COTS is changing approach to rugged solutions

Although commercial-off-the-shelf technology has come to dominate most areas of federal IT, the rugged arena has long been a hold out. As tempting as it is with its lower price-points, commercial technology simply had not been seen as good enough to survive in harsh environments.

But that is not so much the case now. In meeting the demand for smaller, more mobile-ready end-user devices, manufacturers also have been creating products that are more rugged than ever before.

In an article published last year in Defense Systems magazine, Maj. Nathan Cahoon, C4 Branch Head at the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory Technology Division, said that it’s a popular thing within the Defense Department to take almost disposable COTS devices and run government off-the-shelf software on them.

“You harden [the device] to a degree where it physically makes sense, and then if something were to happen you just swap out devices,” he said, noting that this saves both time and money compared to the laborious and expensive process of designing something from the beginning.

The drive for more COTS-based solutions also is affecting the larger rugged systems markets, providing opportunities for companies that specialize in the design and manufacture of such things as rugged embedded computing and communication subsystems for military, aerospace and homeland security applications.

With cost becoming a much greater issue in the rugged IT market now than in the past, where there was seemingly plenty of money available for customized products, users who would have naturally gone in that direction are now looking more closely at COTS solutions where they don’t have to pay recurring engineering fees.

That in turn is pushing integrators to take a more proactive role in assessing the needs of the market, rather than relying on customers to hand them detailed requirements from which to design a solution. Instead of waiting for customers to hand them the specifications for rugged systems and then designing those from the ground up, they instead produce products that are already mostly there. If users want more than that, the extra cost is minimal.

That’s created a related trend towards modular architectures. Users increasingly are looking for solutions that combine into one appliance all of the functions that have typically been provided by such things as standalone embedded network routers or mission computers, so they can mix and match functionality.

That can all be done in a pre-integrated fashion, but it requires some innovative engineering. You need to build enough flexibility into the modular card stack architecture to allow for swapping out boards, for example, and that must be done in a small space, posing problems for heat dissipation, which is probably the number one challenge in developing these types of integrated solutions. You also must allow for interconnection between chassis modules, which can cause problems with sealing units for ingress protection.

It will be interesting to see where this push for COTS leads the rugged market. There will always be a need for extreme ruggedness, where the criticality of the mission requires systems that are engineered from the ground up to be as close to failsafe as possible. But, increasingly, the pressure on budgets, together with the growing need to get the most advanced technology into peoples’ hands much faster than government has traditionally been able to do, is making COTS a necessity.

That, in turn, is pushing the approach suggested by Cahoon higher up the procurement ladder.

“The ‘rugged enough’ mentality, where people look more closely at what they can get away with for the lowest cost, has been a theme for a couple of years now,” said David Krebs, an analyst with VDC Research. “That will certainly continue.”