The Roadmap to Resilient Tech: Modular Open Systems Approach and Digital Engineering

  • Victoria Robinson
  • December 21, 2023

Have you ever sat down with a SME and asked them if a technology or technique was the right one, and their response was “it depends” and then follow it up with, “what’s the problem you’re trying to solve?” SMEs make these statements and ask these questions because their experience has taught them that the context and specifics of the problem you are trying to solve will illuminate whether the technology or technique is appropriate. Over the past six months, I’ve seen a rise in conversations regarding Digital Engineering (DE)* and Modular Open Systems Approach (MOSA)* across different applications from a weapon system, aircraft, facility, business, capability, or others. Considering these conversations, I wondered if the “Plug-and-Play (PnP)” mindset is still the right approach? Well, “it depends”. Couple these conversations with the ever-churning gears of technological advancement, which are continuously evolving, and—in my opinion—the PnP mindset approach is too broad and non-specific. To thrive in this dynamic landscape, organizations should consider other mature approaches in addition to the PnP mindset and embrace the DE and MOSA paradigms.

What are the advantages of the PnP mindset for specific use cases:

  • Rapid Deployment Situations: When organizations need immediate out-of-the-box functionality without extensive setup, PnP enables users to swap components quickly.
  • Limited Integration Needs: For standalone systems not needing larger ecosystem integration, PnP provides straightforward solutions.
  • Systems Requiring Infrequent Upgrades: Where technology refresh cycles are longer, PnP’s simplicity can be more suitable than MOSA’s continual flexibility.

However, there are some pitfalls within the PnP mindset. While seemingly convenient, PnP poses distinct challenges:

  • Vendor Lock: Proprietary integrations and data silos bind businesses to specific vendors, stifling flexibility and innovation.
  • Innovation Bottlenecks: Reliance on specific vendors restricts access to cutting-edge solutions and hinders internal development.
  • Fragmented Systems: Lack of interoperability creates data silos and hampers collaboration across and within organizations.

Of course, PnP helped us get to where we are today. However, to move to the next level, leveraging an open approach with standards will help us improve our ability to morph and adopt new technologies. Coupled with the ability to visualize and experiment with digital twins under the umbrella of DE, it enhances our ability to increase our understanding and explore alternative courses of action through what-if scenario analysis. Extending our ability to strategize and model out different scenarios in a digital environment increases our ability to innovate and identify gaps in our current capabilities, people, policies, process, partners, and platforms. To address what might be possible, let’s look at MOSA and DE:

Modular Open Systems Approach (MOSA): MOSA liberates organizations from these constraints by advocating for:

  • Open Standards and Interfaces: These enable seamless integration of best-of-breed solutions from diverse vendors, fostering a dynamic technology ecosystem.
  • Modular Architecture: Systems are built with independent, interchangeable modules, empowering businesses to adapt and innovate without major overhauls.
  • Innovation as a Core Principle: Openness fosters collaboration and experimentation, allowing businesses to readily leverage the latest advancements.
Real World Examples of Modular Open Systems Approach (MOSA):
F35: The F35, also known as the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II, applies the MOSA throughout the aircraft and across its lifecycle, setting the standard for openness and flexibility to adapt the weapon system to meet evolving operational mission needs1.
Virginia Class Submarines: The Virginia Class Submarines use a Modular Isolated Deck Structure (MIDS) and open-system architecture, resulting in a significantly lower cost, yet more effective command and control structure for fire control, navigation, electronic warfare, and communications connectivity2.
JADC2 (Joint All-Domain Command and Control): JADC2 demands a modular open-system approach (MOSA) that keeps up with evolving threats. Modular approaches and flexible, open-system architectures allow system components to evolve in response to changing technologies, threats, and interoperability needs3.

