Giving COTS the consideration it deserves

room of computers 

Leaders across government, including federal CIO Tony Scott and current Defense Secretary Ash Carter, have repeatedly called for greater public/private partnership. They frequently advocate for greater understanding of how private sector technologies or practices can be adopted and implemented throughout government.

Yet despite this high level of interest, many feds remain wary of commercial technology adoption. The age-old build versus buy government off-the-shelf or commercial off-the-shelf debate is classic.

COTS technologies today are as innovative and worthy of government adoption as ever. Nevertheless, many agencies and mission owners maintain that COTS solutions are not precisely fit for government use, citing lack of specialization, integration and interoperability challenges, and high learning curves in implementation and training. The last point is particularly perplexing since COTS technology is often engineered for use by "the average Joe."

It's time to dispel these notions, along with the sense that custom GOTS solutions are always defensible. While there are some highly complex and specialized federal missions, there are far more business processes and operational needs that are analogous to those found in the private sector.

Take, for instance, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Like many other organizations with expensive, mission-critical assets, LLNL knew that its operations could be made more efficient through better analysis of operational data. It operates a high-performance computing datacenter facility. However, this federal entity was challenged to manage information from dispersed and very different systems, including computing racks, cooling systems, energy utilities, HVAC and other equipment.

Building a custom solution to address the problem would have been expensive, time consuming and resource intensive. It also would have tripled the lifecycle acquisition costs with long-term maintenance and ensured obsolescence. Instead, LLNL deployed proven COTS software to manage and analyze data, allowing the lab to leverage years of their own expertise in solving real problems without investing inordinately in development and testing of a one-off solution. The COTS software was already mission-ready and optimized for the task at hand.

Another erroneous belief about COTS technologies is that they may be difficult to integrate into federal missions. While this once may have been true, the changing nature of open standards and industry collaboration has made technology far more interoperable than ever before. Private industries expect best-of-breed solutions to work seamlessly and securely within existing infrastructures, across other custom solutions, even COTS. An example would be seamless integration with GIS mapping tools, which is exactly what federal missions demand of COTS technology.

Washington River Protection Solutions and the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission each prove that COTS technology can even meet strict compliance rules. WRPS uses a COTS solution that eases compliance and connects and consolidates data from multiple sources (regardless of custom or legacy origins) into one system – leading to improved data quality and accuracy. The NRC uses modern software to integrate operational data in real time, across geographies and into archives records. COTS can be deployed as updates to legacy GOTS or used to combine new and old, while also meeting compliance and security challenges.

Commercial systems are also typically faster to deploy and easier to use than custom solutions. Developers go to great lengths to ensure technology is user friendly, minimize the training required and make deployment as intuitive as possible. Simply put, COTS technology has been tried and tested in the marketplace with usability refined through real-world user feedback.

The fact is COTS technologies are every bit as specialized, dependable, deployable and usable as a custom platform. The natural competition within the marketplace ensures that COTS solutions are efficient and specialized; those that are not seldom maintain high market penetration and eventually wither.

The renewed interest in COTS technology and private sector innovation within the federal government is encouraging. By working to fit COTS into federal missions, agencies can often save money, deploy solutions faster and achieve higher rates of success. The value of COTS lies not just in solving yesterday's problem with a custom solution, but also in providing a solution that anticipates and precludes tomorrow's problem.

About the Author

Steve Sarnecki is vice president of U.S. public sector sales at OSIsoft.


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