Nothing new: Military users demand more performance and low power from SBC designs
The major trend in the military Single Board Computer (SBC) market continues to be the demand from system integrators for greater processing performance and lower size, weight, and power in SBC designs. Meanwhile, the venerable VMEbus finds a small resurgence as funding increases for military retrofit programs.
Wars may end or extend, defense budgets may shrink or grow, and elected officials will come and go, but designers of military electronic systems will always want Single Board Computers (SBCs) with more performance and lower power in smaller and smaller designs.
There is “nothing really surprising” going on right now in the SBC market, says Rob Scidmore, President and Chief Executive Officer of Extreme Engineering Solutions (X-ES) in Middleton, WI. “As it has been historically, for new programs, military customers want the latest and greatest processors and as much overall performance as they can get.”
“We haven’t seen a lot of change over the last year,” says Mike Slonosky, Product Marketing Manager for PowerPC SBCs at Curtiss-Wright Controls Defense Solutions in Charlotte, NC. “What we are seeing is a tremendous need for lower Size, Weight, and Power (SWaP), especially in regard to the power per MIPS metric, which we believe the upcoming third generation of the Intel processor will improve, but don’t know for sure.”
Platforms such as combat vehicles and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) are becoming smaller and smaller, but still have a veracious need for processing power, says Alan Baldus, Product Marketing Manager for Intel SBCs at Curtiss-Wright Controls Defense Solutions.
“The footprint that’s available for processing requirements within these platforms has gone down, but somewhat surprisingly, as the processing footprint has gone down, the processing requirements have gone up,” Slonosky says. “We are seeing continual increases in demand for processing power with a simultaneous reduction in SWaP budget (including power and ability to remove heat). As a result, we are seeing a big increase in interest in 3U form factors.” The Curtiss-Wright VPX3-1256 device uses the latest-generation Intel processor and is designed to track the Intel road map as it develops (Figure 1).
“We are seeing a trend toward smaller SBCs – fewer 6U boards and more 3U boards,” Scidmore says. “We also are seeing increasing demand for smaller systems, which require the SBC to be even smaller than 3U. X-ES provides PrPMCs, processor XMCs, and just introduced its first COM Express module, the XPedite5550 (Figure 2). For more information, visit.
Space consolidation within platforms is one of the major drivers of processing performance within military systems, Baldus says. “For example, in a ground combat vehicle with limited space, where today you might have five different independent systems and five different computers and five different screens, the desire going forward is to consolidate them as much as possible. If you can consolidate three of the five computers and display the resulting information on one common monitor, the benefit is a significant reduction in systems and weight, etc. in the vehicle.”
“The types of systems that are in demand typically have four things in common: one, they need to be able to move large amounts of streaming data; two, they need to be able to process this data in real time; three, they need to be able to operate in harsh environments; and four, they need to keep the technology from being compromised by the enemy,” Scidmore says.
Military users are looking for a “stable, reliable, proven building block on which to base the rest of the application, whether that application sees the integration of additional hardware or additional software,” says Richard Kirk, Product Manager, Military/Aerospace SBCs, GE Intelligent Platforms in Charlottesville, VA. “Implementing the latest technology isn’t just about performance, though – it’s also about longevity. The earlier in the life cycle of new technology our customers can get it into their programs, the longer the solution can remain viable – and so the cost of ownership becomes lower. Fabric choice is also important to designers when integrating high-performance systems.
VME gets new life, while demand for VPX increases
VMEbus-based products continue to thrive, even as VME’s “grandchild” VPX sees a large increase in demand and new products.
VPX will not eclipse VME everywhere, says Ray Alderman, Executive Director of the VITA Standards Organization in Fountain Hills, AZ (www.vita.com). “There are still VME niches in missiles and gun turrets, which need VMEbus for real-time responses. Systems with packet-based architectures will stay VME.” Future enhancements to advanced systems will leverage VME-based designs in a big way, he adds.
VME is seeing a resurgence because of redeployment of existing military platforms, because the government doesn’t have the money to do a whole new program, says Eric Gauthier, Vice President of Marketing, Strategic Alliances, and Partnerships for Embedded Computing at Emerson Network Power in Phoenix, AZ. Emerson’s latest VME offering is the MVME8100, which uses a Freescale P5020 QorIQ processor. For more information, visit www.emersonnetworkpower.com.
“We continue to see demand for VME, and in some cases – programs that were looking to go VPX are staying VME,” Slonosky says. With VME there is still continued interest, especially with the decrease in budgets, he continues. System upgrades to VPX will be slowed down and only used where it is most necessary, he says. Technology insertions for VME are still going strong too, as it does not always make sense to replace VME with VPX, Slonosky explains. For super high-performance applications, a move to VPX would be necessary, but VME is still an ideal form factor for many defense electronics applications.
