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A time for change - COTS and data storage.

There is probably no more important acronym to attach to your military product in the 1990s than COTS (commercial off the shelf) and its cousins NDI (nondevelopmental item), MOTS (modified off the shelf) and the unfortunately coined ROTS (ruggedized off the shelf). While specialized areas such as electronic warfare may not be well suited to COTS (how many commercial applications can you find for a jammer?), other areas of military electronics, such as data storage, are more suited to the COTS/NDI philosophy.

Within data storage, the transition from the cost-plus-fixed-fee government-funded developmental programs typical of the 1980s to the firm-fixed-price agreements of today has been made easier by the ready availability of commercially developed equipment.

According to Richard Lee, president of Data Storage Technologies, Inc. (Banner Elk, NC), a data storage consulting firm, the military data storage market of the early 1980s was approximately $300 million to $400 million and dominated by a half-dozen manufacturers. Military contracts were usually conducted under developmental cost-plus-fixed-fee terms and the military customer could get whatever his requirements demanded. Today, the market has shrunk to $200 million a year, and many of those half-dozen manufacturers are on the verge of bankruptcy or being supported by parent companies. Part of the reason for this, says Lee, is the companies' slow adjustment toward a commercially oriented marketplace. As a result, other companies such as TEAC, Racal, Sony and Penny & Giles have emerged from the commercial marketplace and gained several military customers.

Today, under the COTS initiative, the core of military recording technology is essentially based on adapting commercial products. This can range from products designed purely for benign commercial environments to "ruggedized" devices, usually cases or canisters built around commercial products. (For more on data storage technology developments, see "Does This Thing Take 8-Track?" JED, November 1994, p. 48.) The ruggedized products appear on such platforms as tactical aircraft, ground vehicles and surface ships.

By reducing their data storage requirements, both in terms of capacity and environment, military users have improved their ability to purchase commercially oriented products. Additionally, the use of COTS has reduced the degree of commitment a military customer has to make to a particular product, standard or vendor because of shorter equipment life cycles, lower costs and greater compatibility among products.

"[This new way of doing business] really flies in the face of the way this industry got its start and has been doing business for the last 40 years," Lee explained. "[In the past,] each manufacturer really survived on their ability to lock up a client for 10-15 years with their particular recording system, because once a company got into a big program and its recorder was chosen as the platform to be used, there was no means to substitute another company because most of the recording companies owned the intellectual property rights associated with their unique format. There were all kinds of upgrades and enhancements that were factored into a program over its life and these companies essentially owned that client for a long time."


Dramatic technology developments have also affected the military data storage community. In the past, according to a European-based data storage market analyst, virtually all production magnetic tape recorder standards were governed by a group known as the Inter-Range Instrumentation Group (IRIG). Rarely would a user venture away from the IRIG standards without compelling reasons. In the early 1980s, when military users drifted away from the manually threaded analog devices to cassette-loaded digital devices, the rigid IRIG standards broke down. The search for new a new set of standards has been a goal of the data storage community ever since.

In the late 1980s, it appeared that the D-1 format would fill the need for a standard, largely based on its high-capacity characteristics. However, when the military set out to modify the format to its needs via the ID-1 format, the Navy developed another variant of D-1 known as Mil-Std-2179. The two technologies evolved at the same time and were never harmonized, essentially competing with one another, according to the source.

A controversial set of events followed, where industry felt that the military users had made a commitment to buy large quantities of Mil-Std-2179 recorders, via such programs as the Navy's P-3 Update 4 and Trident Sonar Evaluation Program Acoustic Recording System efforts, the Air Force/Navy Advanced Tactical Air Reconnaissance Systems (ATARS) and the Air Force's Electro-Optical Long-Range Oblique Photography System. When the companies developing recorders for these programs encountered difficulties, they invested huge sums of their own research money to solve the problems. However, the recorders became so expensive, due to the development problems and possible problems with the -2179 standard itself, the military customers decided to cancel most of these programs. In the case of ATARS, the program lay dormant for almost a year before the Navy assumed ownership from the Air Force and resurrected it. The program recently selected a new digital recorder from Schlumberger Industries (Velizy, France) based on the ID-1 format.

As a result of the problems encountered in these programs, the effort to implement the -2179 standard never succeeded. Today, said the European source, virtually every project selects a data storage product which "does the job" without reference to the question of data interchange outside the project in question. The result is a proliferation of products and formats, often with very little in common.

Large users, particularly the signals intelligence (SIGINT) community, seek a solution to the problem of data interchange by standardizing the input and output interfaces of the recorders rather than the footprint on tape. They argue that if they cannot take a tape made on product type A and replay it on product type B, they can at least make it easy to transcribe from one format to another. Currently within the US, there are moves among organizations such as the American National Standards Institute to develop appropriate interface standards.

