Home >> October 2007 Edition >> Integrating COTS Systems—A Worthy Effort
Integrating COTS Systems—A Worthy Effort
Success From Off The Shelf
by Bruno Dupas, President, Integral Systems, Europe

Over the last ten years, COTS (Commercial Off-the-Shelf) products have become increasingly popular within the satellite industry. “Better, faster, cheaper” was the mantra of the mid-90s—COTS products helped to address this mandate.

During this period of time, many integrators were learning to develop COTS products as part of the systems they delivered. Regrettably, the systems provided by some integrators were less than ideal. Many times, the systems were based on products poorly suited to perform the tasks required and were limited in flexibility. Often, these systems required extensive custom “middleware” and were difficult and costly to maintain.

A few companies, such as Integral Systems, Inc., were quite successful in avoiding these problems and established a firm foundation from which to provide ICS (Integrated COTS Systems). Such increased the adaptability and flexibility of various solutions and ensured system viability throughout operational life.

In the pioneering days of the satellite industry, developers of complex custom ground systems spent millions of euros and dollars to develop hundreds of thousands of lines of custom code to support telecommand and telemetry processing, equipment control, and communication monitoring, as well as to develop specialized hardware to support just one satellite. Over the last few decades, the demand for satellites by both commercial businesses and governmental agencies worldwide increased dramatically.

As the number of satellites and satellite designs that comprise their operations continue to grow, satellite operators, particularly those in the commercial sector operating fleets of satellites, began to look for more cost-effective and reliable ways to address their short- and long-term satellite ground system needs. They started asking questions, such as:
  • How can I minimize my ground system operations, training, procurement, and maintenance costs as my fleet continues to grow?
  • Why should I want multiple ground systems that can support only a specific satellite, when I need to support multiple satellites of varying design from different manufacturers?
  • How do I ensure the ground system hardware and software will be supported long term, and not just through warranty?
Fifteen years ago, Integral Systems, then a provider of custom satellite control system and ground system components, realized there was a far better way. Integral Systems offered the first COTS satellite command and control system: EPOCH 2000. This system was devised to support any satellite design and operated on readily available and affordable COTS computing hardware. By offering a common, flexible solution for command and control, Integral Systems reduced both procurement and operations and maintenance costs for their customers. EPOCH 2000 also eliminated custom or toolkit-based development and maintenance risks.

Integral Systems continued to expand the capabilities of their COTS products and the control systems they deliver based on them. Their comprehensive solution for operating multiple satellites of varying design and manufacture as part of a single common COTS package addressed the needs of growing satellite fleet operators, such as Loral Skynet and EchoStar.

Within a few years, commercial satellite operators began to appreciate the benefits of this approach. Today, Integral Systems’ EPOCH IPS (Integrated Product Suite) is the most widely used satellite control system in the industry.

The same COTS-based approach has benefited other aspects of the satellite ground system industry. For example, in the areas of network management and carrier monitoring, companies such as Newpoint Technologies, Inc., and SAT Corporation have, and continue to follow, an identical paradigm. Their Monics and Compass COTS products, and the systems they develop based on these offerings, have made them leading suppliers of such systems to satellite operators, service providers, broadcasters and SATCOM users in general worldwide.

Regrettably, the generic use of COTS products and integration of COTS-based systems in the satellite industry has not been without problems:
  • Often, integrators choose COTS products that are, essentially, difficult-to-integrate black boxes.
  • Many integrators have developed extensive “middleware” between multitudes of disparate products. This middleware makes some systems difficult to maintain.
  • COTS product interfaces are sometimes limited, proprietary, or not well documented.
  • There can be hidden costs associated with integrating these products.
  • System integration may not be the integrator’s core competence.
Today, COTS product integrators with proven track records providing end-to-end systems spanning any and all aspects of the ground system (not just command and control) are highly valued by commercial and government customers alike. COTS product integrators, like Integral Systems, continue to lead the way in developing and refining the ICS concept. This is due to their ability to provide solutions for both major subsystems, such as satellite command and control, and entire turnkey ground systems, including carrier monitoring, network and equipment management and operations centers, antennas, RF (Radio Frequency)/IF (Intermediate Frequency) equipment, and mission and payload planning.

The ICS concept emphasizes:
  • Selecting well-supported COTS products from established providers with proven long-term track records.
  • Choosing COTS products that are inherently flexible and scalable by design to support extensibility.
  • Establishing between these products integration mechanisms that are (1) off-the-shelf, and (2) public and documented, to support ease of integration, maintainability, and future system growth.
  • Developing or acquiring software COTS products on which APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) are made homogeneous.
  • Selecting hardware equipment (computers, network equipment, antennas, and RF baseband units) as a commodity. The new ICS should be independent of the commodities.

Figure 1 illustrates the ICS concept as it applies to subsystems that comprise a typical satellite ground system.

By choosing COTS offerings such as those shown in Figure 1 that meet the ICS criteria, the following advantages are realized:
  • It may be used for any type of satellite or fleet of satellites.
  • It may be adapted for any kind of mission by updating the database.
  • It is documented, so that the customer can tailor it to suit any operations concept.
Integral Systems consistently applies the ICS approach with great success. All of Integral Systems’ commercial customers receive the same highly flexible, mature COTS product offerings. These products are all from leading manufacturers, have established and flexible interfaces, and require no customization. By using this approach, Integral Systems has not only shortened delivery times, reduced procurement, maintenance, and training costs but also provides systems that can readily grow with customers’ changing needs.

Additionally, Integral Systems constantly enhances and maintains its COTS offerings and systems based on them, offering new features and capabilities, supporting new satellite designs, and ensuring continued compatibility of all system components if ever they are upgraded or replaced. In this way, Integral Systems continues to offer to all customers added value to their systems and to ensure the long-term viability of each product offering. Integral Systems has supported its COTS product-based systems for over 12 years and, today, delivers the fourth generation of the EPOCH product line.

The ICS concept also can be readily extended to other satellite ground segment applications, such as military satellite communications systems. These operations currently require significant bandwidth and must be performed in conjunction with other governments and agencies. Customarily, each country provides its own communications data. Once again, the ICS paradigm of using mature, flexible, and scalable COTS offerings can help, especially in countries addressing for the first time their need to obtain reliable, proven satellite communications systems at an affordable cost.

Figure 2 illustrates the ICS concept as applied to military satellite communications.

ICS is now a mature concept based on proven, flexible, well-maintained COTS products with open APIs that can be readily scaled and configured to meet the customer’s changing needs. By working with proven, knowledgeable COTS integrators, like Integral Systems, who have successfully used the ICS approach, satellite operators and service providers can readily and affordably obtain a quality, reliable system.

Bruno Dupas is President of ISE (Integral Systems Europe), Toulouse, France. Mr. Dupas created ISE in 2000 after spending 10 years in project management and system engineering roles with Matra Espace in France and the United Kingdom. Mr. Dupas graduated from Ecole Nationale Superieure des Mines de St-Etienne (France) and has 22 years of experience in software and systems engineering.

For more information, contact Bruno DUPAS at
or phone +33 6 09 59 93 48 or access the website at