CMOSS/CMFF Trades Interoperability for Free-Thinking Innovation

Will the U.S. Army’s attempt to define a universal framework for modular interoperability stifle industry innovation?

An example of General Micro Systems embedded computing technology that can enable the use of open architectures and interoperability in future military air and ground assets. (Image: General Micro Systems)

Answering the challenge of increasingly complex military systems that are harder to upgrade, the U.S. Army has released a set of open system architecture standards. Ensuring an open and common approach to systems architecture, these are the standards that will define the prototypes being built for operational assessment:

  • Command, Control, Computers, Communications, Cyber, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (C5ISR)

  • C5ISR/EW Modular Open Suite of Standards (CMOSS)

  • CMOSS Mounted Form Factor (CMFF)

While these initiatives attempt to define this universal framework for module interoperability, there’s a trade-off between mandating commonality and promoting innovation. As the momentum around CMOSS/CMFF builds, how much room will be left to develop innovative new capabilities and business practices?

Where Interoperability is Heading

How open standards create a new technology acquisition ecosystem for government agencies. (Image: The Open Group SOSA Consortium)

The Army’s vision is straightforward: an open and standardized architecture that allows government and industry to better collaborate on the efficient upgrade of system capabilities. This shift from legacy, program-specific acquisition to modern, inter-system interoperability falls under the Department of Defense’s (DOD) mandate for a Modular Open Systems Approach (MOSA) to procurement that lowers costs and accelerates the deployment of new capabilities that can keep pace with changing threat landscapes.

With the MOSA approach, several open systems standards are seeing growing adoption rates, including:

  • Vehicular Integration for C4ISR/EW Interoperability (VICTORY) — defines in-vehicle networking interoperability down to the data bus.

  • OpenVPX — defined by the VITA trade association’s VITA Standards Organization (VSO) to establish system-level requirements for 3U and 6U modules to improve interoperability and reduce customizations, costs, and risks.

  • Sensor Open Systems Architecture (SOSA) Technical Standard — under The Open Group, uses existing standards, like CMOSS, OpenVPX and VICTORY to foster interoperability between sensor processing hardware and software to minimize proprietary architectures and vendor lock-in.

The graphic provides an example of a module built for interoperability at the chassis level, including the use of industry-standard connectors. (Image: General Microsystems)

CMOSS adopts these frameworks to further enable commonality and interoperability for software, through the Open Group’s Future Airborne Capability Environment (FACE), hardware with OpenVPX, and networking with VICTORY.

Why Focus on Getting Interoperability Right?

Winning the future battlefield will rely on multi-domain operations (MDO) built upon joint forces working together, making paramount the need for systems that reduce barriers to collecting, communicating, and protecting digital data. With new technologies pushing the information envelope, like artificial intelligence (AI), autonomous vehicles, and wearable computers, the need for commonality between data, tools, and processes is crucial for streamlined operations.

An example of interoperability lies within the common household lightbulb. For over a century, the Edison screw socket has been the standard for the incandescent Edison bulb screwed into millions of 110 VAC outlets across North America. With the advent of energy-efficient LED technology, manufacturers had a choice between inventing a new form factor to support low-voltage DC requirements or add a voltage converter between the existing Edison screw base and the LED assembly. History has shown that they decided on the latter. The result: new, efficient LED lighting housed within an existing platform — interoperability wins.

Yet while the choice to stick with the Edison socket and light fixture preserved the existing, legacy light fixture infrastructure, it completely ignored the future innovation possible from new LED technology. Because of lower power, voltage and light source size (the fingernail-sized LED/LED array itself), LEDs can be embedded into all kinds of objects, not just light fixtures. The innovation offered by LEDs can embed light sources right into the ceiling, walls, furniture, window blinds and all manner of objects. LEDs might eventually eliminate the concept of a separate, standalone or mounted “lighting device” such as a lamp or ceiling fixture. By maintaining a predefined fixture — the lamp with its Edison socket — innovation was stifled, at least for a partial generation of environments such as homes, offices, and other buildings.

