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Rugged, prepackaged "shoeboxes" move into the mil tech fore, but what about program-specific tech? - Q&A with Paul Scanlon, General Manager of GE Intelligent Platforms Mil/Aero-Systems

In a Q&A, Paul Scanlon of GE Intelligent Platforms details why his shoebox contains proven, not program-specific, technologies.

1In light of defense spending shifts, it’s wise to keep up with the times. And GE Intelligent Platforms is doing just that: Having recently announced the expansion of its COTS Rugged Systems (CRS) rugged “shoebox” systems line to meet the mil market’s latest technology shifts, GE’s GM of Mil/Aero-Systems, Paul Scanlon, shares insight with Military Embedded Systems as to where proven technology versus program-specific technology stands now – and whether it really matters what’s inside that shoebox. Edited excerpts follow.

MIL EMBEDDED: GE recently announced a new line of ruggedized “shoeboxes” called the “COTS Rugged Systems” [CRS] family: off-the-shelf rugged systems designed for reduced cost and reduced time to market.

SCANLON: Yes. About three years ago, we were primarily focused on not quite custom, but purpose-built systems, meaning a customer would bring us a specification and say, “I need this type of performance in this type of packaging to meet XYZ environments.” Those were programs coming in that were funded by our customers, which are typically Tier 1 and potentially a Tier 2. However, in 2009, I had some indications from our customers, and our customers’ customers, that there would be a shift in procurement and NRE funding was going to be getting scarce. So, the risk was shifting from the government to our customers in terms of deployment.

What is happening now is that we’re moving from technology that is developed as part of a program, to technology that is proven and is available today – technology that can be demonstrated and that has fairly high technology readiness levels. That means reduced NRE funding, reduced time to market for our customers, and then for our customers’ customer.

MIL EMBEDDED: Even during the customization era, there was still off-the-shelf, so you’re starting with a COTS set of boards and it’s 80 percent COTS and 20 percent customized.

SCANLON: It’s the packaging side of things that gives the system its uniqueness, such as thermal, shock, and Size, Weight, and Power – sometimes called SWaP. Building a subsystem from the “ground up” is a relative term, because we start from technology that we have. We’ll look at other packages that we’ve done, minimizing the risk around it. We are not moving away from that model – we believe that market is still there. But, we believe that there’s a shift in focus to provide more proven technology. It’s just the de-emphasis from a market perspective on the total customization.

Our strength is being able to pull all [the ingredients] together and implement them in a solution our customers can count on. Our first set of CRS [COTS Rugged Systems] offerings was based on , PowerPC, and most recently we’ve offered the Intel version of CompactPCI, in 2-, 3-, and 4-slot subsystems. As we move forward, you’ll see additional packaging options.

MIL EMBEDDED: Are you using conduction-cooled 3U CompactPCI then?

SCANLON: Yes.

MIL EMBEDDED: Will you fit  or modules into the [CRS] model?

SCANLON: Yes. We have a limited offering of VPX modules available today including our MAGIC1 Rugged Display Computer.

MIL EMBEDDED: So really what we’re dancing around here is VPX-based CRS products.

SCANLON: For our CRS line, we started with CompactPCI for a couple of reasons: 1) In the marketplace today, you see a lot of need for upgrades. And 2) you see a lot of need for proven technology. And CompactPCI is a technology we’ve deployed quite a bit; we see growth in CompactPCI. And now VPX is just a natural follow-on to that for us.

MIL EMBEDDED: For clarification, most of your CRS systems today are CompactPCI based in 2- and 3-slot pre-boxed shoeboxes. And then you’re moving to VPX or OpenVPX?

SCANLON: Yes. They’ll all be VPX.

MIL EMBEDDED: What else does the future of prepackaged systems hold?

SCANLON: We’re going to higher slot counts. This year, we’ll have 4- and 5-slot version subsystems and we’ll also be looking at alternate cooling techniques. We’ll be focusing beyond the control applications into data processing applications. And as [we] get to those data processing applications, we’ll be incorporating VPX technology. We’re also looking at some smaller form factor solutions. Our technology road maps [indicate] the need for smaller systems moving toward more plug-and-play applications.

MIL EMBEDDED: Do your customers care what’s inside the box?

SCANLON: It’s interesting … we’ve had that conversation a lot, internally, and also at the customer level, and it all really depends. If you talk at the detailed engineering level, they might have a preference as to what’s inside the solution. But if you talk it up at a higher level, it’s: “Does it really perform the way it needs to? Does it have the required life cycle?”

Ultimately, when we get to our customers, we end up talking about the type of product that’s inside primarily from an application perspective. Our customers are taking these systems and adding value by porting their application on it, because they know which software, operating system, or target platform they’ve invested in, whether Intel or PowerPC. Then you start to talk about performance and there are going to be trade-offs in SWaP. Today CompactPCI can provide some of the best SWaP benefits. And as a business, we see VPX having a lot of growth in the marketplace.

MIL EMBEDDED: How do you see CompactPCI moving forward then versus VPX?

SCANLON: You know, if I were to draw those two on a graph, I think VPX is already there. It’s gaining momentum in the marketplace, so I would say its slope is going to be higher than CompactPCI’s because of the performance of the backplane itself.

MIL EMBEDDED: Which other form factors might be inside the GE box – and what about mixing form factors within a single box?

