COTS: Rewards and Risks

cotsThe many benefits of COTS

In 1994, Senator William Perry challenged the US military to use commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) products and practices in order to realize substantial benefits. As a result, Senator Perry is generally considered to be the founder of the COTS movement which has had a significant impact on military embedded computing.

Defense applications require vast amounts of processing power, storage capacity and network bandwidth. Commercial products can supply these needs in a way that purpose-built military computing technology never could because COTS products are driven by the highly competitive and rapidly moving world of consumer electronics.

And just as performance, capacity and bandwidth are driven upwards by the commercial market, so price is driven downwards as competitors strive for market share. It adds up to substantial improvements in price/performance for military computing applications that enable every dollar spent to deliver more value.

COTS isn’t just about price/performance, though. It’s about interoperability, longevity, reduced risk, upgradeability, maintainability. Industry standards – in both hardware and software – all but guarantee long term interoperability: VME is perhaps the best example, although there are many others.

COTS delivers the price/performance that military computing users need and also the improvement in lifetime cost of ownership. The huge investments in COTS hardware and software architectures have delivered significant upgradeability over time, and the existence of a computing infrastructure far beyond that of the armed forces delivers ongoing service, support and spare parts.

GE is a leader in enabling the armies, navies and air forces of the world to leverage these multiple benefits of the COTS concept. And we have also developed successful strategies for dealing with the risk associated with the relatively short life cycles of commercial products.

Understanding the nature of obsolescence.

Over the past ten years and more, the promise of COTS solutions has become a reality for military computing. Breadth of choice, state of the art technology, lower purchase cost, and lower lifetime cost of ownership are just a few of the benefits that have accrued to military systems integrators, prime contractors and their customers alike. But COTS also provides challenges. Perhaps the most important of these are how systems designers can leverage the economic and performance advantages of COTS without compromising long-term system integrity.

With semiconductor manufacturers releasing improved processors typically every three months, and new generations every eighteen months, system designers have access to more processing power at lower cost than ever before. The downside of this rapid technology development, however, is the component obsolescence that necessarily comes with it.

In developing an effective response to the reality of component obsolescence, it is important to understand the nature of the problem. There are, essentially, three types of obsolescence:

  • Technology evolution - where a new generation of technology is developed which effectively makes its predecessor obsolete. Typically, the new generation will offer improved performance and greater functionality, often at lower cost. Importantly, however, this represents evolution in that the new generation will typically perform the same function as the previous one.

  • Technology revolution - where a new technology emerges which supersedes its predecessor. An example of this is FDDI which is now becoming obsolete as the market moves towards adopting newer standards, such as Gigabit Ethernet and Fibre Channel as the communications technology of choice.

  • Market forces - where demand for a component or technology falls to the point where manufacturers consider it uneconomic to continue production. This is an increasing problem, as the military and aerospace markets no longer command the purchasing power necessary to persuade manufacturers to continue production, for example, of a particular processor.

Each type of obsolescence brings its own challenges and an effective response can only be achieved by taking the macroscopic view of a program’s lifecycle. Our response to these challenges is a unified approach which extends from our design philosophy through extended life support to our commitment to quality, and we call this approach Whole Program Life COTS™.

Why Developers Need Whole Program Life COTS

Whole Program Life COTS™ delivers real, tangible benefits to our customers:

  • It minimizes risk by using proven technology. Unlike other companies who ruggedize commercial technologies 'after the fact', we develop products that are designed to be rugged. We have perfected the development of thermal and mechanical technology coupled with test and qualification techniques to bring the best available COTS technology to the rugged market.

  • It delivers leading-edge performance throughout the life of a program because our design philosophy enables customers to benefit from new components throughout the lifetime of their application. Maintaining the same form, fit and function across multiple generations of COTS products minimizes system re-qualification following a system upgrade.

  • It anticipates future developments based on an accurate technology road map. Close relationships with key technology suppliers, including early access to component road maps and the latest products, allow us to ensure that successive generations of products are backwards compatible. It's an approach that has enabled GE to change processor and memory types and speeds without changing any of the physical or electrical characteristics of the board. By consistently maintaining the same form, fit and function, we can deliver truly transparent 'plug and play' technology insertion.

  • It dedicates expert resources to the job of fighting system obsolescence. Our Product Lifecycle Management team enjoys dedicated engineering resources at a level normally available only to teams developing new products. A range of system-extending options is available – from last-time buys through to system design re-engineering that enables the integration of new generation components. Innovative System Health Checks can be tailored to proactively investigate potential obsolescence issues on customer systems.

  • It simplifies technology insertion. In many cases, the impact on software of the insertion of new product generations is minimized through the use of our Board Support Packages. These provide a stable software interface between the application and the underlying hardware, minimizing revisions to application software.

Extended Life Support

One of the most powerful ways to reduce the cost of ownership and the risk of obsolescence is through extended life product support. Military and aerospace system developers want to take full advantage of the performance and feature improvements of COTS technology, however there is the equally important need to maintain system stability over long periods.

Technology Refresh
We have always worked with system designers to enable them to take advantage of performance and feature improvements through technology refresh at key stages of a program. Typically, opportunities occur at each major tranche of a long-term production program, perhaps at five- or ten-year intervals.

Our commitment to maintain form, fit and function by careful design and separation of the hardware from the application can effectively extend the life of a system for ten to fifteen years without major re-engineering. Changes to the underlying silicon are transparent to the customer’s application.

Longer-term Management
A fundamental element of Whole Program Life COTS™ is the way in which the issues of longer-term support are addressed – which is why the long term life of a program is a dedicated focus. The Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) organization enjoys dedicated engineering resources of the level normally given to new-product design teams. PLM comprises three groups:

  • Technical Support--A helpdesk facility, equipped with industry-leading customer support software, sits at the heart of this function. We recruit the help of hardware and software design engineers for Technical Support – an approach that may well be unique in the industry, and which delivers the highest levels of competence and understanding to customers throughout the life of a program. The helpdesk facility is complemented by in-field engineer visits where a problem cannot be replicated in-house.

  • Long-Term Support—While the Whole Program Life COTS design philosophy maintains form, fit and function, it is also true that some applications will require the supply of identical products far in excess of the market life of the components.

Close relationships with vendors ensure that we are fully informed about component availability. As a member of the Component Obsolescence Group (COG), the company is able to keep abreast of industry-wide developments and innovations in this field.

In addition to being able to make ‘last time buys’, customers can also make a ‘one off’ purchase of all the components that will be required throughout the entire life of a program - and as part of a Long Term Support (LTS) agreement, the company will hold stocks of components, as a customer’s property, in our secure and environmentally controlled ‘Bonded Store’.

We also offer a pioneering System Health Check service as a proactive means of managing risk. A quarterly audit of the availability of all the components that make up a particular product maximizes the opportunity to take appropriate action and minimizes the risk of problems associated with component obsolescence.

In the event that we terminate production and support of a particular product during the in-service period of a program, we can offer the services of an independent escrow account manager. This agency will store all product design and manufacturing information on the customer’s behalf. The escrow agreement provides customers with access to this information after the termination event, thereby enabling alternative manufacturing arrangements to be established.

  • Repair Services--The company’s dedicated repair facility boasts a range of equipment frequently only found in a product development environment, including state-of-the-art environmental control equipment, automatic re-work facilities and a full range of test and diagnostic equipment.

Business processes such as the Failure Report And Corrective Action System (FRACAS), ensure that field data is captured, analyzed and is then easily accessible to help solve future issues. Every facet of a repair is managed under the company’s quality assurance program, which is fully certified to ISO 9001.