Examples of General Micro Systems open architecture computing form factors on display at a recent trade show. (Image: General Micro Systems)

For U.S. Army programs, it’s critical to maintain the spirit of interoperability without restricting technical evolution. Like the lightbulb, choices must be made as to where the interoperability interface lies within system architectures. Like the light socket, CMFF desires that the line replaceable unit (LRU) is the bus and board style slot card within modules and that swapping out an OpenVPX-compatible card is preferable to swapping out a box. Wrapping up our lighting analogy, suppose the interoperable lighting interface isn’t the socket or fixture, it’s the ability to provide light into a defined environment? If the requirement is to provide XYZ lumens of light, who cares what device provides it? The possibilities are limitless when the interface is moved to higher levels of abstraction.

The assumption here is that changing out slot cards in the field over time is easier and more cost-effective than changing out boxes — a dubious claim at best.

Gregory E. Saunders, former director of the Defense Standardization Program Office, explained the trade-offs with standardization in a 2013 Defense Standardization Program Journal article. In the article, Saunders claims that while commonality is the highest level of standardization, it also “imposes the greatest restriction on innovation. The next level — interchangeability — allows for much greater innovation as long as interfaces and function remain unchanged. The least interoperable of the levels is compatibility, which means systems can work in the same environment without sabotaging each other, but they don’t actually work together.”

Arguably, the biggest driver of innovation since the days of the first light bulb is the collaboration of numerous disciplines acoss the DOD, industry, and academia. Differentiating skills, sharing risks, and maximizing the reuse of technology has led to new capabilities and reduced operating costs over time.

Keeping pace with state-of-the-art technologies is key to CMOSS/CMFF development yet the specified architecture assumes certain approaches are superior to others for all applications. In the slot card example above, it is preferable to define LRU interoperability at the chassis level, such that a solider can rapidly replace any vendor’s box with another one if they maintain interface compatibility.

And the Army is certainly giving some consideration to how next-gen systems mount or integrate into various platforms like ground vehicles. Their recently developed Standard A-Kit/Vehicle Envelope (SAVE) architecture seeks to define a maximum number of outside dimensions which is roughly the size of stacked SINCGARS radios (Figure 3). Within this space, all manner of chassis can be mounted, including ATR or X9 modules.

Interoperate, But Please Innovate

De-risking the path to effective interoperability requires careful consideration of these potential impacts to innovation:

  • Eliminating the ability to reuse proven standards in other industries (for example, Ethernet, USB, and Thunderbolt™ interfaces commonly used in embedded systems).

  • Limiting the number of organizations that can compete, either through the excessive costs of achieving compliance or the lack of skills.

  • Reducing incentives to be in the market as the perception of a “one-size-fits-all” approach is antithetical to companies trying to make a difference through creative innovation.

  • Decreasing the flexibility that DOD and U.S. Army project primes have in defining the system requirements that best meet their intended goals.

  • Increasing acquisition costs as access to commercial commodities, like hardware and software for compute, sensors, storage, and networking, will not be feasible (for example, choosing to use one vendor’s Thunderbolt™-equipped chassis over another).

  • Recognizing that new and modernized systems must integrate with vehicles and networks today, while also remaining open to the architectures of tomorrow.

No one can accurately plan for what future capabilities may require, nor reliably lock down technologies now without a known end-state for the CMOSS/CMFF initiatives. To continually drive industry and academic participation requires some level of vendor interchangeability.

Ultimately, CMOSS/CMFF should provide a framework for interchangeability that supports MDO without restricting the creativity and skillsets of a diverse innovation landscape. Like the Edison screw lightbulb, it’s important to evolve our understanding and practices to standardize in common-sense ways that focus on meeting field requirements without restricting industry innovation and expertise in the years to come.

This article was written by Chris A. Ciufo, Chief Commercial Officer and Chief Technology Officer, General Micro Systems. For more information, visit here .