For data storage users, the ultimate value of COTS may hinge on how well users and producers adapt to the lack of standard formats. In the present environment, the cost of system integration and interfacing can often exceed the cost of the data storage hardware itself. Yet the ability of the commercial world to provide a set of military-quality standards is a source of debate. Since most commercial data storage technology is based around broadcast television needs, industry experts doubt if a new commercial standard will evolve to meet the more demanding needs of military users until newer commercial technologies with obvious military applications, such as high-definition television, mature.

Another hurdle both industry and users must overcome is the development of a coherent definition of COTS. "The test for commerciality is pretty loose these days," said Lee. "In the past, there used to be a firm requirement to sell a commercial product to the government that had to be sold in the open market. There had to be substantial sales to non-government customers. What it actually meant was that you couldn't go out and develop a product and call it commercial and have the government as your only customer. Today, that's fallen by the wayside. Now what most companies call commercial off the shelf are products that they may or may not have developed for the government, but they have developed it on their own funding or at least through their own independent research and development [IR&D] and the government pays what the price is per unit and gets a discount based on quantity. That's the loosely defined meaning of COTS these days."

Some industry sources have suggested that products be given a graded rating based on the percentage of COTS components that are used to assemble the product. They believe this, in conjunction with a stricter definition of COTS, would provide a more accurate representation of what a product contains.

With the US defense budgets shrinking dramatically every year, military users must contend with the reality that program budgets will not allow them to develop specific recorders for their programs anymore. They must choose what is available, even if that means a loss in capability. While program managers in some cases must reduce their data storage requirements, the advantage of COTS is that they can procure the equipment faster and far cheaper than in the past.


Among the users who push the data storage requirements envelope the hardest is the intelligence community. Volumes of data, including sonar, radar and communications signals are gathered daily across the globe by reconnaissance equipment. In some cases, such as the US Navy's ATARS program, the equipment is fitted to Marine Corps F-18s. In others, the environment is more benign, such as a large aircraft, ship or submarine. While these latter environments may not be as stringent as a tactical aircraft, the data demands of the intelligence customer are still enormous. As sensors continue to gather more data at higher definitions and processors continue to convert that data into usable information at greater speeds and capacities, the data recorder must keep pace with these developments while still remaining affordable.

One intelligence upgrade currently under way that illustrates this dynamic is the US Navy's EP-3E Sensor System Improvement Program (SSIP). Based on modified P-3 airframes, 12 EP-3Es currently form the backbone of the Navy's airborne SIGINT capabilities.

Conceived as a follow-on upgrade to the EP-3E Aires II program, the SSIP calls for the enhancement or improvement of the aircraft's communications and sensors suites under three initiatives known as Story Book, Story Teller and Story Classic. A principal acquisition strategy of the SSIP program is the utilization of COTS/NDI hardware and software.

From a data storage viewpoint, the SSIP involves replacing the AN/USH-26(V)1 recorder reproducer (tape drive memory loader unit); MU-962/A memory expansion unit (a 16 MB bubble memory unit used as RAM for the aircraft AN/AYK-14 computer); and the AN/USH-34 recorder reproducer (audio cassette recorder).

SSIP systems include the Mission Data Base Server (which consists of a 2.8-GB SCSI II removable disk drive in a ruggedization canister), a SPARC 5CE VME processor, a VME NTDS interface card and Sybase. Audio signals are recorded via a DI-930-8, comprised of a PC-based digital audio recorder, IDE removable disk drive buffer and Digital Audio Tape (DAT) mass storage. The unit can record over 200 channel hours per DAT with vastly improved bandwidth and data search/playback capabilities, according to program officials.

The SSIP mission processor is a ruggedized HP-9000 computer with a 2-GB removable disk drive, DAT drive and CD. Under the SSIP, the mission processor units will replace 10 of the 13 IP- 1515 operator workstations. VME chassis processors - 2.8-GB SCSI II disk drives housed in ruggedized casing are used for premission data storage as well as mission collect data storage and operational software storage. Mission loading requires approximately 5 min with the system. Another SSIP item, common with the Air Force's RC-135 Rivet Joint SIGINT aircraft, is the EPE-113 - a dual 600-MB SCSI II magneto-optical drive.

