COTS: Where the Defense Industry Leads, Others Follow


Defense vehicle

In my spare time, I write frequently about broadcast and professional audiovisual technology. Each year, I make a point of attending the International Broadcasting Convention (IBC) in Amsterdam in September and the Integrated Systems Europe (ISE) show in February. They attract huge crowds to the RAI exhibition center—some 55,000 over five days for IBC and close to 70,000 over four days for ISE. 

Although, historically, they’ve been two very different shows with distinct audiences, something I’ve become increasingly aware of over the past year or two is how they’re beginning to converge—to the point where it’s getting harder to tell them apart. 

To grossly oversimplify: IBC is about the technologies it takes to capture, edit and transmit content—while ISE is about the technologies used to deliver content, such as screens, audio systems and so on.

No real convergence there. Where the convergence is happening is at the technology level. Both industries have now pretty much completed the transition from analog to digital—and that’s opening up a world of opportunities.

As with any change, however, it hasn’t necessarily been straightforward in either case. Both industries, for example, have in the past favored certain technologies, and are reluctant to let them go—not least because huge sums of money have been invested in infrastructures that leverage those technologies. You should also never underestimate the role of manufacturers who have built profitable businesses based, not just on those technologies, but on their specific implementations of those technologies—which can make interoperability somewhat challenging.

Inexorable move

What’s really driving the change, though, is the inexorable move towards IP-based networking. Today, significantly more content is delivered and consumed via an IP connection than is broadcast via the airwaves. The days of so-called linear TV—and the shared experiences that provoked so many water cooler conversations—are numbered. 

IP uniquely enables on-demand viewing. It uniquely enables multi-screen viewing—the ability to watch on whatever device you choose, whether TV, laptop, tablet or phone. IP is also enormously flexible—an absolute requirement when you’re facing an unknown future. But while those advantages are substantial, they almost pale into insignificance compared with the advantages to be gained from leveraging the huge investment in IP—an investment that has seen Ethernet, for example, move rapidly from 1 Gigabit to 10 Gigabits to 40 Gigabits to 100 Gigabits. And, even more compelling: the cost of networking infrastructure, such as switches and routers, is dropping all the time. 

As IP sweeps all before it, audiovisual and broadcasting companies are looking towards what the IT community has been achieving for some time. They’re casting envious eyes at how much computing horsepower can be obtained for how little outlay—and at how interoperability is a given. No more proprietary architectures—or being locked into a single manufacturer.

That’s right. They’re seeing the advantages of COTS, with its state of the art silicon and its implicit assumption of interoperability—advantages that the defense industry has experienced for many years. They’re seeing how networking can transform what’s possible—just as the defense industry has embraced the networked battlefield. They’re seeing how data center technologies can be adapted and deployed in new ways—just as the defense industry has done with High Performance Embedded Computing (HPEC). 

For a long time, the defense industry was perceived as something of a technology laggard. Today, it seems as if our industry is leading the way—beating a path into the future that others are looking to follow.


Ian McMurray

Ian McMurray started his 40-year career in the technology industry back when 4K wasn’t the latest TV resolution — it was as much memory as you needed to write a complete, integrated accounting system for a computer. He started life as a mainframe salesman but eventually succumbed to the lure of marketing, and has since held a variety of European and worldwide marketing management positions, as well as occasional forays into sales training and development. He’s now the PR guy for Abaco Systems, and is based in Towcester, England.

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