

Caution is appropriate amid the ongoing innovation associated with OSA and COTS products. Requirements for joint connectivity, increased processing power, higher fiber-optic data transport rates, and future upgrade cost considerations mean new DoD systems require solutions incorporating COTS products within OSA designs. Each successful COTS adaptation brings with it a new challenge in supportability. Proven life cycle approaches may not be adequate to meet these challenges.

New supportability Considerations. The challenge of OSA/- COTS supportability must be met with ongoing innovation. In a COTS environment, even the same types of workstations are not guaranteed to have the same memory chips. Since not all chips are compatible, supportability of these workstations over their life cycle presents special form, function, and fit problems for the defense logistics system.

Capability with Limited Supportability. In the rush to achieve joint interoperability, between 1993 and 1995 approximately 90 ships in five carrier battlegroups were equipped with COTS shipboard fiber-optic local area networks (LANs) without a comprehensive supportability approach in place. New systems may provide an immediate upgrade in capability and communications connectivity, but the absence of a prime contractor, lack of a contractor test bed, and poor configuration management can be long-term disadvantages.

Increased Operational Risk. Operational risk is another problem associated with the rapid infusion of COTS capability without proper supportability. For example. in 1994 USS GEORGE WASHINGTON experienced a shipboard LAN failure that placed about 80 workstations out of commission for a major portion of an overseas deployment. The problem was finally identified as attributable to improper system configuration and not to the design of the system, highlighting the increased operational risk of not having predefined standard configurations prototyped in a contractor test bed.

Configuration Management. Not Control. Configuration control is difficult in a legacy MIL SPEC system, and it will be even more so in a similar-size OSA/COTS-based system. What is required and what bas been demonstrated as effective in other systems that are large users of COTS products is true configuration management. With real configuration management, change is accepted as progress and is managed, not controlled. The OSA/COTS environment does not require all systems to be exactly the same. Differences in systems and applications can be accommodated as long as strong configuration management is in place. However, managing change in this fast-paced high-technology environment requires approaches to configuration management that give project managers and the users confidence in system reliability and performance.

The Keys to Success

Flexibility and a willingness to adapt are the keys to operating successfully in the complex OSA and COTS environment. To control life cycle costs, more and more new and legacy C3I electronics systems are made up of COTS products operating in an open systems environment. The challenge is to merge the functional and planned obsolescence focuses of commercial manufacturers with existing military product and logistic approaches. With the right balance of flexibility and comprehensive planning, innovative management, and due caution, our defense systems can ride the wave of new technology and remain supportable.

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