Economics of modularity and reuse, continued

In our March issue, I talked about how electronics-reuse initiatives within the Department of Defense (DoD) such as Hardware Open Systems Technology (HOST), the Sensor Open Systems Architecture (SOSA), and the Future Airborne Capability Environment () are driving in , , , and other defense applications, thus enabling long-term cost savings in an era of expensive platforms such as the Joint Strike Fighter.

The discussion continued in our monthly COTS Confidential roundtable article, titled “Trump defense budget increase, open architectures, and export reform” ( in the McHale Report newsletter. The upshot: While all agree on the economic and operational benefits such initiatives bring, not everyone believes the services will work well enough together to get the most out of the various efforts.

“Standards like FACE, SOSA, and OMS [Open Mission Systems] will drive far greater levels of interoperability and allow systems deployed today to constantly upgrade their competitive edge for many years to come,” says Chip Downing, Senior Director, Business Development, Aerospace & Defense at Wind River Systems. “Static, proprietary systems of the past will have to open up to maintain their relevance to future missions.”

Modularity is the key, as it solves not only cost but also integration and maintenance issues over the long term.

“Modularity makes configurability, maintenance, and upgrades much faster, easier, and cheaper,” says Ray Alderman, Chairman of the Board of VITA, in the COTS Confidential article. “It’s not just about designing chips and algorithms; it’s how we put them together. We need to be in a position to have modularity in hardware and software to do upgrades on the fly, which will save time and money. Modularity does that.”

Major programs in the Air Force, Navy, and Army are now focused on increased modularity in electronic systems: The Air Force has OpenPod, the Navy has OpenBay, while the Army has OpenRack, he continues. “How far each of these programs will go is questionable. But, with defense spending under pressure to be more cost-effective, they could each enjoy some level of popularity. We need to use the money we have more efficiently and these modularity programs are a move in that direction.”

The commercial world has already embraced open architectures en masse; these days, the military follows the commercial world on technology developments. The trend toward open architectures is “unquestionably here to stay, both in defense and commercial industries,” says Manuel Uhm, Director of Marketing, Ettus Research, a National Instruments company and Chair of the Board of Directors of the Innovation Forum in the article. “In the defense space, there is a huge benefit in terms of broadening the ecosystem, increasing competition, avoiding vendor lock-in, and ensuring security through source-code traceability.

“Several commercial industries have also firmly embraced open architectures and ,” Uhm continues. “ may have kicked off this trend in a big way, but in the telecommunications space, the advent of software-defined networking has led to an explosion in support for open source and open standards, such as OpenFlow, OpenDaylight, and OpenStack.”

Playing together in the same reuse sandbox

“Could all the services work together, under a collective open architecture program, to share commonly needed modules like CPUs or communications interfaces or sensors across different platforms?” Alderman asks. “Maybe that’s what could happen with the HOST and SOSA activities, but I doubt it. They might if they continue to move toward a cross-domain strategy, which roughly means leveraging resources across multiple services and warfare domains. For example, if a Navy resource is at sea and needs to destroy a target offshore, it calls the Army or Air Force to take out the target. This cross-domain concept could be the catalyst to force the services to come up with more standards for common electronics.”

I’m more hopeful they will actually work together, mostly due to the fact that they really have no choice. Doing things the old way with legacy and proprietary systems, with the government funding technology development from the ground up, is unfair to the taxpayer and the warfighter and – as I said in my March column – just plain economically unsound.

One of the lead minds behind SOSA has a similar view in the Executive Outlook on page 16 in this issue: “The DoD and government community realizes that current and future systems are growing in complexity,” says Dr. Ilya Lipkin, Lead Manager for SOSA at the U.S. Air Force Life Cycle Management Center. “Disparate groups and entities have seen, independently, the benefit of moving to a modular open architecture environment for a wide variety of applications. There is a convergence of applications that are data and information driven. This, in turn, drives commonality across hardware and software modules.”