Note: I realize that so many are focusing hard on our collective actions to beat the COVID-19 pandemic and was thinking of holding off this article till we can return more focus to enterprise IT. Then I realized that this article may be more important than ever. If you know of anyone anywhere in government who is thinking of building/coding a new data system to track issues around the pandemic they should just stop and should buy a commercial platform. That gives instant results vice results months or years from now (or with such a high failure rate, never). Which do you think the nation needs right now? Fast via commercial solutions or never via government built solutions?
On 26 Feb 2020 FedScoop published an insightful piece authored by Shyam Sankar of Palantir that provides important context on the COTS vs GOTS discussion now underway in DoD and the IC.
It is now clearer than every that the issues and recommendations captured by the DSB in their famous 1987 report on software and reviewed again in by the Congressionally mandated software study of the Defense Innovation Board can no longer be ignored.
Government off the Shelf (GOTS) software is NOT a good deal. Shyam underscores this by referencing a survey by the U.S. Geospatial Intelligence Foundation (USGIF) that found GOTS programs cost the government 70% more than Commercial off the Shelf (COTS) solutions.
But cost is NOT the worst thing here! More often than not, the mission suffers, badly, because of GOTS. GOTS builds in vulnerabilities, GOTS reduces agility, and GOTS makes it harder to innovate.
Shyam also raises a new point I have not seen injected into the public discourse yet. He mentions the fact that there are times when the government inadvertently hurts commercial innovation (which further hurts the ability of industry to serve the government) by creating GOTS products that compete with COTS. If a GOTS product competes with a COTS product, not only does the government get a poorer capability that they pay more for, but they then make it harder for innovators in industry to compete and win.
Said another way, when COTS software competes with US companies, not only does it deliver less value for more cost, but it may well be harming the very interest we aim to protect.
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