Building Blocks Are Not Just Toys

Why Modular Open Systems Are Key for AI Implementation

By John Ferry
Historically, government technology purchases have leaned heavily towards large, all-encompassing systems provided by major contractors. This traditional model, while offering simplicity and a single point of accountability, comes with significant downsides. It often results in a locked-in relationship with the original equipment manufacturer that has the power to limit flexibility and make the integration of new technologies cumbersome and expensive. 

The pace of technological innovation, especially in fields such as artificial intelligence (AI), is at stark odds with this legacy approach. Just look at the top model rankings on Hugging Face (1) and the facts are clear: AI evolves at such a breakneck pace that today’s cutting-edge systems become obsolete far quicker than their monolithic predecessors. 

If government agencies want to keep pace with and implement these rapidly advancing technologies they need to be able to swap out components on a quarterly or monthly basis, not annually. The only way to do this is with modularity.

Modular Open Systems Approach (MOSA)

Enter the Modular Open Systems Approach (MOSA) (2) – a vastly different way for government entities to think about acquiring and upgrading their technology infrastructures. The Department of Defense (DoD) has been leveraging MOSA for nearly two decades, and the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017 formally mandated the use of MOSA in major weapon systems development within the DoD. The reason and importance of MOSA application to major weapon systems for DoD has equal relevance to other large-scale capabilities like enterprise business systems across the government.

MOSA is a design strategy that emphasizes building systems with highly interchangeable parts, known as modules, and ensuring these parts can easily communicate with each other through open standards. Imagine it is like playing with LEGO blocks; each block represents a module, and the way LEGO blocks can be effortlessly combined and recombined into different structures is akin to how MOSA allows for the assembly of complex systems.

Key Technical Aspects in Layman’s Terms

The definitions below provide an understanding of the technical aspects of MOSA.

Modularity: Just as you might build a castle or a spaceship out of LEGO blocks, a system designed with MOSA is built from individual modules. Each module has a specific function, such as processing data or managing power, and can be added, replaced, or upgraded without disrupting the entire system.

Open Standards: This is akin to the rulebook that ensures all LEGO blocks fit together no matter their shape or size. In MOSA, open standards are guidelines that ensure all modules can work together seamlessly, regardless of who made them. These standards are publicly available, allowing different manufacturers to create modules that are compatible with each other.

Interoperability: Imagine if LEGO blocks could only connect with blocks of the same color; it would limit what you could build. MOSA ensures systems are interoperable, meaning modules from different systems can communicate and work together effectively, much like any LEGO block can attach to another, regardless of its set or color.

Scalability: Just as you can keep adding more LEGO blocks to make your structure bigger, systems designed with MOSA can easily scale up or down. This means you can add more modules to increase functionality or performance without starting from scratch.

Flexibility and Adaptability: With LEGO, if you want to change your spaceship into a robot, you can do so by rearranging the blocks. Similarly, MOSA allows systems to be flexible and adaptable, making it easy to modify or upgrade them in response to new requirements or technologies without redesigning the entire system.

Cost Efficiency: Using standard LEGO sets to build various structures is more cost-effective than buying specialized sets for each new project. In the same way, MOSA can lead to cost savings by reducing the need for custom-built solutions, enabling the use of off-the-shelf components, and simplifying maintenance and upgrades.

For MOSA to really take root, we need a cultural shift within government procurement practices. This means moving away from specifying (or accepting) rigid, system-wide solutions in solicitations and towards defining broad, outcome-based requirements that require open interfaces, data standards, and government rights to the specs. 

Keep in mind that MOSA is not new, the concept is well understood on the industry side, particularly when it comes to cloud and digital platforms. So, when you do market research, issue RFIs, and engage with industry, ask them how they would implement a modular and open architecture, because industry probably won’t offer an open solution unless you ask for it. 

The returns on the MOSA approach compound over time because you no longer must wait for regularly scheduled upgrade periods. Imagine in the future if you see a new technology capability that you want to acquire. You should be able to bolt that capability onto your larger system without waiting for the prime contractor to build it or wait for the smaller company to build a robust platform. So MOSA opens opportunities for a more dynamic engagement between government agencies and the technology industry. 

Through initiatives like hackathons, open innovation challenges, and collaborative development workshops, governments can tap into the collective intelligence and creativity of the technology community and then more quickly integrate those capabilities into production systems.

The success of MOSA hinges on the proactive role of government requirements writers and acquisition professionals. They are the vanguard in this shift, tasked with embedding the principles of modularity, openness, and interoperability into the DNA of government solicitations. Their willingness to embrace this new paradigm and to articulate it clearly in procurement documents will be a critical determinant of MOSA’s impact on the future of government technology systems. 

The promise of MOSA extends beyond just technological agility and innovation. It offers the prospect of more cost-effective systems, enhanced operational efficiency, and the ability to adapt to future challenges without wholesale system overhauls. By fostering a more competitive and diverse supplier base, MOSA also contributes to economic vitality and technological sovereignty.

The bottom line is the shift towards the Modular Open Systems Approach in government procurement is not merely a reaction to the rapid advancement of AI but a forward-looking strategy to ensure that government technology infrastructures remain flexible, innovative, and responsive to the ever-changing technology landscape. The journey toward fully realizing the benefits of MOSA will be complex and challenging, yet the potential rewards in terms of innovation, efficiency, and national security are immense. CM

John Ferry is the President of Trenchant Analytics, LLC, creator of AcqBot, which is AI for the Department of Defense Chief Data and Artificial Intelligence Office (CDAO) with Tradewinds Solutions Marketplace, a digital environment of post-competition, readily awardable, technology solution pitch videos. He is also the Chief Executive Officer of, a company applying AI to government sales.

1 Huggingface is the leading site for downloading and testing open-source large language and diffusion models. The Huggingface LLM leaderboard maintains the running rankings of the top performing LLM against several industry standard benchmarks.
2 See Defense Acquisition University:

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