Sense of urgency among primes drives VME market, while VITA 46 highlights company roadmaps

By John McHale

Designers of VME single-board computers for military applications say their market is strong because prime contractors feel pressure to field programs quickly, which forces them to use commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) technology.

“We see more and more requirements for commercial off-the-shelf technology from our military customers,” says Roy Keeler, vice president of North America for Radstone Technology in Towcester, England. In fact, he adds, some of their customers have been told that if they want to use proprietary boards and computers they will not get the contract.

When the Bush Administration allocated a few hundred million dollars to the research and development (R&D) part of the defense budget, “it made me concerned,” says Doug Patterson, vice president of sales and marketing for AiTech in Chatsworth, Calif. Historically when there was that much allocated to R&D prime contractors would take their board and embedded computing in-house, but that was not the case this time, he explains.

The pressure from the end user-the military-to field quickly has created “a sense of urgency among the prime contractors,” Patterson says. They do not have the traditional five-to-seven-year time frame anymore, Patterson says.

Why put so much time and money into developing a computing solution when outsourcing is more efficient especially when it comes to managing obsolescence?, asks John Wemekamp, chief technology officer for Curtiss-Wright Controls Emebedded Computing (CWECC) in Leesburg, Va.

It is the Department of Defense’s spiral method of deployment that has really driven the outsourcing trend, Wemekamp says. Also, there is typically not enough volume for primes to justify building a computer in-house, and then supporting it for years afterward, he adds.

The reasons the government would rather not see prime contractors embrace proprietary development is the cost, time to market, and, most important, supportability, Keeler explains.

Outsourcing not just for boards but also for an entire embedded computing solution, Wemekamp says. Curtiss-Wright’s Santa Clarita operation has been producing complete embedded solutions for years.

“We also see the outsourcing model really starting to take off in Europe,” Wemekamp continues. “It has been going on in the U.S. for some time.”

VITA 46

While the military market is strong for VME suppliers today they continue to plan ahead for future wins and the standard that gets the most attention is VITA 46.

VITA 46 is a specification that would enable conduction-cooled VME circuit boards to meet the growing demands of military and aerospace systems designers for wideband I/O, fast processing, and power distribution.

VITA 46 will move data through the backplane via 10-gigabit-per-second serial-switched-fabric data paths, as well as via VME parallel backplane databus protocols that move data at 32, 64, and 320 megabytes per second. It provides four serial-switched-fabric ports in the initial configuration, and the capacity for more than 20 ports in fabric-only configurations.

“VITA 46 is the technology standard that we see impacting our VME business,” Keeler says. However, despite the excitement and talk regarding high-speed serial technology, traditional VME is not going away anytime soon, Keeler says.

Right now there is a lot of activity coming up for VME, such as legacy programs that need upgrading and refurbishing from use in the war in Iraq, he says. The U.S. Navy’s next-generation destroyer program, DDX, also will be using a lot VME technology, Keeler adds.

VITA 46 represents the next step for embracing the high-speed serial data rates that traditional VME is not designed for However, the trend is VXS technology-the so-called VME renaissance-finally being adopted, Patterson says.

Ray Alderman, executive director of the VME International Trade Association (VITA) in Scottsdale, Ariz., likes to say that VITA 41 and VXS technology are “VITA 46 with training wheels on.”

VITA 41 enables VMEbus architectures to begin using switched fabrics, he says. “VITA 41 and VXS are very software friendly where fabrics are not yet. The technology enables extensive debugging that can’t be done with fabrics.”

Alderman says he thinks of VITA 46 as a supercomputing architecture. “It allows military designers to take advantage of high-density switched fabrics such as Serial Rapid I/O, 10-gigabit Ethernet, InfiniBand, etc,” he says.

Patterson says AiTech’s business for traditional VME applications that do not require the high-speed performance that VITA 46 addresses is strong. It is ideal for gun and weapons control, where the single-board computer functions as the central computer in a cluster, Patterson explains.

There are some in the industry who subscribe to the notion that speed and performance are everything and that someone else should worry about what to do with the heat, Patterson says. That luxury does not exist in embedded military applications; “you can’t just throw heat around,” he adds.

That is a bottom-up approach in an area where a top-down approach is needed to address the power and thermal concerns, Patterson says. It is a system engineering issue on how to get rid of the heat, and “you can’t stick the customer with the problem,” he says.

Click here to download a .PDF of VME single board computers


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