High-performance embedded computing (HPEC) gaining market traction, but its definition remains elusive

By John Keller
Posted by John Keller

People warned me that when I reached a certain age I'd look out at a once-familiar world and see nothing that I recognized. Well, it's happened. Acceptable social behavior today is a shock and a mystery. Popular music sounds like noise, and the most recent covers of Time and Newsweek , well don't even get me started.

One of the biggest jolts of all, so far, involves the embedded computing industry that so many of us have come to know and love for what seems like forever.
Embedded computing for military embedded systems used to mean single-board computers. It wasn't that complicated. We knew we were talking about the same thing -- even when mezzanine boards, VPX, high-speed switch fabrics, and even what DARPA calls 'cyber-physical systems' entered the conversation.

Now? Well, I'm not so sure.

I started to feel somewhat off-balance when companies like GE and Intel stopped talking about embedded computing altogether, and substituted the new term 'intelligent systems .' People tell me the names mean pretty much the same thing, but you never know when new definitions might sneak in when we're not looking.

Now there's a new term on the block, and I think it's got plenty of people just as confused as I am. Here it is: high-performance embedded computing, or HPEC for short. Okay, it doesn't sound all that frightening. Look at those words; doesn't the name sound straightforward enough?

Well, you'd think, but I guess not. In fact, I have a feeling that little acronym, HPEC, is going to define the marketing wars for a good while in that ... business, you know, where at one shining moment in the not-too-distant past we knew it as the embedded computing industry.

Sshhhh. Better not say that too loud, or we'll get the same kind of eye rolls as when someone refers to the 'information super highway,' or the 'TV set.'

So what's high-performance embedded computing mean, anyway? Well, I think it depends a lot on who's selling it. Remember COTS, short for commercial off-the-shelf? Everyone remembers the debate over what COTS meant. Heck, we used to have whole TRADE SHOWS to debate the term.

COTS in its day meant a lot of different things to a lot of different people, but the best definition of COTS I ever heard is "whatever my customer says it is." I have a feeling HPEC is headed the same way.

Here's where I think we are now in the HPEC-terminology wars. The early pioneers -- Curtiss-Wright Controls Defense Solutions , GE Intelligent Platforms , and probably Mercury Computer Systems -- are looking at a fairly narrow definition -- one that closely resembles their cutting-edge technology, and that, not surprisingly, their marketing departments have a shot at controlling.

For these companies, high-performance embedded computing closely follows what the IT industry has come to call high-performance computing, or HPC. It has to do with parallel processing techniques for running complex application programs with large clusters of processors. Some say it only applies to systems that function at speeds in excess of 1 trillion floating point operations per second (teraflop).

This is the kind of high-speed cluster computing used in military embedded systems for complex digital signal processing involving complex sensor processing in applications like radar, sonar, electronic warfare, and signals intelligence.

More to the point, this definition involves software more than it does hardware. Large clusters of parallel processing computers are becoming commodity items in this brave new world of ours. Some of the biggest challenges have to do with programming these large computer clusters to run complex algorithms quickly and reliably.

The real thing that makes HPEC different from HPC is the packaging. High-performance embedded computing is packaged to be small, rugged, and lightweight. It doesn't take a data center, but might fit aboard a ground vehicle or unmanned aerial vehicle.

But then what does HPC mean to the rest of the embedded computing world? For companies like General Micro Systems, Extreme Engineering Solutions, and many others, HPC simply means embedded computing that is more high performance than average.

Let's face it, most of the embedded computing industry isn't going to let GE, Curtiss-Wright, and Mercury get away with controlling the debate over HPEC. Anything those three companies can do, well they can do it too. They believe that, and their challenge is getting their customers to believe it, too.

But the Big Three HPEC companies won't take that lying down. I suspect their marketing departments, as we speak, are on the verge of an entirely new term to describe what their design engineers do best. I can't wait to see what it's going to be.

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The Mil & Aero Bloggers

John Keller is editor-in-chief of Military & Aerospace Electronics magazine, which provides extensive coverage and analysis of enabling electronic and optoelectronic technologies in military, space, and commercial aviation applications. A member of the Military & Aerospace Electronics staff since the magazine's founding in 1989, Mr. Keller took over as chief editor in 1995.

Ernesto Burden is the publisher of PennWell’s Aerospace & Defense Media Group, including Military & Aerospace Electronics, Avionics Intelligence and Avionics Europe.  He’s a father of four, a runner, and an avid digital media enthusiast with a deep background in the intersection of media publishing, digital technology, and social media. He can be reached at ernestob@pennwell.com and on Twitter @aero_ernesto.

Courtney E. Howard, as executive editor, enjoys writing about all things electronics and avionics in PennWell’s burgeoning Aerospace and Defense Group, which encompasses Military & Aerospace Electronics, Avionics Intelligence, the Avionics Europe conference, and much more. She’s also a self-proclaimed social-media maven, mil-aero nerd, and avid avionics geek. Connect with Courtney at Courtney@Pennwell.com, @coho on Twitter, and on LinkedIn.

Mil & Aero Magazine

December 2013
Volume 24, Issue 12
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