The Evolving COTS Vendor Stays One Step Ahead

It’s tough being an open-standards COTS vendor today. It is not good enough to build products (rugged or benign) using the best civilian technologies; vendors also need additional capabilities that include systems-level expertise. Increasingly, these box-level products also need to interoperate as well as stay ahead of the technology curve all at the same time.

Embedded COTS vendors continue to evolve and consolidate. Many of them were born out of the bus wars of the 80's and early 90's–VME, Multibus, Futurebus+, CompactPCI–by offering an amazing range of bus-based products for almost every conceivable application. However, leading-edge technology and a glamorous product line aren't the only keys to success for a military COTS vendor. Infrastructure, capability, service and long-term commitment are just as much part of the complete business package. Yet to meet the increasingly savvy requests of their customers, leading COTS vendors are going still further to secure their future success. Here’s what today’s vendor needs to focus on:

  • application spaces
  • technology
  • capabilities
  • product interoperability, and
  • higher levels of integration

Application Spaces
Embedded military systems encompass a truly broad spectrum of applications from tiny hand-held computers used by soldiers in the battlefield to complex and sophisticated command systems. A number of technology solutions, falling under the COTS banner, have evolved, finding their niches in various application areas. As examples, consider:

  • naval command and control systems make extensive use of VMEbus, CompactPCI and ruggedly packaged PC servers
  • avionics mission systems are often based on VMEbus but, in order to save space, power and weight, some are now migrating towards 3U CompactPCI or other small form-factor solutions
  • sensor systems such as radar and sonar are based on large arrays of digital signal processors interconnected by switched fabrics

The spectrum is, of course, far broader than just these few examples. VMEbus, CompactPCI, PMC modules, PC/104 and their siblings have successfully found their way into innumerable deployed, embedded systems: fire control, navigation, displays, sensor devices of all kinds, communications, recognition and targeting, logistics and many other applications. They operate in a diversity of environmental conditions from the benign office-like workplace to tanks, helicopters, “pointy nose” single-seat combat aircraft and their weapons systems. Even within a small market such as VME and CompactPCI for defense and aerospace, vendors tend to target application segments with their product and service offerings while, at the same time, looking for wider market opportunities. It is unusual for vendors to be able to successfully market the same product line to both benign and rugged applications.

Application Example – Mission Computer
A good example of a rugged application is a mission system for a helicopter or single seat combat aircraft. The purpose of a mission computer is to guide the crew through all the various phases of their required operation. For example, the day's mission might be to bomb specific enemy positions with particular types of munitions. The mission computer will provide: navigation direction to the targets, disposition of ground-based radars, location of ground-to-air missile positions, terrain data, alternative routings, recognition of enemy threats, engagement scenarios, fire control and ultimately, safe routing back to home base.

Much of the data required to support the mission is ephemeral and is loaded from a ground-based mission planning system into the aircraft prior to, or during the mission. A typical mission computer configuration is illustrated in Figure 1. This dual-redundant system is connected via a contemporary switched fabric, and communicates with the cockpit display and numerous other flight systems such as weaponry and navigation.

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Figure 1: Typical Mission Computer Configuration
(Click graphic to zoom by 1.9x)

Technology Highlights
In Figure 1 all the functional blocks of the system are connected via a switched fabric such as Infiniband, Fibre Channel or Advanced Switching. It uses centralized and duplicated switching. In practice, if this system were to be installed on an existing aircraft there would be many legacy subsystems connected to the mission computers using MIL-STD-1553B, ARINC-429 or serial interfaces. The two mission computers would be identical, each mounted in its own rack or ATR chassis and each is likely to contain the fabric switches, a number of single board computers (SBCs), graphics interfaces and video routing to both head-up and multi-function displays.

Physically, the mission computers would be required to operate in a very harsh environment with extremes of temperature, shock and vibration to contend with. Figure 2 shows an SBS Technologies AVC-cPCI 3001 Advanced Vehicle Computer intended for use in such mission computing applications. The AVC-cPCI 3001 offers 14 pre-configured 3U CompactPCI slots for three PowerPC SBCs and a full complement of I/O and fabric solutions.

