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When to use Commercial Off-the-Shelf (COTS) technology

Often, when government looks to recompete or start a new IT project, they’re presented with a Commercial Off-the-Shelf (COTS) solution that promises to do exactly what is needed out-of-the-box. There are a number of reasons why agencies might find the acquisition of a COTS project tempting, even desirable — potentially short timeline from acquisition to usage, no long term maintenance requirements that often accompany custom solutions, and sometimes minimal or no hosting concerns (if the COTS is cloud-based).

The decision whether to use a COTS product or build a custom software product should always be based on the needs and assets of your users and current infrastructure. No situation is exactly the same, but here are some general considerations to help you in choosing whether COTS is right for your project.

Start by articulating what you want the system to do and for who(m)

Before making any decision, you should be able to articulate the value of the system you think you need and a general idea of some of the main features to drive that value for the people who will use it. We often call this a product vision, which is a succinct and shared understanding of what we need.

The best way to surface how end-user considerations might map to a COTS product is through a value mapping exercise. These exercises help you identify which of your users’ needs are unique and which are a commodity. Use design research to start to evaluate user needs, identify existing tools, and map out the components of the system (for example, infrastructure, an email service, or an authentication service). You can take advantage of the 18F Methods to help conduct this research and assessment. When looking at the components, rather than the sum of its parts, you may be more likely to reuse existing software, whether it’s free and open source or COTS.

When evaluating a COTS solution to deliver your government service to the public, be upfront about asking a COTS vendor to allow your users to test out the product. In the demo, are users able to accomplish the workflow with minimal pain and confusion? If not, assess the feasibility of changes to the system to meet your end user needs.

Additional technical considerations:

  • The feasibility and total cost (time and financial) to transition from legacy systems
  • Ongoing operations and maintenance costs
  • Costs related to being locked-in to a single vendor such as data migration, understanding of your business process, and uncovering technical debt.
  • Costs associated with maintaining custom features, and who owns those modifications and the data associated with them

When might you want to consider COTS?

If it’s a product under active development, which often indicates that they’re continuing to deliver value and responding to market needs. Product development and collaboration tools are a great example of this. Here at 18F, we use many COTS tools to help us manage our continuous integrations, product backlogs, design exercises, internal communications, and vulnerability disclosure program. We want our product development to align with private sector practices, and COTS — typically Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) — helps us execute those processes in a way that meets industry best practices. We benefit from the ability to combine these tools with additional lightweight custom scripts to best meet our unique work environment.

Following market trends can also be cost effective, because you’re sharing the cost with other customers outside of government. We often see the flip side of this with partners who are using collaboration or development tools that are not actively used outside of government. In these cases, agencies could end up shouldering the cost of nonstandard or outdated practices, or technical debt that comes from using obscure COTS products.

If the same COTS solution is successfully in use elsewhere in government (successful according to the users, not according to the vendor). A quick internet search can usually indicate if this product is in production or has led to failure (for example, had serious cost and time overruns, led to a lawsuit, or had major configuration challenges). If it’s in use, check with the users — not the program managers — of the system to see if it is meeting their needs appropriately. They may be able to flag potential concerns around customization or modification expenses. If it’s FedRAMP authorized, you can see which agencies use it or can use USAspending.gov to start your research.

What are some indications you should do more market research before moving ahead with a COTS solution?

If you can see early on that the COTS solutions will require a lot of modifications or customization to meet your user needs. It’s rare that your implementation will truly be “off the shelf”, and modifying COTS solutions can have unexpected costs. Configuring a COTS product to meet your needs is not inherently a problem, but we often see modifications to the underlying code base grow to the point where the system cannot handle any updates from the COTS provider. This poses security risks and can be a risk to the long-term viability of the tool. Be sure to verify that any customization and modification to meet your user needs will be less costly than an open-source solution.

On the other hand, if the COTS product already meets your user needs, does it come at the cost of having to support a suite of features that your organization will never use? Large COTS platforms that are the Swiss Army knife of solutions can leave your agency paying for large licensing costs to support unused capabilities or features you will never use. COTS providers will often have a disincentive to be transparent about the maintenance costs of modification and may charge additional costs for migrating existing data or extracting data when a contract sunsets. You can mitigate this risk by procuring the smallest possible solution or multiple smaller COTS products and leveraging open-source components that fulfill discrete tasks so that you are less reliant on any one single component.

If you’re looking for a software solution to meet your central program mission. Government services to the public are often unique and distinct from private sector offerings. Therefore, if a private company offers a product to manage a government service, it was likely developed to be sold to multiple government entities, making use of decentralized government purchasing. This can have advantages, but agencies can also be susceptible to vendor lock-in. Vendors may have less incentive to actively maintain and continue developing software with a small market, meaning the government shoulders the cost of investment, but may end up depending on nonstandard or outdated software to deliver against their mission.

If you’re looking for a tool for internal operations, such as human resources or acquisitions, a COTS solution might not be able to deliver against unique processes. Government workflows are often unique and face special regulatory and policy constraints. Even within government, your specific regulatory framework is potentially different enough from another agency’s that it would require extensive customization and the cost-sharing of working with other agencies might not be realized. To see if a COTS product meets administrative needs, you can do a similar exercise to the value stream mapping described above. Map out the team’s current and ideal workflows and conduct an assessment of how closely the products that appear in your market research match the observed ideal workflows. Most importantly, you need someone involved within the government to advocate for migrating to those streamlined workflows; no COTS solution will do that for you.

What are the alternatives to COTS?

You have a few options:

  1. First, it’s worth asking if your processes could be adapted to meet the way the software already manages them. To do so, you need an empowered decision-maker who can prioritize users’ needs and enforce these changes.
  2. You can create a hybrid approach, where you leverage a combination of tools that communicate electronically (usually via an API) to meet your need. One example of this is State of Alaska’s approach to developing a modern eligibility system.
  3. You can leverage open-source technologies to build a custom solution that best meets your user needs. 18F has put together some rules of thumb for reusing or customizing existing open source software.

One single approach may not be the best way to meet your needs. A modular approach will allow you to create a small ecosystem of existing and new tools to efficiently manage cost and feature necessity, whether leveraging COTS or custom built open-source software.

Need help in evaluating these options for your office? Come talk to us about how to make the decision in your agency.

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