With the experience of earlier EP-3E upgrades such as the Aries II under his belt, Art Denecke, SSIP team leader at the Naval Air Warfare Center-Aircraft Division (Indianapolis, IN), said, "The COTS/NDI philosophy of the SSIP, in my opinion, has allowed more flexibility and capability to be utilized in this upgrade than in previous upgrades. The available COTS/NDI storage devices meet and generally surpass any requirements which we have in SSIP as far as storage capacity. This was not the case in previous upgrade programs utilizing fill mil-spec storage devices as, quite often, memory capacity was limited."

Other SSIP issues, such as the operating environment, had been taken into consideration as well with regard to COTS/NDI equipment. According to Denecke, "The operating environment on the EP-3E is another area of requirements that, while not as straightforward as the capacity issue, has still been improved through the COTS/NDI philosophy. The operating environment of the EP-3E has been pretty accurately characterized and understood. This was done in the mid-1980s by actually instrumenting an EP-3E with accelerometers, temp sensors, etc., and flying it. It was found that while the environment of an EP-3E is not 'office space benign,' it is considerably less than mil-spec. This data was analyzed and used to generate the EP-3E Environmental Requirements Document."

In comparison to earlier EP-3E upgrades, the COTS/NDI philosophy has provided more freedom, rather than less, with regard to an acquisition strategy. Denecke added, "Even with the data indicating a less than full mil-spec environmental requirement, there was pressure in previous upgrades to require the use of full mil-spec equipment, with non-mil-spec equipment being allowed only through a waiver process. Operational experience has shown that non-mil-spec equipment has performed well in the EP-3E operating environment. SSIP has fully utilized the EP-3E Environmental Requirements Document. This concept has resulted in a totally COTS/NDI data storage solution. It was found that there are a good number of suppliers of off-the-shelf data storage devices that have already been ruggedized to our requirements."

Currently, the Navy is determining the extent to which the smaller carrier-based ES-3 SIGINT aircraft will be upgraded. While the upgrade is expected to derive its technology from the EP-3E SSIP, the data storage solution may include more off-board equipment, due to the data link technology developed under the Battle Group Passive Horizon Extension System (for more on BGPHES, see JED, July 1995, p. 32).

Other airborne intelligence programs which have recently met their data storage requirements with COTS equipment include the Air Force's E-8 Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (Joint STARS) and E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) programs. According to the Air Force AWACS Program Office (Hanscom AFB, MA), "The COTS/NDI initiative has caused AWACS to re-examine operating requirements to allow the use of COTS/NDI equipment where possible. Planning for a new mission/display processor which will be procured within the next two to three years will include requirements for mass storage. The current draft of the requirements includes preferences for COTS equipment, and the environmental requirements have been tailored to be closer to COTS equipment capabilities. Planned budgets for the program are lower and schedules are of short length, so that most likely COTS equipment will be the only solution. It is unlikely that a custom development [effort] could be performed with the planned budget and schedule for the program."

The current E-3 AWACS configuration includes three 9-track tape drives (800 BPI, 2,400-ft tapes), for initial program loading and for data recording. In addition, it uses three magnetic drum storage units, 1.6 MB each (400k, 32-bit words each) for short-term storage while the operational program is operating. According to the program office, one acquisition uses a 5.25-in., 91-MB COTS/NDI disk unit which was considered NDI, as it was developed for another government program. It was originally based on a commercial disk drive unit, with the unit modified to mount into a housing to form a removable cartridge. The cartridge is mounted into a custom chassis which provides the driver electronics and power filtering.

A second effort which utilizes mass storage media will replace the 9-track tape drives on AWACS with hard-disk media storage. Like the other acquisition above, it is a modified commercial disk chassis that has been modified for insertion into a removable cartridge which mounts into a custom chassis. The custom chassis provides not only a mounting for the removable cartridges but also provides the additional interface electronics to allow the disk drive unit to be operated with the existing host computer interface.

Rather than drive up system costs to meet environmental specs, a heater is used to support cold temperature operation. "COTS/NDI will affect most military environmental requirements, particularly temperature," the office said. "Current commercial equipment does not typically operate at the Mil-E-5400 requirement extreme of -54 [degrees] C. Most units are designed with a focus on an office environment and only operate down to around -20 [degrees] C to 0 [degree] C....Most other environmental issues can be resolved with good design in the external package in which the NDI equipment is installed. Isolation can mitigate shock and vibration, electrical filtration can provide noise-free power, the surrounding package can provide EMC/EMI, etc."

The AWACS program office also said that nuclear survivability must be considered when using COTS/NDI equipment. "Issues of having to operate through a [nuclear] event or be able to automatically recover after an event need to be addressed in the requirements."

