OSA: Blog Articles

The Pros and Cons of Interoperable Systems and Proprietary Systems

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Acronyms in this blog:

DoD – Department of Defense

OSA – Open System Architecture

R&D – Research and Development


One of the specific goals of the Department of Defense’s (DoD) stated goal of moving to Open System Architecture (OSA) is to get away from proprietary systems. Designing, building, and utilizing systems that are interoperable is integral to adopting a modular approach. Proprietary systems are designed and are the intellectual property of one entity or company. Interoperable systems follow specific standards, but the design and standards are general enough that multiple entities can improve upon the design and produce the system independently.

Is this a beneficial approach for the DoD? There are benefits and drawbacks to both proprietary systems and an interoperable approach. But, which creates more long-term value for the DoD? Let’s examine the pros and cons of each approach.


The Pros and Cons of Proprietary Systems

Let’s begin with the pros of proprietary systems. The most immediate is that proprietary systems have inherent continuity in the development style and procedures for technology. A company that has produces a successful system will have established processes to continue development on that system. Not only that, they will have an experienced development team intimately familiar with that system. There is great value in having established and successful development and, crucially, the accompanying documentation for further development. There should be minimal learning curve to working on a proprietary piece of technology.

However, there are cons to embracing proprietary systems. The first is that the vendor has extraordinary leverage in pricing. When the vendor holds the keys to development, they can drive up the price tag on the DoD. The second con is that when the research and development (R&D) is placed behind a proprietary barrier, creativity is limited. The collective innovation of American engineering is gated by proprietary barriers as only the employed engineering teams of that company or entity, no matter how talented, are the only ones looking under the hood of a given piece of technology. Finally, it becomes possible for the owners of proprietary technology to measure the pace of innovation in deliberate ways. Effort and resource to the R&D of a piece of technology are determined by the stakeholders of that company. While this may, in reality, not be a limiting factor, it could narrow the scope of innovation to a proprietary lens. However, the pros and cons of proprietary systems are only one half of the equation. Let’s look at the pros and cons of interoperability.


The Pros and Cons of Interoperable Systems

The first pro of a modular approach using interoperable systems is the creation of universal standards. With set standards across a family of systems, component and interface design can be executed by independent entities. This broadens the scope of R&D beyond a single entity or company. This enables the best ideas, and best of engineering, to rise to the top to benefit the DoD. Perhaps the most beneficial pro of interoperable systems and OSA is found in the budget. Breaking vendor lock on proprietary systems represents a significant reduction of costs for the DoD. Rather than being pinned to dealing with one defense contractor, they can take the most competitive offer available. This breaks the traditional and established model of contracting in the defense industry.

There are cons and risks involved with interoperable systems. First and foremost is that standards must be adhered to by contractors. Interoperable systems only work if defense contractors meet the standards and requirements laid out for the components and interfaces. This means that the DoD must work along with contractors to maintain high levels of quality control and quality assurance for families of systems. Lastly, defense contractors must maintain vigilant levels of security for documentation and technology across all facets of their enterprise.


Analyzing the Pros and Cons

Analyzing the pros and cons of proprietary and interoperable systems, one big thing jumps out: the ceiling of an interoperable approach is much higher than that of proprietary approaches. Introducing competition to innovation is a sure-fire way to drive development. This, in the long run, is beneficial to both the DoD and defense contractors. The second significant takeaway is that modular, interoperable systems guided by set standards are far cheaper than proprietary systems. Competition for OSA contracts will save the DoD money while serving as a catalyst to innovation.