DoD budget cuts are extending the life of existing programs for VME and CompactPCI for the next few years, says Norbert Hauser, Executive Vice President of Marketing at Kontron. This is good as both form factors are “cash cows for us.” In the long term with new designs, VPX will be the standard of choice, he adds. Kontron plans to host the third-generation Intel Core processors on 3U and 6U CompactPCI processor boards, a 3U VPX processor board, and on other form factors. For more information, visit www.kontron.com.
The board-level market can be broken down into three levels – legacy VME in the middle with VPX at the high end and Small Form Factor (SFF) designs at the low end, Alderman says.
SFF designs will make use of ARM and Android technology rather than Intel chips, he continues. At the high end, VPX will be the choice, with processing technology from Intel and Freescale. Military applications using VPX will be radar, sonar, electronic warfare, signals intelligence, and mission computing, Alderman says. “There is a tremendous interest in radar for VPX.” There may also be a bit of 3U CompactPCI being used at the high end, but the majority will be VPX, he says.
“In some recent discussions with some customers in Europe, we found that there is still interest in CompactPCI, especially in low-performance, low-cost systems, where for some applications VPX is considered too costly,” Baldus says.
“For new design-ins, we’re seeing quite a bit of interest in VPX both in 3U and 6U versions,” says Ken Grob at Elma in PA. “We’re also seeing requests for SBCs with heavy DSP capabilities that make use of FPGAs.” Some designs also use GPGPUs for front-end DSP functionality, he adds. For more information on Elma embedded SBC products, visit www.elma.com.
Frank Godulla, Director of Sales for Hartmann Electronic, says VPX will really explode when interest peaks for VPX products outside of the military market. Right now the interest is mainly military, which means low-volume orders, he says. Once commercial-oriented markets integrate VPX systems, volumes will increase. The growth potential of VPX was also partially behind Hartmann Electronic buying a piece of MILPER, an Israel-based company that specializes in rugged computers and ATR systems, Godulla continues. Military customers who want VPX often want it in a rugged ATR system, and MILPER’s technology enables Hartmann Electronic to provide those features, he adds. For more information, visit www.hartmann-electronic.com.
Small Form Factors (SFFs)
The VITA 75 working group (RSFF or Rugged Small Form Factor) has produced a number of design concepts and draft specifications, Slonosky says. “We are diligently working on SFF subsystems through chairmanship of the VITA 75 working group, which addresses new SFF subsystems.” For more information on CWCDS SFF products, visit www.cwcdefense.com.
The major applications for SFF designs are in vehicular electronics (vetronics); Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR); and UAVs, says Dennis Smith, Vice President of Engineering at Themis Computer in Fremont, CA. Persistent surveillance is another area where SFF devices can thrive, he continues. They can be placed on robots or in “intelligent cubes” on top of telephone poles and provide wired 60-degree surveillance via “fish-eye lenses.” Themis also is working with the infrared sensor community and other electro-optical sensing designers because “we see high-flying image processing as a way to reduce power and increase speed through small form factor designs.”
The Themis VITA 74-based product – the NanoPak – has 5 slots and comes in 12.5 mm and 19 mm modules. The NanoPak is rugged and can be liquid and conduction cooled, Smith adds. For more information, visit www.themis.com.
Not all SFF designs are based on VITA 74 specifications as other SBC designers are developing products outside that specification.
“Some SFF efforts in the industry limit the processing power to processors such as the Intel Atom processor because of the inability to get heat out of the system,” Scidmore says. “Some other companies base their SFF systems strictly around 3U modules, which significantly increases the size and reduces the performance capabilities of the system. With our SFF approach, the die of the processor is mated directly against the inside of the chassis’ wall, which is either mounted onto a cold plate in a conduction-cooled application or has fins to remove the heat via convection. This allows us to cool and support these high-performance processors in very small systems.”
“There are parts of our mil/aero business where small form factor is incredibly important, but in SBCs we’re not seeing so much of a rapid trend to miniaturization,” Kirk says. “Yes, for sure, managing SWaP continues to be a key concern for our customers. But, for the majority of these customers, 3U VPX gives them what they need, especially as the processors at the heart of those boards get more and more capable.” GE Intelligent Platforms is “sponsoring the VITA 75 Rugged Small Form Factor standard, because that seems to us to be the best of the various competing standards that are around at present,” Kirk says.
“Our attitude is colored by the premise that small form factor and standardization may not really go hand in hand – and the reality is that most customers wanting a small form factor solution will actually need a custom solution, because of the very specific constraints of each application.” The latest product from the GE Intelligent Platforms VPXcel6 range of 6U VPX SBCs is the SBC624 (Figure 3), which uses the newest Intel processor and may be updated again in the near future, Kirk says. For more information, visit www.ge-ip.com.