With products that can be integrated into both enterprise and military markets, when does COTS become COTS?

The mil-aero commercial off the shelf (COTS) initiative means that defence programmes can often benefit if they adapt to commercially available components, boards and systems. So while research, development expenditure and budgets may be drying up in other vertical markets, could this encourage companies to push into the military sector? Craig Blackman, managing director of Sight Systems believes that it's not just the recession that tempts organisations into defence applications. "Companies see the military market as a viable source for years to come," he said. "We see an increasing number of manufacturers designing kit to the extremes that the military sector demands." He observes many hardware platforms becoming a standard part of manufacturers' and distributors' ranges, with the caveat that "there are inevitably technical shortfalls, due to the wide appeal the product has been designed for". Blackman believes this is because costs to develop COTS products run into tens of thousands of pounds. "The need to sell thousands of boards to see a return inadvertently means they dilute the specification to appeal to a mass audience," he explained. "As a result, we see an increasing number of COTS platforms needing additional investment into the design/build to meet the demands of MILSPEC." Hypertac sales director Chris Parsonage has observed military products being introduced into the industrial market and, likewise, military applications being used in high reliability industrial products. He explained: "A good example is our modular rack and panel rail connectors in a military communication application – where there were no incurred design costs for the customer." Although the industrial and military markets have different environmental requirements, Parsonage notes commonalities for technical drivers, such as high vibration, miniaturisation, high speed copper signals and increased power and current handling. He added: "The main differences are volume, logistics, perceptions and expectations of cost. Hypertac has taken several military technologies and mass produced them for the industrial markets on the basis that the technology has been designed and tested to excess and the only job is to satisfy price and logistics expectations." Meanwhile, the diversity of markets and technologies means that every customer wants their requirements met in the most cost effective manner. Thales UK technical director Iain Watson says that the defence specialist strives to meet these aspirations, whether in a volume electronics arena like aircraft entertainment, or in space vehicles. He explained: "A major consideration in looking for a solution to a customer need is to determine whether we make, team or buy to provide subsystems." According to Watson, there are three factors. "The application: an autonomous vehicle will have extreme constraints on size, weight, power and environment. This will bias the choice towards bespoke and military standard electronics. Larger systems will also have problems of heat management and this means that, even where underlying technologies are COTS, they may be packaged in a bespoke manner. Finally, it may be desirable to allow a portion of the signal processing to be capable of easy modification to enable the system to respond to changing operational requirements. This biases the choice toward 'open systems' solutions." Typical considerations include managing high bandwidth but relatively invariant processing and communications. Watson noted: "More flexibility can be achieved with COTS but size, weight and power will be greater than, say, fpga switching and semi-bespoke protocols. Using rugged, as opposed to military, processors and boards is cheaper but you may need more robust enclosures." So there are tradeoffs. COTS initial costs will be lower but faster evolution means more frequent refresh cycles. These may be difficult in defence platforms, which are few in number and heavily committed. "Finally, where the outputs are safety critical, we need to assure the behaviour of the components and subsytems." COTS software Robert Dewar cofounder, president and ceo of AdaCore, believes that COTS software is often seen as a way to exploit economies of scale. "What we are seeing are the natural consequences of custom procurement," Dewar observed. "The problem is not with paying too much, it is with buying the wrong thing. If you need a television, you go to Best Buy and pick one off the shelf; you do not write elaborate specs and then ask a major company to build you 10. So the thought occurs, 'if I can buy television sets through the commercial marketplace, why can't I buy my software development tools, libraries, operating systems etc in the same way?'" Yet, Dewar sees a lot of specialised development – so why is this? "Several fundamental economic factors prevent more extensive use of COTS tools," he observed. "The first is COTS's 'take it as it is' business model. You purchase some standard product, and if it is exactly what you want, fine. But if you need the slightest change, you're in big trouble. If you are procuring custom software, then you specify exactly what you want." A second important issue concerns support. Dewar asserted: "Although COTS tools often seem easy on the budget, their low price comes at the expense of customer service. Even more significant is the issue of long term support. Critical systems often have lifetimes measured in decades and need to commit to specific 'baselined' versions of the software they depend upon." Dewar sees the consumer marketplace operating under very different dynamics. "Software companies make money from frequently selling new versions with new features. That may be fine for most consumers, but not for long term projects. These considerations often add up to a decision to buy a customised product. Although this may seem exorbitantly expensive, it may be much more practical and less costly in terms of lifecycle costs." Free licensing According to Dewar, the principles of free licensing embodied in Freely Licensed Open Source Software (FLOSS) can solve problems with COTS procurement – lack of product adaptability and lack of support. He asserted: "Often people distinguish between the 'free' of 'free software' and 'commercial'. But that's an incorrect distinction. In fact, there are many companies who market commercial software using free licenses. 'Commercial' does not have to mean 'proprietary'." For example, FLOSS lends itself well to specialised modification. Dewar explained: "Since typical FLOSS software comes with the programme source code and permission to change it, there are clearly no ip rights standing in the way of modifications. There are thus three possibilities: you, as the customer, can modify the software; you can hire a third party; or you can ask the supplier to do the modifications." It's all about flexibility. "Since you have access to the source code, you can build up expertise and use internal resources to handle support, or you can hire a third party. Again, you can expect the supplier to provide support at a reasonable cost, given that you have options." Additionally, if a company producing FLOSS software chooses not to offer long term support, then a third party can step in. Dewar believes the benefits of COTS can be substantial, not only in reducing costs, but increasing reliability. He concluded: "If you are among thousands of people using the same piece of software, it is much more likely that problems will be found and fixed than if you are the sole user of a custom product. The combination of FLOSS principles and COTS software makes it practical to use the COTS approach even for critical systems with expected usage cycles spanning decades."