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COTS for Data Acquisition, Test & Control Systems

Quick Links: Introduction | History of COTS | Why COTS | UEI & COTS
COTS Flexibility | COTS Guarantees


Imagine this: your legacy systems are aging. Failures are becoming more frequent; repairs are becoming more difficult; downtime is increasing; your company is pouring more and more time and money into keeping your systems alive. When you go to repair a home-built custom unit, you find that the engineer who designed it in the 90s retired years ago. You can't find the source code! The development tools have been discontinued or won't run on your newer PC! Documentation is minimal, sketched onto a few scraps of paper you found in a box somewhere, and you just can't seem to make heads or tails of it.

Odds are, you've either experienced this or are about to.

Using COTS (Commercial Off-The-Shelf) hardware helps mitigate these issues. Keep reading to learn more about the history of COTS hardware, its strengths and limitations, and how UEI COTS system solutions can help you save time, money, and best prepare your systems for the future.

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History of COTS

B52 systems are ideal for COTS upgrades.

The life cycle of many electronics systems is a long one, often spanning decades and even generations. Take, for example, famous military aircraft: the F-16 Fighting Falcon is nearly five decades old and the B-52 Stratofortress bomber is eligible for social security, but even though they may be on third or fourth generation electronics, both systems are still active and need to be maintained. Nearly every modern industry is built on systems that were developed decades ago, many of which are based on technologies that can no longer be replaced or repaired. This is because in the 20th century, technology was developing rapidly and designers weren't thinking about system adaptability in the distant future; they were preoccupied with coming up with new and better tools to meet military and technological goals.

Common legacy systems that are still prevalent today, but are becoming increasingly difficult to maintain and support, include:

  • VME bus and I/O system standard
    • Many boards are no longer available
    • Board repair times are astronomical
    • Few (if any) new I/O boards available
  • ISA/PCI/PXI bus and I/O system standard
    • Replacement PCs with slots are scarce
    • PCIe to PCI bridge chips are “questionable” at best
    • Many boards are no longer available
    • Older OS’s not supported
  • Serial (RS-232/422/485) and GPIB/IEEE-488 communications interfaces
    • People were writing obituaries for RS-232 back in the 80s
    • USB has supplanted most of the 232/GBIP business
    • Most 232/GBIP I/O manufacturers have moved on

As firms and particularly the military try to keep their systems operational despite major obsolescence issues and dated technologies, there has been a major shift to replacing legacy systems with COTS or custom COTS-based systems. In the 90s, the military began a push for the adoption of COTS as a low-cost, low-maintenance alternative to custom, home-grown, and bespoke hardware and software solutions, and over the past two decades, COTS use has been mandated in a wide range of government and commercial programs as part of an effort to minimize design and production costs and mitigate obsolescence concerns.

Today, COTS hardware and software are a critical part of the infrastructure for nearly every industry, from military and defense to aerospace and automotive.

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    Why COTS

    If you’re building your first system, you don’t want to wait 6-12 weeks to get a piece of hardware to evaluate. If you’re releasing your project to production, you don’t want to hear from purchasing that the component you need is 12-16 weeks away. Finally, if you’re up and running and your system takes a lightning hit, you don’t want to find out that a replacement board is at least two months away. COTS helps avoid such delays by making it fast, cheap, and easy to acquire products.

    COTS Benefits:

    COTS Limitations:

    • The design process and associated costs are offloaded from the customer to the COTS vendor, saving you time, energy, and money
    • Many COTS vendors (including UEI!) are happy to work to design custom-COTS modified hardware to perfectly match your application
    • Using COTS components in manufacturing helps reduce equipment/installation costs and increases supply chain reliability
    • COTS availability reduces the on-site requirement for spares as well as ensuring fast access to replacement components when necessary
    • COTS products are typically designed with flexibility in mind and can be used in many configurations with a wide variety of hardware and software products
    • COTS hardware and software align with global standards such as MOSA, SOSA, and FACE™
    • In some cases, using COTS products (especially software) may be a security risk because of their accessibility; COTS should not be used in contexts where sensitive information may be compromised
    • COTS is not inherently customized, so in some cases making COTS hardware fit an application may be more expensive and time-consuming than designing a custom/bespoke solution
    • Since the customer doesn't have control over COTS unit production, they may face obsolescence challenges if the COTS product is discontinued

    NASA has been a COTS champion for many mission-critical solutions. This graphic outlines the importance of COTS products and the detailed screening required for successful application.

