Open Up and Say… Ahh! An awesomely appropriate title for a blog on open architecture. Also, the name of an album from an awesomely awesome glam band from the 80s that spawned four collections of ear-worms that still haunt the subconscious internal jukeboxes of those of us fortunate enough to be kids in 1988. This was a little period of pop music that was a flash in the pan and then gone a few years later – erased by the flannel from Seattle. As I was writing this though, I could not NOT think of this album title. I tried to find something appropriate from my preferred genres of music (punk, hardcore, ska) but I could not. It seems those genres have never gotten very close to publishing anything that could even remotely be taken out of context as support for open architecture. On objective inspection, it also seems those genres have never really even gotten very close to publishing anything… appropriate. So, as you read this, I’ll queue up this little ear-worm: “We both lie silently still in the dead of the night. …. Every rose has its thorn. Just like every night has its dawn.” (Sorry, shitty thing for me to do but I couldn’t resist.)
On to open architecture…
I was working with a potential collaborator the other day who is considering a substantial investment in subsea robotics over the next 5-10 years. This collaborator has spent much of the past year defining their requirements to determine exactly what system and equipment is required. Pages and pages of requirements outlined their intended purchase and integration plan. They had clearly defined the robots and hardware, based on today’s art of the possible, they intended to buy. This culminated in a purchase plan worth tens of millions of dollars for ROVs manufactured by one of the best in the business.
Then, there was their business plan. This was a far-reaching and visionary plan. A plan to provide revolutionary services to the subsea industry based on a concept of emerging autonomy and the over-the-horizon supervision of robots working on the seafloor. In this business plan, robots would be deployed from autonomous vessels or even resident in large offshore installations, such as wind farms, for on-demand maintenance, support, and intervention. Operators would work with these systems as they would any remote coworker. A Subject Matter Expert (SME), not an ROV pilot, would provide high-level tasking, investigate issues, solve problems, and do preventative maintenance with the robotic technician who has “boots on the ground” at the site.
Our stake in this plan is to potentially add the autonomy and command and control technology required to bridge the gap between the commercially available robotics in their purchase plan and the vision of their business plan. The breadth of imagination and vision in the business plan is exciting. To achieve this vision, we will have so much to learn about how to work with robots and machines. Who knows what will ultimately be required to be successful.
Having supported hundreds of ROV integrations and having a good idea of what the answer might be, I asked if the ROVs they were intending to purchase had an open architecture software framework to support our integration as well the integration of other future contributors, vendors, and stakeholders. “No”, he said. “But, they have a backseat driver interface”, he beamed happily. (For those of you who need some explanation here. Think of a backseat driver interface as a shitty alternative to any real scalability or flexibility. Sort of like a 1 foot extension cord – sometimes better than nothing, but typically well short of any real usefulness.)
“You must be a hell of a gambler”, I told our collaborator. His blank expression told me he was not really picking up what I was laying down. “You are betting tens of millions of dollars that the technology available today, and this one particular vendor, is what you need years, maybe even a decade from now, to do something that has never been done before.” Agitation, weight shifting, shuffling. Even through the Zoom call I could tell he was getting my point.
A common mistake many leaders make is not really considering the path they need to take to achieve a future goal and being ok with not knowing what that path may look like. There are technologies to be developed they have not yet realized, partnerships yet to be formed, requirements not defined, and lots of unanswered questions. There may even be, if they are trying hard enough, mistakes made along the way that they have to reverse. Every step along the way needs to be iterative and constructive to the final goal. Further, each step has to be flexible, scalable, and severable. Each building block must contribute to the next, no matter the direction or magnitude of step. Each building block must also support being removed if it no longer works. Leaders often have a remarkable vision and have identified some key technologies required to achieve that vision but they choose to start with a foundation that doesn’t support anything beyond today.
Let’s put this into perspective. Say you are planning to build a house that you and your family will live in forever and that your children will then live in with their families forever after that. You envision a house that fits your family’s needs just perfectly now and in the future. As your family grows and has different needs the house will evolve to suit. As new home technologies are available and as your financial means progress, you envision having the option to upgrade things, change things, and add new comforts. You don’t really know what the future holds for your family, but you know you want a house that can accommodate whatever is down the road and all of life’s stages: babies, toddlers, teenagers, friends, adults, grandchildren. You are not really building a house, you are building the foundation for your future.
To realize your dream, you go out and hire a contractor. The contractor makes it easy for you. She will provide all of the appliances and furnishings and everything you need for your home, chosen from a few selections, for a single price that fits your budget. She has a proprietary way of building houses that is unique to her company and promises to deliver to you the exact house you want right now.
The day of closing comes and you move into your new home. Things could not be better. But soon, you decide to buy a new television. Also, the little family has grown a bit and you are interested in doing a small addition. Nothing major, just a little sunroom to give the family room to spread out. You go to the store and bring home a brand new state-of-the-art television and notice the plug on the television does not fit the plug in wall so you phone up the contractor. She explains that her company uses a proprietary wall plug, proprietary power, and proprietary data and that your new television will not simply plug in and work. You instead have to pay her company to integrate your new television to your house, or better yet, just buy a television her company already supports. “Ok”, you say. Not ideal, but workable
Since you have the contractor on the phone, you press on, saying you are interested in building a small addition. She explains that sunrooms are not really in her roadmap as she doesn’t think people really need sunrooms, but she is happy to let you know if that changes. She continues to explain that if you try to do it with another contractor, you will void the warranty on the entire house, so you are better off not really wanting a sunroom and working with what you have.
You see the future ahead. You are dependent on this one contractor for everything in your future. Your vision can only reach as far as your contractor’s. And, that contractor is not interested in making your future vision a reality, she has her own corporate agenda and it is building more houses exactly like what she just built you.
While seemingly far-fetched, this is exactly what to expect when we fail to recognize the value of open architecture. Open architecture empowers us to evolve, to address the future when it comes, and to grow. Open architecture enables us to build on each other’s platforms, to easily incorporate new technologies, and to easily sever technologies that no longer work for us. It gives us the power to include multiple stakeholders, creators, and developers while preserving each contributor’s own intellectual property.
Open architecture is the single most important decision we can make when considering new investment in technology.
As we imagine the future of ROVs in the subsea industry and build new capabilities, it certainly makes no sense to recreate the wheel. There are excellent vehicles in the industry made by excellent companies that have made significant advances. But it is incorrect to think that any one of these companies alone is going to move the industry towards a grander vision of how we work with robots on and in the ocean. It will take a lot of us, all contributing technologies within our own specialities and ideas to achieve really big visions. If we cannot build upon each other and if there is no foundation or previous step to leverage, there will be no forward progress and any vision we have of the future will simply be a fantasy.
Where does change happen? In this case, it has to happen at the acquisition level. Service providers, governments, and technology sponsors have to demand open architecture. There is no better way to protect their investment in the future. Not doing so is making a big bet that today’s technology will provide for tomorrow’s vision. That is not a bet worth making.
Note: Click to make sure that Every Rose has its Thorn gets stuck in your head.