A look at how the term commercial off-the-shelf can be abused in marketing literature.
When an application is referred to as commercial off the shelf (COTS) software, what does this really mean? Do you appreciate what you are buying and can you manage the risks involved? Here, we look at how the term COTS can be used and abused.
Have you read the marketing literature of some companies selling laboratory software for spectrometers, electronic laboratory notebooks (ELN), and laboratory information management systems (LIMS)? Delve into the detail and the chances are that you will see the term "COTS" used in several places to justify that you buy the application. However, the chances are even higher that when you do, the term COTS will not be defined. The assumption being that you, dear reader, are a sophisticated, intelligent, erudite individual for whom the definition of this term is self evident and it is not worth the writer wasting brochure space to undertake such a lowly task. In reality, are you being taken for a ride?
The problem is that the term COTS is commonly used but there is no commonly accepted definition of what this really encompasses, certainly not when you read marketing literature. So, for the uninformed COTS stands for commercial off the shelf. We will start our discussion with the debate of do you make or buy software?
Let us start from the beginning with a simple question: Are you going to write your own software application for controlling a spectrometer and also acquiring and manipulating the data? Of course you won't. You'll purchase the instrument together with the controlling application as a complete package. One advantage is that the development, support, and enhancement costs of the software will be spread across the whole user base and it's a lot easier than doing it yourself. This means that some of the risk around the software is removed from the project. In addition, rather than having to specify and wait for the software to be written and tested and then rewritten and retested; you can start the roll-out process much sooner after being trained on the application. Ideally, this should give you the confidence that the application will do what it is supposed to do.
Today, there is little justification for writing your own software for use in an analytical laboratory unless there is nothing on the market that meets your specific needs and it is cost-justified to do so. If the case for a custom solution arises, it may be resolved by changing the way you work and using a more robust commercial solution. However, this topic is not the subject of today's column, which focuses on commercial software and the term COTS.
Figure 1: Options for the modification and use of commercial software.
Therefore, the first stage of the process is the decision to have a custom solution or a commercial one as we can see from the first part of Figure 1. Hence the rationale for the "C" in COTS is "commercial". This is the easy part of the discussion, but now we have to consider what is meant by "off the shelf" or the "OTS" in COTS.
What does the phrase "off the shelf" mean to you? Taken literally, this is the purchase of an item — for instance let's say food in a supermarket or clothing in a retail outlet — that can be eaten or worn immediately. It is something that can be used as is with no modification.
So let us look at some dictionary definitions for "off the shelf":
In the world outside the laboratory, therefore, "off the shelf" is something that can be used as is, eaten, or worn straight way without any changes.
However, what is the situation with software?
So, we have a few problems with consistency of definitions when we look at the key elements of the software definitions above as we have
Are these really illuminating and highly informative definitions? No, because the reader does not know if there is no customization, little or no modification, or no special modification (whatever is meant by the latter) but implying there could be normal modification. If we can't get definitions right, what hope is there for a consistent understanding?
However, let us start from a basic premise that "off the shelf " means no changes to the software to enable it to automate your business process, that is, using the last definition above as the basis. So you now have the software equivalent of a Henry Ford marketing approach — any color you want as long as it is black. This means it is a one-size-fits-all product and you have to take it or leave it. There is usually the ability to add user types and associated access privileges to enable the package to run in your laboratory but this does not change the business process automated by the application. This is an important distinction to remember with COTS software as shown in Figure 1 as the first box on the right hand side.
COTS software in which a user cannot change the business process is relatively low risk because it works quite literally out of the box, off the CD, or from the download. Simplicity itself to get the application running — a user or administrator needs to do virtually nothing.
This is in contrast to some marketing of more complex laboratory software such as ELNs and LIMS. These applications need to be configured or customized before they can operate effectively in your laboratory. Before we look in more detail at how COTS can be abused let us define the terms configuration and customizing in the context of software.
You would be surprised how many people, even software sales persons with many years of experience, confuse the two terms configure and customize. Therefore, it is appropriate to define the two terms in the context of the COTS debate:
One compromise that you make is that if the process to be automated by the COTS software does not match your process you may need to change your process to match and get the best from your purchase. However, we are analytical scientists and we love to play and tinker with instruments, methods, and, of course, software. There are many occasions where an application does not do exactly what we want it to do and hence we would like to modify the operation to match exactly what we consider to be our optimum process (in many instances, this can be interpreted as this is what we do at the moment but we are too lazy to change).
Let us examine the two options:
Which option would you prefer? These two options are shown in the last two boxes on the right of Figure 1.
In the introduction I made a point that when the term COTS was used in marketing literature associated with laboratory software the term was usually not defined. The reason for this is that COTS can mean whatever the writer wants it to be, which can be misleading for a reader.
For a true COTS package, the software can be used as is with no changes to the business process. However, the majority of laboratory software is not COTS but rather configurable commercial software or configurable commercial software that is capable of integrating with custom software modules to change the business process being automated. As such, these applications do not come with "on" buttons and will take time and effort to configure or customize. You need to be aware of this problem and press each vendor when considering the purchase to define what they mean by COTS if it is used. Does it mean that the software can be used as is? Probably not. Guess who then has to pick up the pieces if you purchase such an application? You.
In this column I have looked at the definition of commercial off the shelf software (COTS) and some of the issues surrounding its definition and use. True COTS software is used as is with no modification. The key issue is to identify and verify that any software application you are considering buying that is presented as COTS is the real McCoy. Or is it configurable software in disguise?
R.D. McDowall is the principal of McDowall Consulting and the director of R.D. McDowall Limited, and the editor of the "Questions of Quality" column for LCGC Europe, Spectroscopy's sister magazine. Direct correspondence to: firstname.lastname@example.org