    Source: NASA NESC Technical Update 2014, “COTS Components in Spacecraft Systems: Understanding the Risk“

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    How UEI is COTS

    All of UEI’s Cube and RACKtangle I/O products are standard, off-the-shelf COTS products, which means that the vast majority of our chassis & I/O boards have a lead time of 2 weeks.

    • UEI helps bridge the gap between COTS and custom/bespoke hardware by working with customers to design custom-COTS solutions
    • UEI chassis are compatible with all of our I/O boards and accessories
    • UEI aligns our COTS hardware and software with many standards, including:
    • UEI's COTS Guarantees help mitigate obsolescence challenges stemming from discontinued COTS products. More on this below.

    COTS Hardware & OS/Programming Flexibility

    It’s important to never underestimate the value of software flexibility when it comes to COTS hardware selection. A COTS system supplier should offer extensive software support regardless of what programming language, application or operating system you wish to use.

    Almost everyone in the industry has good Windows support and UEI is no exception. You’ll find our support, including our UEIDAQ Framework, is the most robust, simplest-to-use interface available. Whether you’re programming in C, VB, any of the .NET languages or applications such as LabVIEW and MATLAB our support is unequaled.

    However, where UEI really differentiates itself is in the support of Linux, VxWorks, QNX, RTX, INTime and languages outside the Windows world. We never leave our customers looking to bulletin boards or open source for drivers. Everything is written and fully tested by our software team.

    Even in the unlikely event that we are out of a product you need for an emergency replacement, we will scramble and find something we can get to you fast to get you back up and running immediately.

    COTS & I/O

    COTS chassis should have a wide variety of I/O board solutions that allow for easy connection to your signals. Taking advantage of communication buses such as Ethernet, RS482/485 with protocols such as Modbus/TCP, UDP, allow for easy integration into existing networks and systems. This allows for maximum flexibility and usage.

    With well over 90 different I/O boards available, UEI is sure to have just what your application needs. We understand that connecting to 98% of the signals in your system is simply not enough. Our goal is to have 100% of what you need. Beyond that, our goal is also to connect directly to what your system provides without the need for external signal conditioning.

    COTS I/O options with UEI include:

    Read about how these industry leaders benefitted from a UEI COTS solution:

    Space Launches
    From launch pad to International Space Station systems, our hardware is being used to control and monitor a large number of deployed space solutions. Whether the application is military, government-funded, or even with our growing list of commercial space customers, our hardware is becoming a staple in the space industry.
    BAE Systems
    One of BAE Systems' most successful products, the HybriDrive® Propulsion System is a smart electric drive propulsion system that can power inner-city transit at lower costs and emission levels than traditional diesel propulsion systems. UEI helped BAE's Hybrid Buses maximize efficiency and monitor engine system health in real time.
    Piaggio Aerospace
    To simplify and manage the complexities of operating the P.11H HammerHead, Piaggio's state-of-the-art smart UAS designed for surveillance and recon missions, Piaggio was looking for a control and monitoring system solution. UEI provided the HammerHead with a rugged, reliable, and flexible control and monitoring system solution.

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    UEI COTS Guarantees to Avoid Obsolescence

    Protecting you from obsolescence is a priority! UEI's COTS Guarantees are our promise to you. By guaranteeing the availability of all chassis and I/O products for 10 years from your purchase date, we make it easy for you to acquire replacement parts and maximize supply chain reliability.

    10 Year Availability Guarantee3 Year Hardware Warranty
    UEI guarantees the availability of all chassis & I/O products for a minimum of 10 years from purchase. Unless you are specifically notified at the time of purchase, all chassis & I/O products will be available for repurchase for at least 10 years.
    UEI is so confident in the dependability of our hardware that we offer a standard warranty to 3 years -- extendable to 10 years! Extending the warranty to 10 years is easy based on our low return rate (<0.3%).

    Learn more about UEI's COTS Guarantees:

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