Wake up to COTS
Thomas R. Temin
Remember the old joke about a wag trying to convince visitors to his antique barn that he had the very hatchet George Washington used to cut down the cherry tree? Over the years, the blade was replaced, and later the handle and wedge, but otherwise it was the original hatchet.
When buying commercial, off-the-shelf software, I sometimes think the government is buying the equivalent of George Washington's hatchet.
In the bad old days, the government wrote'or paid to have written'its own code for everything from logistics to personnel systems. Such code over time grew difficult to maintain.
Later the government, flush with fervor over COTS, bought commercial packages, then spent millions modifying the code so it would fulfill the government's unique requirements. Turns out it is sometimes faster and cheaper to write from scratch than to get mired in tweaking a commercial package.
Now, many big software vendors have government-specific versions of their packages. Companies such as Oracle Corp. and PeopleSoft Inc. of Pleasanton, Calif., come to mind. Their code may require less modification, but it's difficult to see how it qualifies as COTS. Would industry buy the government version?
The important question for government isn't whether something is COTS or custom, but whether a program will be economical and fast to install, and cheap to support for a reasonable lifecycle.
Unless agencies change their processes so that they can use truly off-the-shelf software without any more modification than required by a commercial customer, it is useless to pretend that government-specific packages are really COTS. And let's face it, the instances of that level of business process re-engineering are few and far between.
You can't blame the vendors for accommodating federal requirements with special versions of software. They and their federal customers have been burned in the process of modifying commercial packages.
It's time to emphasize COTS where it makes sense'in the millions of PCs and servers throughout government'and quit kidding ourselves about what else the government must sometimes buy.
Thomas R. TeminEditorial director