Digital Engineering (DE): DE complements MOSA’s foundation by introducing a data-driven and integrated approach to:

  • Early Integration and Modeling: Digital twins and virtual simulations allow for early testing and optimization of systems before physical implementation, reducing risks and improving efficiency.
  • Continuous Integration and Delivery (CI/CD): Automated testing and deployment pipelines accelerate development cycles and ensure rapid delivery of high-quality software.
  • Data-Driven Insights and Decision-making: Real-time data analysis from sensors and systems fuels informed decision-making and continuous improvement.
  • Improved Lifecycle Management: Data-driven insights allow for predictive maintenance, which helps maximize each taxpayer dollar spent across the design-build-sustain lifecycle phases of platforms.
Real World Examples of Digital Engineering (DE):
Boeing 787: The Boeing 787 Dreamliner, the world’s first e-enabled commercial airplane, combines the power of integrated information and communications systems to drive operational efficiency, enhance revenue, and streamline airplane maintenance4Also, Boeing used crowdsourcing in designing the 787, which is a form of digital engineering5.
Ford Mustang Mach-E: The creation of Ford Model e was informed by the success of small, mission-driven Ford teams that developed the Ford GT, Mustang Mach-E SUV and F-150 Lightning pickup as well as Ford’s dedicated EV division in China6The Mustang Mach-E runs the software through a vertically mounted 15.5-inch touchscreen that allows for easy access to the system’s array of apps and features7.
NASA’s Artemis Program: The Orion spacecraft, a part of NASA’s Artemis missions, uses a model-based system engineering (MBSE) SysML modeling approach which provides a greatly enhanced access to information in addition to simulation / digital twin capabilities for real-time flight operations support8.

The MOSA & DE Powerhouse:

What might a combined MOSA & DE approach look like? Imagine MOSA and DE working in tandem to revolutionize your technology stack:

  • SaaS and Cloud: MOSA enables a hybrid cloud approach with seamless data exchange, while DE’s CI/CD pipelines streamline cloud deployments and updates.
  • Cybersecurity: MOSA’s open APIs facilitate integration of diverse security tools, while DE’s proactive modeling and simulation enables predictive threat detection and mitigation.
  • Data & Analytics: MOSA’s open platforms integrate diverse data sources and analytics tools, while DE’s data-driven approach ensures insights guide efficient decision-making.
  • Internet of Things (IoT): MOSA’s standardized interfaces ensure smooth data flow between sensors, devices, and applications, while DE’s digital twins optimize performance and maintenance of interconnected systems.
  • Human-Centered Design: MOSA’s flexibility enables user-centric interfaces, while DE’s iterative design process incorporates user feedback throughout development, ensuring technology serves human needs.

Embracing MOSA and DE isn’t just about technology; it’s about a holistic transformation fueled by people, policies, processes, partners, and platforms. Here’s how to ignite this change:

  • People: Foster an innovation culture with cross-functional teams empowered by openness and data-driven decisions.
  • Policies: Develop agile rules incentivizing experimentation and early integration to pave the way for MOSA and DE.
  • Processes: Implement CI/CD pipelines and agile workflows embracing iterative development for continuous delivery of value.
  • Partners: Strategically partner with MOSA and DE leaders to accelerate expertise-building and adoption.
  • Platforms: Invest in open and adaptable platforms that future-proof systems by seamlessly integrating new solutions.

When problem solving, finding the right approach is often responded with “it depends.” Considering the possibilities of MOSA and/or DE provides more options to solve complex problems. These potent paradigms unlock a future-proof technology landscape, one that bends to change with adaptive ease, scales effortlessly to meet new demands, and constantly thrives on innovation. Through open standards, modularity, and data-driven insights, collaboration and experimentation become the engines of progress. And most importantly, humans remain at the heart of it all, empowered by technology designed to serve, not dictate. This is not just a future of technological prowess, but a future of human-centric possibility, where organizations and people flourish together. So, step beyond the PnP mindset and unleash the boundless potential that awaits by embracing MOSA and Digital Engineering.


Digital Engineering Definition: An integrated digital approach that uses authoritative sources of systems’ data and models as a continuum across disciplines to support lifecycle activities from concept through disposal.
Modular Open Systems Approach (MOSA) Definition: An integrated business and technical strategy to achieve competitive and affordable acquisition and sustainment over the system life cycle. In DoD systems, MOSA is an acquisition and design strategy, consisting of technical architectures, that adopt open standards and support a modular, loosely coupled, and highly cohesive system structure.