DOD exec offers an off-the-shelf caveat

how to buy
commercial the Frye way

DENVER—Commercial off-the-shelf products have been portrayed as a silver
bullet that can solve many information technology problems, but their use is not a
panacea, a Defense Department official said.

The popular notion is that using commercial software can be a quick fix, but the
implementation of an off-the-shelf package can require tinkering to meet an agency’s
needs, said Robert A. Frye, executive director of the Air Force Standard Systems Group at
the Gunter Annex of Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala. In the end, the changes might reduce the
benefits of buying commercial products, he said.

Keep costs in perspective, he advised last month at the Government Information
Technology Executive Council’s Information Processing Interagency Conference.

The more an agency requests custom changes, the more a product moves away from its
purely commercial version, and the price rises commensurately, Frye said.

“With all the problems with COTS, it’s still better than a 100 percent
development effort,” he said. But government IT shops need to avoid setting
unattainable expectations if they want commercial products to fit into their existing
systems environments.

“You better understand what you’re getting into,” he said. “COTS is
someone else’s legacy system.”

The push to buy commercial products has been central to the Clinton
administration’s efforts to improve management of information technology programs.

Former Office of Management and Budget Director Franklin D. Raines made the use of
commercial products a central part of his Raines Rules, a guide on IT project development.
He recommended that agencies simplify work processes to increase the chances of using
commercial software.

Commercial products do have a significant role in government systems, Frye said. But
they can introduce problems with scalability, system integration, maturity, legacy
interfaces, and maintenance and support, he said.

Most commercial products will not match specific business practices. Therefore, it is
necessary to either alter an organization’s processes or alter the product, he said.

Agencies that use commercial products also give up some control, Frye said. When an
agency designs its own system, it controls the updates, improvements and changes to the

But with a commercial product, even an agency as large as the Defense Department will
represent only a small portion of users and will not have the clout to dictate product
changes, he said.

Frye recommended that agencies looking to implement commercial products set a baseline
separating the must-have features of a product from the nice-to-have features.

“You’re not going to be able to do it all, but you need to get them all
down,” he said.

Another critical step is a gap analysis, what Frye described as comparing the
difference between the legacy system and the commercial product. Agencies need to assess
whether to add a feature, considering its cost, or whether there is a workaround, he said.

Finally, roll out products in phases, Frye said. “The big bang won’t

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