FROM ONE-OFF TO OFF-THE-SHELF AND BEYOND
By David Lalley, Systematic A/S
The elephant in the room
There seems to be one constant reality behind purchasing decisions undertaken by and on behalf of modern defence forces – every system and piece of equipment has to achieve more, yet cost less.
Modern hardware and systems are constantly escalating in complexity, while users’ expectations about capability spiral upwards and outwards.
And all this is taking place within a context of technology shifts and rapidly mutating operating requirements, accompanied by increasing urgency that these new demands be met promptly in order to save lives as well as political face.
As a result, value for money has become the mantra when rolling out new systems and equipment for use in military environments. This applies to software just as much as hardware …
Software – the invisible glue
In modern military operations, software is the glue that holds together all the information without which no organisation can get anything done. No orders can be given, no vehicle has a route map, no plane can take off and no soldier knows what he or she has to do.
Software is the backbone of information management – the engine that drives all the hardware. However, the basic strategic principles and dynamics involved in developing and implementing this key component in military infrastructures are rarely discussed in broad terms.
This article provides an overview of how one key supplier of information management software for military customers tackles the process of product development, refinement and practical implementation.
The one-off tradition
When a military organisation purchases software for backbone information management duties, there is normally a fundamental “make it or buy it” decision to be made.
In the days of proudly separate national armed forces, when each country usually also fielded its own “home-grown” IT hardware and software, the obvious choice was for each nation to use its own suppliers to design and build one-off systems. These could then be tailored around all kinds of national requirements, preferences and quirks about equipment and procedures.
Often, the complexity and uniqueness of the system specifications actually meant there was no real alternative to one-off thinking – the seemingly inevitable budget over-runs, roll-out delays and capability shortfalls just had to be put up with.
Running out of steam
This traditional mindset has been steadily running out of steam in the face of modern budgetary realities and focus on competitive tendering.
Experience shows that one-off systems often run into substantial difficulties within the context of modern multinational military operations where equipment and systems from different countries and different forces have to be able to work together.
Nowadays, interoperability between nations and systems is at the heart of operations and exercises of all kinds. As a result, very few military operations or purchasing decisions can still get away with traditional isolationist thinking.
Furthermore, one-off, bespoke development means each customer usually has to shoulder the burden of development costs alone and upfront – hardly an attractive scenario in cash-strapped times.
As a result, market forces have gained the upper hand on feature fanaticism, and the inexorable drive of the “value for money” argument has reconfigured the demand side of the purchasing equation.
Once is not enough
One of the many drawbacks about supplying bespoke software systems is that it is nigh-impossible to pull together design specifications capable of meeting all eventualities and every constellation of requirements – or even most of them.
When the whole process is only done once, serious under-estimation of the work, complexity and costs involved is virtually inevitable. When all the functionalities are specified and coded on a one-time only basis, errors are bound