As modern-day information systems become more complex, the importance of interoperability cannot be overlooked. Organizations across numerous industries rely on a myriad of software applications and devices to streamline operations, facilitate communication and drive innovation. However, without interoperability, the potential of these systems is hindered, which can lead to inefficiencies and barriers to collaboration.

Whether applied to military, commercial or consumer domains, interoperability can benefit every step of the supply chain by reducing overall costs and enabling rapid integration, as well as by improving the long-term sustainability and maintainability of fielded systems. Interoperability promotes cohesion and efficiency across these diverse systems, and the most obvious beneficiary of this is the system integrator.

Well-defined, standardized interfaces enable integrators to select “best in breed” capabilities from multiple potential suppliers without having to absorb the additional costs associated with proprietary or custom interfaces.

In addition, the use of interoperable interfaces across subsystems and components lets integrators keep up with constantly improving technology and capabilities. In growth areas like unmanned systems, interoperability is critical to sustainability since the current “state of the art” can be quickly replaced by a next-generation breakthrough. By focusing on interoperability, new capabilities can be quickly adopted and rolled out without significant system redesign.

Interoperability also can benefit industry vendors – particularly, small- and medium-sized ones. After all, modern systems have become too complex for a single vendor to excel in each of the system’s hardware, software, and mechanical requirements. Interoperable interfaces enable vendors to specialize their offerings and compete in niche areas, while targeting products toward a broad market.

When the same interoperable interfaces are used across the military, civilian, and commercial spaces, vendors can offer a single product that can be integrated into each of these domains. This can foster a broader market and improve both quality and cost. We can look at standard interfaces in our everyday lives as proof of this, where well-supported, standardized interfaces like HDMI, USB and Ethernet gives consumers a robust set of choices across a broad market.

Eliminating ‘vendor lock’

In addition, a system comprised of interoperable components, each offered by a vendor that specialized in that capability, is likely to perform better than a “stovepipe” solution created by a single supplier. Interoperable interfaces also help to eliminate “vendor lock,” where a single supplier can dominate a market with higher price points. They also prevent the vendor lock that occurs when a supplier draws customers into a service-based model around a proprietary core functionality while promising “interoperability” for certain peripheral features.

The interoperability of products across market segments yields better options for vendors, system integrators, and acquisition agencies. For example, the Department of Defense (DoD) has made it clear that they seek to reduce costs by leveraging cost savings often seen within the larger scale of commercial markets. On the other hand, commercial organizations often balk at the high costs of research and development associated with fledgling technologies – costs the defense industry is more willing to tolerate. With interoperable interfaces, commercial markets can embrace the new capabilities developed for the defense sector while minimizing their R&D budget. And the civilian market, often price conscious, benefits from both: emerging capabilities from the defense sector with lower price points often achieved in commercial markets.

Achieving the benefits of interoperability is not without its challenges, however. Notably, achieving compliance with interoperability standards can come with significant one-time costs. Developing interfaces to standards often involves specialized knowledge and talent. Furthermore, getting those interfaces tested and validated can be costly as well. Despite these challenges, the cost-saving benefits of interoperability hopefully outweigh these start-up expenses over the long term.

In addition, to be effective, interoperability and the standardization of interfaces are best applied at critical points in the lifecycle of a new technology. During the early stages of development, things are changing too rapidly, as researchers push boundaries in new directions. Attempting to apply interoperability standards at this stage is a fool’s errand, as any agreed-upon standard is likely to become immediately out-of-date with the next major breakthrough.

On the other hand, attempting to apply standard interfaces to a mature and stable market can be equally as challenging, as organizations are unlikely to embrace an approach that might risk their market share. Consequently, interoperability standards often have a Goldilocks “just right” period in which all parties can benefit.

These challenges are often addressed through a single common driver: market demand. Anyone with a junk drawer full of outdated cables and chargers knows that the push to USB-C has made life easier. We’re now seeing a similar push in the defense segment, where the DoD is pushing hard towards adoption of Modular Open Systems Approach principles to prevent the aforementioned “vendor lock.” A key component of MOSA is interoperability through well-defined, standardized interfaces.

At the same time, standards organizations like SAE, IEEE, ISO, and ANSI have made it easier than ever for companies to collaborate on the development and publication of interoperability standards. Interoperability is almost impossible without compliant interfaces driven by industry standards. Still, even standards themselves are not enough to achieve interoperability; rather, vendors also need a way to verify and certify their products are compliant to that standard. Interoperability only works if both sides of any interface are compliant, and unambiguous standards and rigorous testing methods are the only way to ensure that. For organizations that are willing to embrace it, there are plenty of opportunities to join the effort to help steer and drive interoperability into the future.

David Martin is the Director of Software and Architecture at Neya Systems. Martin joined Neya Systems in 2011 and is the company’s subject matter expert on interoperability and extensible architectures, as well as principal Robotic Technology Kernel engineer. He has been a leading developer of JAUS standards since 2007, during which time the group transitioned from an informal working group to a formal SAE committee. In addition to his role at Neya, Martin currently serves as the Chair of the SAE International AS-4 (Unmanned Systems) Steering Committee.

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