DoD brings culture of open architecture to a world of proprietary systems

Wednesday - 11/13/2013, 12:12pm EST

Jared Serbu, DoD reporter, Federal News Radio

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The Defense Department is pushing the idea of open architectures — modular systems that can be rapidly upgraded in increments over time, and hopefully for less money. But for now, the military services are filled to the brim with systems that are anything but open.

Among the virtues the department sees in open architectures: systems that can be partially, but quickly modernized as new chunks of technology become available, more effective and more frequent competition among vendors and the ability to make small modifications to a system without re-testing the entire thing. The department wants to incorporate open architecture into many of the new systems it's designing. But because of tight budgets, it's building fewer new systems than it would like to.

"And I have a lot of programs that exist today, and they will be tomorrow's systems too because of the financial situation," said Katrina McFarland, the assistant secretary of defense for acquisition. "How do I get those folks to change their lives to make those systems better today?"

Katrina McFarland, assistant secretary of defense for acquisition

Speaking at an open architecture summit hosted by Defense Daily, McFarland said taking legacy, proprietary, closed systems and adding open interfaces to them is currently DoD's biggest challenge on the open architecture front.

And those systems, large and small, are abundant throughout the military services. Take the F-22 fighter, said Lt. Gen. Charles Davis, the military deputy to the Air Force assistant secretary for acquisition.

"That is probably the worst example of a closed architecture you can imagine," he said. "Single contractor, a very closed approach to the way it was designed, a very closed approach to the software. If you were going to redesign the core missions systems, weapons and avionics you'd have a challenge. But there are a lot of new mandated systems that we have to put on our platforms, a wide variety of navigation systems being mandated by the FAA and the [International Civil Aviation Organization]. These are being developed by a wide variety of companies. If you can open up the interfaces on the F-22, you can bring these systems on board relatively simply."

Davis also offered the example of the Air Force's central system for intelligence gathering, the Distributed Common Ground System (DCGS). It also uses a closed architecture, and the data rights are privately held by 12 different contractors. Davis says adding open interfaces to systems like that is critical so new capabilities can be added — and it can be done, even if it's not easy.

"We're working on something called a sidecar approach, which basically becomes a translator with a series of interfaces that allow anybody to bring a program that adheres to the interface to then be able to integrate with the very closed, proprietary DCGS," he said. "And you'll see sidecar approaches starting to creep up a lot. Basically, it's taking an open architecture approach into a closed architecture system, defining the interfaces and letting everybody integrate to that. And it works out pretty well."

DoD taking data rights seriously

To avoid situations like the Air Force's DCGS dilemma in the future, McFarland says the Pentagon is putting a new emphasis on making sure program officials take the issue of data rights seriously.

"Most of the people in the past haven't really understood their rights as a government customer to assert their rights to intellectual property and data," she said. "That is a very important area for us to fully understand, because we're spending public funds and we need to make use of them to the maximum capability we can. We've always had contracts that said 'You shall provide us data rights for all the things we've spent money on,' but we didn't assert ourselves, so there was a loss of memory. So now we're very active in asserting our rights. We don't need all the data, but we need the right amount of data so we can go out and compete areas that we want to make modular."

McFarland said going forward, program managers are going to be grilled extensively on data rights in their planned programs when they appear before defense acquisition boards.

Lt. Gen. Charles Davis, military deputy to the Air Force assistant secretary for acquisition

"We're asking for those artifacts to be shown to us," she said. "What have you done to make your system open, and why? Where did you open up the system? How are you asserting your rights? Do you know your rights? How are you actively working with your industrial partner to make sure that you are asking for the right rights? Not all the rights, but the right rights. It's a bit of a challenge."

When it comes to building open architectures into new systems under design and development, Davis says the Air Force has had some early successes. The process, he says, begins with planning adaptability and upgradeability into the system from the get-go, with a clear intent to avoid getting locked into a single vendor.

And somewhat counter intuitively, he said, one way to help do that is to have the competing vendors themselves design the open interfaces the systems will use.

"There's a part of the process that deals strictly with bringing the contractors into the room to design the interfaces, to write down the specifics. They're not, at that point competing for components, they're not building components," he said. "The incentive for them is to come up with viable interfaces that we then own as the government. At that point, if we choose to, we could take that architecture and recompete it against them or a totally different set of vendors. They realize that with four guys in a room, they can't slant the architecture so that all the work goes to one vendor. You actually see that it's almost that they turn agnostic to the company badge, and try to say, 'How does this become the most open system possible that we can then go compete for?' They are paid according to how well they design that interface in accordance with our objectives, and then they have to come back and prove they can build the best receiver or exciter or processor possible, and not worry about building the most closed, proprietary whole system possible."

It's critical to apply open architecture principles to legacy systems

Stephen Welby, DoD's deputy assistant secretary of defense for systems engineering, says even if it's harder to apply open architecture principles to legacy systems, in some ways, it's even more critical that those older architectures begin to be opened up, particularly in light of the reduced funds DoD will have to maintain them in their current form.

"For those programs, the challenge of diminishing manufacturing sources and materiel shortages and the fact that we can often no longer find replacements for the capabilities we need to trade out to extend the life of our systems is critical," he said. "The industrial base may have gone away over time, the market for commercial components has moved on, we find ourselves increasingly challenged and it drives the non-recurring engineering costs associated with these service life extension programs. If we were smarter about thinking about modularity and we could predict where we'd be relative those commercial component lifecycles, we could think about making sure we've defined our open system interfaces in ways that bounded our exposure to many of these components, and think about replacing subsystems. I think increasingly, that's a place where we find a compelling business case for open systems."

But at least for now, Welby said, the Defense Department is not well prepared to be a good partner in developing open systems. He says DoD still needs to develop a workforce that's as conversant with open architectures as private sector companies are. And he says the department needs to develop a systems engineering process that supports open architecture.

"In our services, we've seen increasing pressures on our engineering capacity and capability. I think we need to make sure we maintain a robust capability in our product design centers, so we can take ownership of those designs, maintain them over time and be good partners with industry in approaching open approaches," he said. "There are many who advocate open systems as a way that the government can take on the integrator role. A lot of challenges there, and a pretty poor track record where the government has served as the key system integrator on major complex programs. Industry's record isn't that great either, but we need to understand what that government risk is."

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