Introduction to Commercial Off-the-Shelf

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Short for commercial off-the-shelf, COTS is an adjective that describes software or hardware products that are ready-made and available for sale to the general public. For example, Microsoft Office is a COTS product that is a packaged software solution for businesses.  COTS are important parts of most academic space payload projects including small sat and high altitude balloons.  COTS are appealing because they are ready made and economically attractive.  However, care must be taken, especially regarding using COTS in space environments where they were not necessarily designed for.


COTS items have been used in the United States since the revolutionary war, although the amount of COTS use has varied. By WWI and WWII, COTS use was very minimal as the military was using military unique equipment. By the time the Korean, Vietnam, and Gulf Wars occurred, specific COTS components began to outperform these specialized militaries designed parts.

President Truman in 1949 and a Report of the Commission on Government Procurement in 1972 by the Congressional Commission both urged more significant use of COTS. In 1982, the DoD (Department of Defense) issued the first formal policy for commercial acquisition. This was the creation of CIDs (Commercial Item Descriptions). Throughout the ’90s, the DoD released more initiatives that led to mandating the preferential use of commercial equipment and standards.

What qualifies as a commercial item?

COTS is a commercial item that has explicitly not been modified for use and often is used as a synonym for commercial items (as it will be in this course).

A commercial item is defined as such according to part 2 of the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR). See the presentation below and learn all of the definitions:



These definitions apply to COTS as long as there are no modifications to the product. Below there are examples of COTS.



COTS vs. Non-Developmental Items

COTS differs from a Non-Developmental Item (NDI) in the aspect that an NDI is not procured necessarily through commercial avenues but still has been previously developed.

An example would be specific military equipment that has been previously designed, as could be seen below. This allows the DoD to avoid paying development costs.


Figure 1: Non-Developmental Item examples.


Military COTS (MCOTS)

MCOTS is a relatively new term that stands for Military Commercial off the Shelf items. MCOTS are military versions of commercial items that have been designed and built to applicable MIL-STDs (Military Standards), or equivalent, that are for sale from commercial companies for military procurement. An example would be the Business-rugged HP EliteBook Notebook PCs or Sun Microsystems VersaModule Eurocard (VME) boards, which are shown below.


Figure 2: Military Commercial off the Shelf examples.


MCOTS items usually focus on meeting certain specifications:

  • Operation in harsh environments

  • Increased on-board functionality

  • Supportability: Supporting DoD programs with innovative maintenance options for extended timetables

  • Extensibility: Enhancing usability for technology insertion and system expansion