1998 will be the year of VME 320

Feb. 1, 1998
WASHINGTON - "1998 is the year for VME 320," proclaims Rick O`Connor, vice president for marketing and business development at Tundra Semiconductor in Kanata, Ontario. "We intend to sell silicon to every VME board supplier in the market."

by John Rhea

WASHINGTON - "1998 is the year for VME 320," proclaims Rick O`Connor, vice president for marketing and business development at Tundra Semiconductor in Kanata, Ontario. "We intend to sell silicon to every VME board supplier in the market."

VME 320 is a new architectural approach to the popular VME backplane data bus that will boost data throughput from the current 80 megabytes per second to 320 megabytes per second.

"The more people out there building to the VME 320 spec the better for everybody," adds Fred Hirsch, general manager of backplane supplier Bustronic Corp. in Fremont, Calif. "It`s not a specialty product."

The point these two industry leaders are making is that it is time for an industry standard that can accommodate the expected surge in information throughput in the military and aerospace systems of the near future and yet be backward compatible with legacy systems.

Ray Alderman, executive director of the VMEbus International Trade Association in Scottsdale, Ariz., which is championing this new standard, sees this as another step toward the gigabyte databuses of the future. "We don`t know where the gods of physics live," he comments. "We used to think they lived at 20 MHz."

The evaluation process is under way in anticipation of designing VME 320 into the next generation of products, and the leading applications are avionics and telecommunications. This makes for a nice synergy in which the large-volume telecommunications markets will generate the economies of scale to create the commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) subsystems that will make this technology affordable for the more limited and demanding avionics applications.

In fact, the original equipment manufacturers reported to be leading the way into VME 320 cover this spectrum: Honeywell Avionics in Phoenix for next-generation avionics computers, and telecommunications suppliers Northern Telecom in Ottawa and Themis Computer in Fremont, Calif.

Engineers at Vista Controls Corp. in Santa Clarita, Calif., are incorporating Tundra`s new Universe 3 source synchronous transfer VME-to-PCI bus bridge in their line of ARINC-compatible air transportable racks (ATRs): a 12-slot short ATR and a 5-slot half ATR.

On the assumption that avionics systems designers can never have enough throughput - an assumption that has all the characteristics of a self-fulfilling prophecy - it seems reasonable to expect them to latch on to VME 320, and then ask the backplane suppliers, what are you going to do for me next?

Vista`s vice president for advanced technology, Gorky Chin, says he foresees developments such as VME 320 as enabling technologies for future avionics to do jobs that military leaders have long had on their wish lists: target recognition, target acquisition, and video processing. He adds that one of the ground rules for the next generation of VME products is form, fit, and function-compatible with today`s VME extensions.

No problem, Alderman maintains. That is the whole point of VME: to be backward (and forward) compatible. What is at issue here is a standard everybody can rally to, analogous to IBM`s System/360 line of mainframe computers in the 1960s and the Intel and Motorola microprocessors in the 1970s and `80s. Standards are a necessary evil to migrate technologies economically and with a minimum of unpleasant surprises.

That is what Bustronics`s Hirsch has in mind when he says, "I envision a year from now VME 320 will be our one product line." His logic is straightforward: as volume builds, costs will inevitably decline along the classic experience curve, and the resulting value will make the technology even more valuable. It`s a sort of endless loop - when it works. "It`s also easier on inventory," Hirsch adds.

There is another reason: alternate sources of supply to enhance the comfort level of program managers. That is equally important for military applications, which are driven by stringent performance requirements, and the large-volume commercial markets, in which cost is the crucial consideration.

With Tundra supplying the interface between the PCI local bus and the VME backplane - beginning in mid-1996 with the original Universe, followed by Universe 2 last summer, and Universe 3 due early this year - Tundra officials already list DY 4, Force Computer, and the Motorola Computer Group in their camp. The other critical ingredient - the transceiver chips from Texas Instruments and National Semiconductor Corp.`s Fairchild Semiconductor operations - represents well-established technologies, Alderman says.

Bustronic officials, who cooperated with VITA and with Drew Berding at Arizona Digital in Scottsdale, Ariz., in developing VME 320, are eager to license this technology to other backplane manufacturers, Hirsch says, adding he has already received half a dozen inquiries and has shipped custom versions for evaluation.

At the moment, Hirsch admits, VME 320 is a "paper tiger," but the first production run of 21-slot versions built to the 64X spec is due to begin early this year. Curiously, the inquiries to date have come from in-house captive operations - and even one university - as well as merchant market board suppliers.

This is also an opportunity for "fabless" semiconductor companies and their foundries. Tundra experts farm out their wafer fab, O`Connor says, and this probably makes sense for any company focusing on how it can maximize its value added.

Alderman, whose job is to be bullish about VME, regards VME 320 as another step along the way toward making this the universal standard. In cooperation with Berding at Arizona Digital, VITA experts are experimenting with a 66.6 MHz, 533 megabyte version in an attempt to find "where the gods of physics live." That is next year`s product - maybe.

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