Understand When COTS Will Suffice Rather Than Custom
March 24, 2022
COTS (commercial off-the-shelf) is a term that gets thrown around a lot in the embedded computer industry, particularly on the hardware side. COTS products are optimized for efficient, sometimes volume, production and come with a predetermined amount of functionality and I/O capabilities designed to meet the majority of computing needs of a broader market.
They typically do not offer much in the way of customization, but are easy to install and may function properly with other system components with very little tweaking.
When it comes to embedded computer systems, there aren’t too many that ship completely “as is” off the shelf. There are almost always some modifications needed. Sometimes those modifications are made by the embedded solutions vendor, and sometimes they are made later by the system integrator who has more insight into the specific needs of the end application.
COTS vs. MOTS
Those modified systems actually fit into a lesser-known category, referred to as MOTS, for modified off the shelf, or Modified COTS (think semi-custom). Such a system starts out as a COTS product, and it may even be the intentions of the OEM to keep it that way. Then, when it’s time to bring the system online, the OEM realizes that some minor adjustments are needed.
This situation is typical and usually does not cause a problem, assuming your embedded computer solutions vendor has the expertise to handle these modifications. In most cases, the necessary modifications don’t come as a surprise to the solutions provider, and they are processed quickly and easily. One example of a MOTS solution may simply involve removing unneeded functionality by omitting components during a board production run, thus reducing cost of the embedded system.
An advantage of COTS and MOTS equipment is that it has generally progressed through long development cycles, so the potential for a failure is lower.
Note that in the military space, MOTS has a different meaning. There, it is known as military off the shelf. But we’ll keep the discussion here focused on the industrial side.
When Custom Is Needed
When modifications go beyond what is “typical,” then you move into the full custom solution. The levels of customization can vary greatly, depending on the needs of the application. For example, if a product of a particular size, shape, or weight is needed, customization would be required. If the system must endure extreme temperatures or operate in extra rugged environments, customization might be needed.
The WINSYSTEMS PXI-C441 SBC is a good example of a COTS solution. OEMs can go directly to market without making modifications, thanks to the board’s rich feature set.
The emphasis above is on the word “might” as many solutions providers are designing their systems to higher standards in their base configurations. For example, WINSYSTEMS keeps the bar on its PX1-C441 single board computer (SBC) high, starting with the use of the latest generation Intel Apollo Lake-I dual- or quad-core SoC processors for handling high-end embedded workloads.
Designed to a PC/104 form factor, the SBC features PCIe/104 OneBank expansion. It includes up to 8 Gbytes of soldered down LPDDR4 system memory and a non-removable eMMC device for solid-state storage of an operating system (OS) and applications.
With these features, including small size, rugged design, and extended operating temperature range, many applications can be accommodated without having to make modifications. Hence, this purchase would fall into the COTS category.
Keep in mind that customization can be performed either by the solutions provider or by the OEM. There are tradeoffs associated with each. The solutions provider knows the hardware and software extremely well, but the OEM is far more familiar with the application itself.
The best solution usually comes from a partnership between the solutions provider and the OEM. By working collaboratively, the specific needs are met with the highest-performing system that’s been through multiple stages of test. It always creates a path for long-term support, which is useful when upgrades are needed. The solutions provider has likely worked through all the potential issues so upgrades can be performed far more smoothly than if an OEM was to “go it alone.”