The Joint STARS program, also located at Hanscom, has been able to utilize COTS/NDI hardware from the beginning. According to the program office, "Our [computer/storage] architecture pre-dates the recent COTS/NDI initiatives, allowing use of NDI drives that incorporate state-of-the-art capability....Instead of stating storage requirements that would tax militarized disk technology, today we find that NDI/COTS disks, for our environment, provide increasing capability (e.g., capacity) while being lighter and cheaper."

Currently, the program uses Computing Devices International's (CDI's) AN/UYH-16(V) drives which employ a Seagate COTS mechanism packaged by CDI. Eighteen single-drive 1.3-GB drives are on board, one with each operator workstation. There are also five quadruple-drive mass storage systems, totaling 5.2 GB per quad drive.

The office stated that it incorporates COTS/NDI technology preferentially. It is able to accomplish this in part because mil-std performance and manufacturing guidelines are not a requirement for Joint STARS data storage devices. However, the program office added that it does use Mil-Std-810 guidelines to define the application environment.


While the changes brought about by the COTS initiative have been noted, data storage industry leaders say that the degree of those changes needs to be put in perspective. Many agree that it is a step in the right direction but that it still needs fine tuning. This is understandable, since the Department of Defense's implementation of the COTS policy is still evolving.

Many note that military data storage manufacturers do not have to make a very large step to embrace COTS. According to Jean-Francois Sulzer, director of navy and intelligence programs at Schlumberger Industries, Data Acquisition and Recording Div., "[In] essence, data storage [technology] is program independent, and the basic technologies have always derived from commercial products (VCRs, computer peripherals, etc.)." Others go further, explaining that COTS simply brings the relationship of commercial and military data storage users closer together, and that both will benefit from the synergistic effects of cooperation.

As was discussed earlier, the definition of COTS remains a problem. Victor Leung, product manager for strategic products at Datatape Inc. (Pasadena, CA), explained, "We've learned that the COTS initiative and the COTS practice can be two different things. The mandate to use COTS is fine, but we're finding that requirements are still being specified outside of the true COTS recorder ranges....A middle ground 'government COTS' seems to be carving its own market niche."

Few industry sources expressed any optimism that a group of standard data formats (similar to the IRIG days) to support equipment interoperability, would be forthcoming soon. In the COTS world, the military user is more inclined to select from what is available rather than develop what he wants. While some down selection of standards will take place, the chances that military users will settle around a narrow set of commercially developed standards to meet all of their data storage needs is unlikely.

One exception may be the Defense Airborne Reconnaissance Office, manager of most DOD airborne reconnaissance platforms. According to James Dunford, vice president of business development at Precision Echo (Santa Clara, CA), DARO may be able to select a standard format for all of the recording devices aboard the platforms under its purview. These include, among others, the Tier II, Tier II+ and Tier III- unmanned aerial vehicles and the Navy's EP-3E and the Air Force's RC-135 Rivet Joint, U-2 and RC-135 aircraft. A separate standardization effort is currently under way within DARO, known as the Joint Airborne SIGINT Architecture.

On the other hand, "a disadvantage may occur with respect to format standardization," according to Ben Harris of Racal Recorders, Inc. (Irvine, CA). "Those who use COTS to establish a standard rule themselves out of taking advantage of other better and newer standards. Conversely, those who take advantage of using the most advanced commercial equipment available may find themselves involved in data interchange logistic difficulties.... With no standard format available from all vendors, the user must sometimes buy two recorders so that his data is shared."

The issue of program support was also raised. In the past, military contracts have included clauses requiring equipment support for up to 20 years. In the COTS world, however, when the commercial market moves from one product or format to another, the government will have to follow suit. According to Garth Orgill, director of program development at Datatape, "The biggest problem with the COTS/NDI initiative is that the government is losing its support infrastructure....COTS suppliers can pull product whenever they want, they can replace technologies with newer technologies and stop supporting the old. This poses a big problem in spares provisioning for long-term support required by government applications....In the past, government has worked on cost-plus agreements - with the contractor captive during the duration of the program. With COTS, this isn't the case, and the government is finding itself more involved in integration."

Within limits, the COTS/NDI initiatives are meeting the government's needs. It is certainly an improvement over previous methods of procurement and certainly the most ambitious attempt at procurement reform in recent history. However, according to Orgill, "I know right now that the government would like to find a recorder that can handle 800 Mbits/sec, but they're not going to find it in the commercial world. They could pay for a developmental effort and get it done, but commercially, they will have to wait. On the other hand, most of the government's requirements can be met with COTS recorders, if the government is willing to compromise their requirements. However, government requirements and COTS specifications haven't found a true meeting point to date."
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Title Annotation:commercial off the shelf data storage equipment
Author:Knowles, John
Publication:Journal of Electronic Defense
Date:Aug 1, 1995
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