You might not think about open systems on a daily basis, but the truth is, you’re surrounded by them.
Decades ago, the Department of Defense’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) created a network called ARPANET — the early form of the internet – and realized the benefits of connecting computer systems together to facilitate information exchanges. ARPANET then evolved into TCP/IP and then HTTP protocols, which were accessed first via the open source Mosaic browser – this effectively became the start of the nascent internet in the early 1990s.
Followed in later years by personal computers, mobile devices and applications, home entertainment systems, and many others, open systems have since become the standard for how many of our most frequently used technologies work together. Today, whenever you connect to the internet, download an app, or put in wireless earbuds, you’re experiencing some of the most powerful ways open systems have already transformed our lives – and will continue to shape the next generation of technology innovation.
What are open systems?
Open systems—also called open platforms, open architectures, or open frameworks—are technology frameworks that enable the unimpeded exchange of information via both internal and external channels.
Unlike closed systems — which often use proprietary software that isn’t compatible with other platforms or silo their data so it’s not available outside the system — open systems can seamlessly connect with other external systems and applications and share data without obstacles. They are nimble and well-suited to navigating strategic changes and technological advances.
These systems achieve such easy connection because both the system itself and its multiple different components are open. In a defense environment, an open ecosystem can capitalize on innovative expertise between organizations and build effective and efficient partnerships with innovators in industry and academia, as well as with key allies and partners, to create a better, faster integration of military concepts, emerging technologies and capability development.
That modularity also creates flexibility: Different components can be added, removed, updated or expanded as needed, without sacrificing operational efficiency or requiring the platform itself to be overhauled. Successful open systems are also designed to have malleable internal frameworks: These platforms might use open source software and have underlying technology and application support services that are easily modified or upgraded.
“No single technology or provider can solve all challenges,” says Greg Wenzel, executive vice president at Booz Allen Hamilton. “Our world, and our global threat environment, is constantly changing and technology advances are rapidly accelerating. Secure open architectures can help create more effective, agile and resilient systems, get practical solutions into the field more quickly, and match the pace and scale of conflict on the global stage.”
Open systems accelerate innovation
Open systems offer cost efficiency, flexibility and innovation because the building blocks of open systems themselves aren’t proprietary.
The platforms are considered data-agnostic—meaning they aren’t dictating what information is most salient, but instead simply act as conduits for producing data—and are rich sources of information. Organizations can access and analyze data that’s been generated by open systems every step of the way. These additional analytics might illuminate revelatory or useful patterns not evident in data results that could lead to unexpected ideas for innovation.
Plus, updating open platforms is much easier, since modularity equates to a turnkey scenario akin to plug-and-play. Modifications or updates to parts or services are also confined to the specific component at hand, and don’t trigger a domino effect of costly changes to the overall system.
Perhaps most importantly, open systems users aren’t locked into using one specific vendor for parts and services – they have a choice where to obtain needed elements. This flexibility, in turn, also makes open systems cost-effective: Organizations are free to shop around and choose a vendor with the best technology at the best price, since open platforms are designed to use components from many sources.
In other words, open systems aren’t just good for building strong and resilient networks—they’re also good for encouraging market competition, because they “achieve the collective ingenuity of industry,” Wenzel says.
“You can get multiple industry participants that are bringing their unique niche solution to the problem, and you will have multiple industry participants that play together because of that open architecture.”
Open systems enable better, faster decision-making
For complex and highly integrated organizations like the Department of Defense, openness is increasingly crucial. Closed systems, such as the ones used for many major weapon systems and satellite systems, often use proprietary software that isn’t compatible with other platforms or silo their data so it’s not available outside the system. That technology lock-in keeps agencies tied to systems where vendors have exclusive contracts to provide certain software components—or might be the only places that sell specific parts—making upgrades and repairs expensive and complicated, and disincentivizing innovation from anyone outside the network.
The same is true of data confined to a closed system, which is inherently less accessible and harder to connect to intelligence in different systems. This can complicate or delay critical insights and future innovation that could be achieved by bringing that data together.
For example, innovations based on open systems are transforming how soldiers prepare for battle. Before warfighters are even deployed, immersive technologies such as virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) headsets can be used to supplement traditional classroom work and inform decisions on troop readiness and training. Biometrics and analytics generated from sources and sensors during virtual training missions can also be used to help soldiers improve their mental, cognitive and physical performance.
Having data in one place—and more readily available—gives decision-makers a clearer, holistic look at the intelligence landscape and allows for quicker, smarter decision-making. Open systems can be a critical gateway to more efficient, agile and innovative operations, while at the same time providing robust, integrated cybersecurity solutions that protect data and infrastructure from attacks.
“On the current kinetic battlefield, part of the ‘fog of war’ faced by commanders is due to the way many military programs essentially operate in stovepipes,” says Wenzel. “But in the future digital battlespace, if we can start with an open architecture and securely connect systems from the enterprise to the edge, we can significantly eliminate that fog and achieve greater overmatch against adversaries.”
Where are open systems going next?
Open systems are the ultimate connectors, linking together older and newer frameworks and ensuring that previously disconnected platforms communicate with each other. Not only does this streamline data collection, so a wealth of information is available in one spot rather than many places, but it removes situations where data is duplicative or siloed.
Harnessing strategic conclusions from the data generated by virtual and augmented reality, artificial intelligence, biometrics, or any number of other systems requires an architecture that’s designed to synthesize large amounts of intelligence very quickly. And as the Department of Defense upgrades legacy information technology frameworks, it is increasingly important to implement an open, secure enterprise system that can be easily adapted and expanded when new technologies emerge.
Open systems aren’t just physical frameworks—they also represent a philosophical approach to arranging and interpreting data and a way of framing information that’s designed to eliminate barriers to innovation, bringing better, faster, more efficient solutions to the battlefield and beyond.
See how these open systems accelerate overmatch in the Digital Battlespace—get the vision.