SCANLON: You can look at our offerings today and see across the board the VPX solutions, the -based application or cards that come out of our group, and the networking cards. We take all of those and integrate them together because they’re on various form factors like CompactPCI, VPX, and VME.

MIL EMBEDDED: Do you have any [CRS] boxes available today with form factors besides CompactPCI and VPX?

SCANLON: Not in this product offering.

MIL EMBEDDED: What’s GE’s go-to-market strategy with CRS?

SCANLON: Our strategy from a go-to-market perspective is to bring a breadth of products to the marketplace. For example, with the announcement of the Intel version, GE Intelligent Platforms has more than 40 COTS Rugged Systems in the market.

MIL EMBEDDED: Do you think GE Intelligent Platforms is going to sell more of these preconfigured or slightly customized CRS systems – or do you think you’ll sell more boards overall (not counting the boards that go in these systems).

SCANLON: I see a need for both. The “captive market,” meaning the large tiers that do their own system/subsystem development, is a huge part of the marketplace. And they’re buying the COTS boards to deploy their subsystems, so that’s a huge part of our business. I see this giving them an alternative option to bring in a piece of technology that’s already ready to go.

MIL EMBEDDED: Turning to the technical side of all this, let’s dive deeper into CRS. For example, how much bandwidth can the systems handle, and for which applications are they best suited?

SCANLON: So we put CRS in two buckets here: 1) Control and mission flight computing; both have real-time processing requirements and exploit large amounts of data. And then 2) there’s a different class of machine that is a subsystem used primarily in ISR applications, which is processing video and other data in ; that’s what drives the bandwidth on the backplanes. Into that class of performance is where we start to gravitate toward VPX, whereas if we’re getting into more I/O intensive and flight control, then that is a sweeter spot for CompactPCI.

Some of the applications we would see in that ISR space are , active EW, and , especially video ISR where you’re compressing multiple cameras and exploiting the data from those looking for targets or specific artifacts of data that lead to intelligence in real time. That’s where the bandwidth is often dramatically increased.

MIL EMBEDDED: Can you quantify the bandwidth?

SCANLON: If we go from OpenVPX to VPX in those applications, we’re going up to 10 GB on the backplane for card-to-card communication. Those are the higher-performance subsystems we’re dealing with; when you start doing video over anything with multiple displays or multiple camera inputs, it gets very data-intensive quickly.

On the EW side, we’re seeing it these days in the rates of 1.5 to 3 GHz, and we’ll be going beyond that in the not-too-distant future. So, that certainly drives it from our perspective. On the imaging side, some image-processing platforms have a 50 megapixel focal point array.

MIL EMBEDDED: So 50 megapixels – at which frame rate?

SCANLON: It depends on what you’re doing with the data – if you are trying to process it onboard or trying to fit it down a soda-straw downlink to the ground. It’s a lot of data, so you could imagine that 30 frames per second, times the focal point array. We’ve seen requirements that are actually 60 or above.

MIL EMBEDDED: 750 million pixels per second is a lot and just at 15 frames; so at 30 frames, you’re going to raise that to 1,500 megapixels per second.

SCANLON: Yes, and we’re starting to get more up from that, and also more distributed processing systems.

MIL EMBEDDED: You mentioned going to 10 GbE on the backplane. Are these copper backplanes?

SCANLON: Today, yes.

MIL EMBEDDED: Do you see any reason to go to fiber-optic backplanes in the future?

SCANLON: I think it’s probably likely, because we’re starting to hit the end stops right now on where we can go with signal integrity, both in the tracking on the boards and through the backplane connectors and also the tracking on the backplane. So we are conducting ongoing research into the feasibility of deploying optical backplanes. There are some out there in the commercial marketplace, but there’s certainly nothing out there that is “rugged” just yet. We’re also looking at militarized connectors that will allow us to bring optical I/O into a copper backplane.

MIL EMBEDDED: So from the front panel of your subsystem into a backplane?

SCANLON: Right. Within a vehicle, the high-speed Ethernet could easily be on an optical backplane, and for a variety of reasons that’s very attractive. But then we have to bring that into the subsystem through a militarized connector and get it onto a backplane where we can take it back to copper within our controlled environment.

MIL EMBEDDED: Does CRS represent a philosophical change for GE Intelligent Platforms?

SCANLON: Let me just tell you the difference between what we’re offering today in the CRS line and what we traditionally offered with our advanced vehicle computers. Advanced vehicle computers were products deployed for a specific customer and as a COTS product. They were very much configured around the original customers’ requirements so they were really designed with one application in mind and designed around the space requirements.

What we’ve done with CRS is surveyed all the systems that we’ve created over the past several years and said, “Looking at the common requirements of these, here are some very stable processing and I/O products that could meet 80 or 90 percent of customer demands.” And so it’s a different approach in that we took all our years of market knowledge building subsystems and put together a very typical subsystem that would meet many customers’ needs. That’s the kind of philosophical change in our CRS subsystems. We started with CompactPCI because of market needs and we are following that with VPX subsystems to address higher performance needs.

Paul Scanlon is General Manager of Mil/Aero-Systems at GE Intelligent Platforms. He has worked at GE for more than 25 years, holding roles of increasing responsibility in engineering, sales, and marketing. Those roles have included Development Engineer, product management, and program management. In 2008, Paul took his present position of General Manager at Mil/Aero-Systems in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He can be contacted at paul.scanlon@ge.com.

GE Intelligent Platforms www.ge-ip.com