Open architecture offers many advantages, says Chris McDonald. But organisations must also recognise the upfront investment and trade-off between a low cost static system and the need to respond to changing requirements
At times I can get pretty envious of the rapid pace of technology development in the commercial world. Designs can be created, evolve and become obsolete in just a few years.
Defence, on the other hand, is very different. Traditionally known for long service life, bespoke requirements and complex procurement processes, Defence, in its current form, cannot keep up with the pace of change underpinning commercial technology.
So, what needs to change?
A good starting point would be to seek out modular incremental change to defence systems. Changing components will help keep abreast of commercial advances and evolving threats. We also need to ensure that those system aspects which do not require change can be re-used. This is harder than might be expected; a system needs to not only accommodate current capability but allow future unknown technology to be implemented.
But this is where open architecture can come in.
Reaping the benefits
Let’s start with what it means exactly. Open architecture is a way of making it easy to add, upgrade, and swap computer and software components. Unlike closed architecture, it is underpinned by collaboration and sharing, which enables potential users to see inside all or parts of the architecture without any proprietary constraints.
By investing up front, open architecture can accommodate future changes – a ‘spend to save’ approach, in other words. As the system progresses it allows new components to be inserted into the existing ecosystem as required, without needing updates to the overall system. If this is done properly there should be no dependence on existing suppliers, allow a fair competition to be run and, in places, purchase commercial off-the-shelf equipment where bespoke would traditionally be used.
Such an approach offers huge advantages. If spare parts are now modular and generic, then maintenance teams would be able to use the most appropriate common part representing current capability – simplifying supply chains, lowering costs and providing up to date technology. So, rather than maintaining historic system capability at ever increasing cost, we can evolve and maintain this capability at current levels.
Beware of the drawbacks
However, it is important to note that this new approach isn’t as straightforward as one might assume. For example, it is a common misconception that to achieve an open architecture, it is simply necessary to remove commercial restrictions and publish the interfaces.
Whilst this does allow other suppliers to interact with the system, the interfaces may not be in the right place, and the functionality will be controlled by the supplier. The maintenance of these interfaces is often incomplete and the commercial aspects are irrelevant if they are poorly documented. The system may also not be constructed to allow modular replacement or addition.
It is also a common belief that suppliers could publish their architecture, removing restrictions on their use. Again, there is nothing to ensure this is constructed appropriately, or that another party would have the information required to understand the system well enough to evolve the system without recourse to its original designers.
To achieve an open architecture it is important to divide the system into modular aspects that could be procured and strengthened independently in the future. The level of granularity can vary and there is no need to implement all modules for the initial iteration.
To gain full advantage, the structure needs to be owned and controlled by the client, even if delivered by third parties to ensure the client can always manage and control it. The interfaces between these modules need to be clearly defined, using known published standards that are equally accessible to all.
In addition, the overall roles of the architecture elements and through life potential upgrades need to ensure the system can evolve and take advantage of developing technology. Separate modules need to ensure they are designing to the potential interface with no dependence on a specific module.
There are many advantages to a properly implemented open architecture, through life cost savings and a constantly refreshed and evolving system.
But it is also important to recognise the upfront investment this will require, and the balance between a low cost static system and the need to respond to changing requirements – something that will only be tested in the fullness of the system lifecycle. It is important, too, to ask how a module could be replaced and for stakeholders to agree the possible replacements.
Tick those boxes, though, and colleagues in Defence will unleash the full potential of open architecture for systems, software and computers alike.
The countdown is on.
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About the author
Chris McDonald is a Technical Consultant with BAE Systems Applied Intelligence, providing systems engineering and architecture expertise to support bids and pre-sales work