Why Commercial Off-the-Shelf Hardware (COTS) for Elections?
Elections software that operates only on proprietary hardware makes it impossible for a jurisdiction to change hardware vendors without replacing their entire voting system and puts the jurisdiction at the mercy of a single vendor with respect to upgrade and maintenance pricing. Running the software on commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) hardware eliminates this lock-in. Software upgrade costs are decoupled from hardware upgrade and maintenance costs, and hardware can be provided by many possible vendors.
COTS hardware is hardware you can buy at retail. Think PC, Apple or Android laptops and tablets, or Canon, Epson and Fujitsu scanners. COTS hardware provides many benefits over the proprietary hardware systems that are typically offered by elections vendors. COTS hardware lowers the cost of elections and gives elections officials more control and flexibility.
Price, Price Transparency, and Price Trends
COTS hardware typically costs far less than proprietary hardware. Moreover, when election officials ask for COTS solutions, they can easily determine the actual retail costs and protect their jurisdictions from predatory margins on vendor hardware. In fact, proprietary hardware systems are not always fundamentally different from COTS hardware: often, proprietary elections hardware is COTS hardware wrapped in a branded container.
Moore’s Law and market forces and Moore’s Law create constant downward price pressure on COTS hardware. It gets less expensive over time as newer, faster machines come to market. And, because the technical requirements required to run elections do not change drastically over time, current generation hardware should be capable/sufficient for many years to come.
Election systems that use COTS hardware provide greater flexibility than proprietary systems in a number of ways:
- If a COTS device fails, you can replace it easily on short notice through multiple sources.
- If a COTS device breaks or malfunctions, you are not required to use a vendor technician to repair it, but can use someone local instead More flexible vendor warranties could even cover this cost.
- Scaling up is easy if you need to add more devices to your system because you are not constrained to only using one vendor’s proprietary hardware. You are free to make buying decisions independent of a single vendor’s pricing and availability.
- There is no single point of failure because you can always choose from numerous hardware manufacturers and providers. On the other hand, if an elections vendor goes out of business, its proprietary hardware immediately becomes an unsupported burden.
COTS hardware frees you from vendor lock-in, and it increases pressure on vendors to make the right choices on your behalf.
Ownership and Reusability
The benefits of COTS hardware go beyond pricing, flexibility and vendor lock-in. If your jurisdiction decides to change how it conducts voting, for instance by switching to vote by mail, you are not stuck with useless hardware. If you own your hardware outright, its usefulness can continue beyond elections. For example, once a batch of tablets is no longer needed they can be reappropriated for some other function in your office, donated to schools and charitable organizations, or even sold to defray replacement costs.