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Figure 2: SBS Technologies AVC-cPCI 3001 Advanced Vehicle Computer
(Click graphic to zoom by 1.8x)

Where space is less of a limitation the 6U form factor may be used, offering more functionality and performance per card slot but also more power dissipation. There is today a greater choice of 6U products, ranging from high performance multi-processor Pentium and PowerPC SBCs, FPGA digital signal processing (DSP) solutions and a broad range of extra functionality that can be added using PMC modules. The 6U form factor also gives access to more advanced switched fabric solutions such as Infiniband using the new VITA 41 VXS standard with a centralized fabric switch.

In addition to VITA 41, the developing VITA 46 standard will accommodate a variety of fabric topologies plus it will provide greater backplane connectivity by means of new connectors able to handle multi-GHz I/O signals such as digital video. Figure 3 shows an SBS Technologies VXS1 SBC, with Freescale Semiconductor MPC7447A PowerPC processor, two 4x Infiniband ports plus an additional two 1GHz Ethernet ports for substantial configuration flexibility. The VXS1 is supported by a 24 port Infiniband switch.

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Figure 3: SBS Technologies VXS1 SBC with two Infiniband ports
(Click graphic to zoom by 1.9x)

Interoperability
But technology isn’t the only challenge. As the major COTS suppliers to the military such as Curtiss-Wright, Motorola, Radstone and SBS Technologies continue to gain additional product lines through consolidation, a real challenge for them has become interoperability. Despite years of grueling and, largely very successful, standardization efforts by industry bodies such as PICMG and VITA, there are still enough “gotchas” to give suppliers and users alike a few headaches. Many of the interoperability issues are with software. This is no surprise as vendors are supporting three or four different operating systems across multiple processor and DSP platforms, each of which can be enhanced by the addition of combinations of PMC modules.

Implementing optional functions of the standards or vendor-specific functions makes it very difficult for vendors to be fully interoperable even within their own product lines, let alone to be interoperable across vendors. Other areas, such as incompatibilities between vendors' Built-in Test (BIT) and functional mapping of I/O connector pin-out also hinder out-of-the-box interoperability.

Interoperability is a very real issue for the smaller, niche vendors of I/O products using, typically the PMC format. Without proven interoperability with a program's chosen host processor and DSP platforms they can find themselves locked out of contention. Cross-vendor partnerships are flourishing as the niche vendors and the major players get together to extend their market reach. Already the major COTS vendors are developing initiatives for dealing with interoperability – extended product testing, regression testing, development of industry partnerships and customer communication programs.

Integration
The next step beyond interoperability is the complete integration of boards, PMCs, chassis, operating system and drivers into a turnkey computer subsystem ready for the mission system integrator's operational flight program (OFP). This is more complex than it seems: the very nature of embedded computing is that “one size definitely doesn't fit all”. The end-use application will determine the number of processors, any and type of fabric topology, the number and types of I/O interfaces, the types of connectors and their pin-out, the primary power characteristics, the volumetric space constraints, maximum weight, overall power dissipation, maximum temperature limits; and so on.

All of these parameters will have been defined at a higher level, and in many cases are dictated by the use of an existing platform. When software is considered it can become more complex yet: choice of operating system, driver functionality and performance, integration of BIT with fault-logging and prognostics, graphics application programming interface (API) and overall project software development environment and toolsets. Yet this is the direction that the major COTS vendors are now choosing to pursue.

Just as the mission system integrators no longer want to manufacture electronic components and boards, there is also little added-value for them or their customers in performing the integration of an embedded computer themselves. This makes a lot of sense – a mission system integrator doesn't want to understand the on-going intricacies of hardware components and operating system technology. Their need is for a trusted, reliable and affordable computing platform with defined, consistent levels of performance and APIs on which to host their OFP.

In addition, it must interface with all the other subsystems, including sensors and weapons making up the whole mission system and must be upgradeable and maintainable for the projected life of the program. Most, if not all, of the technologies required to make this happen are available within the broader embedded marketplace. SBS Technologies, with their AVC-cPCI 300x range of Advanced Vehicle Computers illustrated earlier, have made a purposeful step in this direction. Other major COTS vendors are also gathering the pieces together through acquisition and partnership making for an exciting and successful future in prospect.