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How to make the most of COTS technologies

Dec. 23, 2013 - 03:06PM   |  
By CHARLIE KAWASAKI   |   Comments
System difficulty of use grows geometrically even as system complexity grows linearly — outpacing supply of trained/capable operators.
System difficulty of use grows geometrically even as system complexity grows linearly — outpacing supply of trained/capable operators. ()
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Charlie Kawasaki is Chief Technical Officer at PacStar, a leading developer and supplier of advanced communications solutions for the Defense Department. / File


The rapid advance of communication/information technologies, driven in large part by the development of commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) solutions, offers the U.S. armed forces unprecedented opportunities to enhance situational awareness, decision superiority, and battlefield coordination. However, the ability of the military to effectively procure and utilize advanced technologies — particularly in an increasingly budget constrained environment — is negatively impacted by a handful of key factors that are in some cases delaying or wiping out the full benefits these technologies can deliver.

Relative to custom-built hardware and software, COTS technology offers military organizations the potential to reduce costs and shrink the acquisition timeline. However, the integration and deployment of COTS technologies introduces several technical complexities. This article examines these complexities, and puts forth a set of recommendations for consideration by defense systems integrators, developers of COTS technologies, and defense acquisition programs.

Warfighter challenges with COTS complexity

Programs supporting warfighters can pick from a vast array of technologies in order to better meet mission objectives. These technologies can provide capabilities such as unified communications, (IP-based voice, video, messaging, conferencing, etc.) as well as access to a vast array of C4ISR information — all available via myriad device types such as PCs/laptops/tablets, smart phones, vehicle-mounted displays and digital radio handsets.

In order to deliver advanced capabilities to warfighters in the field, today’s networks must overcome unique limitations imposed by the austere environment in which warfighters operate. These constraints include lack of broadband voice/data infrastructure in-theater, and expensive, slow and unreliable WAN/satellite links.

COTS technologies can enable warfighters to overcome these limitations, but only if COTS deployment and integration complexities are addressed. Even for operations modest in size, organizations must deploy systems akin to mini-data-centers and mini-ISPs — systems that are inherently complex. These complexities present several gating factors to success for enabling advanced capabilities for warfighters.

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Interoperability as a gating factor

Successfully integrating technologies from a set of best-of-breed COTS vendors into a comprehensive system capable of meeting mission requirements requires careful planning and testing, and making tradeoffs by “freezing” technology sets into a baseline set that can be managed. The Army’s tactical programs, for example, have made strong progress defining sets of technologies to be driven through their acquisition programs together. These “capability sets” help reduce the combinatorial growth of interoperability complexity by minimizing the change of the communications components included in a set of technologies. It also centralizes the integration and interoperability testing work, taking those burdens off of the operational units.

Technical complexity as a gating factor

To leverage COTS technologies, many warfighter programs have opted to create systems composed of hardware and software readily available and in use in enterprise IT/network systems. This approach is unquestionably the right one — every day tens of thousands of engineers go to work adding many new features and capabilities that our warfighters can benefit from. However, this blended hardware/software approach has also introduced an unintended negative side effect for the operators (comms specialists/signal officers) in the field: a usability nightmare and an intractable learning curve. Consider that approximately 80 percent of features added to COTS software/hardware systems are seldom or never used.

I’ve seen this usability conundrum play out first hand. One integrated communications system that I dealt with directly comprised a firewall, wireless access point and encryption gateway, a router and switch, voice gateway, server with an IP UC manager, email and user directory system, and a digitally monitored UPS. Each of these components was designed and manufactured by a different COTS vendor, each with a different user interface and set of commands. The firewall component alone came with 5,000 pages of documentation, and required the operations staff to undertake multiple training programs. Moreover, this was just one of a suite of eight devices integrated into a single system.

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Availability of trained personnel as a gating factor

An additional critical gating factor is the availability of capable, trained personnel. While integrated systems can be pre-configured to provide significant baseline capabilities, adapting such systems to rapidly changing situations in the field requires extensively trained signal officers. In addition to the downward budgetary pressure on today’s armed forces, future network plans envision a dramatic expansion of the number of soldiers equipped with network access, with network management pushed down to a lower (and more populated) echelon. Combined, these trends will widen an already critical gap in the availability/supply of operators capable and trained in operating and managing these advanced systems — a gap partially filled through reliance on expensive civilian contractors.

Reducing the growing gap between a system’s “difficulty of use” and the supply of available operators can be accomplished through the adoption of new requirements in the system design/acquisition process, and through the adoption of a system architectural approach focused on simplifying user experience. This two-part approach, described below, can provide a significant impact on these issues while still providing the cost and innovation benefits of using COTS technology.

As the “capability set approach” to system deployment continues to gain deserved popularity in the acquisition community, there is an opportunity to address the usability and training curve issues to substantially drive down operator-visible complexity. As a result, training requirements are reduced, along with the costs associated with supporting systems in the field. However, typical acquisition and evaluation programs have not included a focus on addressing these issues in the requirements definition phases.

To address system usability from the process perspective, programs supporting the evaluation and acquisition of systems should consider the following additions:

a) Detailed network/configuration usability requirements into system requirements, specifying a maximum number of user interfaces basic operators must train on to perform threshold level tasks.

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b) Detailed network setup/configuration use case definitions into system requirements, and specify maximum times/maximum times for users to complete key configuration tasks.

c) User representation in the development of requirements and use cases, and in ongoing integration and evaluation — including test fielding and evaluation of training requirements.

Because the rate of innovation from the commercial sector will only continue to increase, it is safe to assume that COTS-based systems will continue to be comprised of technology solutions from multiple vendors, with discrete user interfaces and configuration management processes. Thus, to meet complexity, training and setup-time objectives associated with COTS adoption, it is critical to adopt unified user interfaces designed and focused on implementing the program-specific use cases, while hiding seldom-used and unused features. Thus, programs reap the benefits of COTS technology “inside” — while operators of systems benefit from a user-centric, integrated view of the system on the “outside.” The resulting solutions can be much more intuitive for operators to use, driving down training requirements.

COTS adoption strategies

To adopt COTS solutions from a systems perspective, acquisitions programs and their supporting integrators and OEMs should consider:

a) Adopting use case and user-centric development principles.

b) Including complexity-reduction in the core design of solutions, rather than as an afterthought.

c) Hiding systems complexity under unified management software interfaces that expose only the features needed to implement use cases — removing the 80 percent of feature bloat from the training and interoperability requirements.

COTS solutions can typically be deployed via application software that integrates the view of systems from a management perspective — and when restricted to critical use cases, can be delivered in relatively lightweight implementations. By making these types of capabilities available in the field, it enables systems support in the field by operators with little training — in turn closing the gap between the complexity of the systems and the availability of capable operators. The result: warfighters can focus on fighting the battle on the field, instead of on the network.


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