CompactPCI showing up more and more in military designs

Dec. 1, 2005
Joe Pavlat is president and chairman of the PCI Industrial Computer Manufacturers Group (PICMG)-an industry consortium that develops open computer standards for industrial control, instrumentation, military, and communications applications.

Joe Pavlat is president and chairman of the PCI Industrial Computer Manufacturers Group (PICMG)-an industry consortium that develops open computer standards for industrial control, instrumentation, military, and communications applications. Pavlat has more than 30 years of experience in the embedded-computer industry. He has designed a wide range of products for the medical instrumentation, motion control, robotics, and communications industries.

Q: What is the current growth rate of CompactPCI in military applications? What type of applications is it being adapted into and why?

A: I don’t know the actual growth rate numbers, but the number of products that have come to the market in the last two years for military applications is quite large, from radiation-hardened boards for space applications to high-performance graphics engines for cockpit and helmet displays, to complete ruggedized systems for airborne and unmanned aerial vehicle applications. Many of these are conduction cooled. Interestingly, many of these systems are based on the smaller 3U form factor, which hasn’t been as popular over the last 10 years as the larger 6U size. One obvious reason is that the 3U size has better shock and vibration characteristics than 6U.

Communications is a broad category and the evolution of the net-centric warfare concept makes CompactPCI, which has always been successful in communications applications, an ideal platform. It has evolved over the years and now supports modern high-speed switched fabrics. The recently released CompactPCI Express specification adds the PCI Express fabric to CompactPCI, and data transfer rates are up to a whopping 8 gigabytes per second in the fastest configurations. That’s more than 60 times faster than the original 32-bit PCI. This is ideal for all sorts of sensor data collection, radar processing, and visual imaging for both military and homeland security applications. I believe CompactPCI Express will have a major impact in these markets. For example, Curtiss-Wright Controls is already building a CompactPCI Express graphics engine for airborne helmet mounted displays.

In the new world of “any data, any time, to any soldier, anywhere” communications and networking are vital pieces. The strong track record of CompactPCI in these applications will be of great value to military designers.

Q: Does PICMG have anything like the VME Renaissance to extend the life of CompactPCI technology?

A: Absolutely. CompactPCI just celebrated its 10th birthday, and in the last 10 years there has been continual technology evolution and improvement. CompactPCI brought to the embedded computer industry a number of “firsts,” including the first viable hot swap standard, the first system management specification, and the first switched-fabric backplane, CompactPCI 2.16.

The top three finishers of this years’ DARPA Grand Challenge [in October 2005] were powered by CompactPCI 2.16 systems. The Grand Challenge is a brutal road race that requires vehicles operating completely autonomously-no remote control allowed-to travel over 150 miles of desert, rough terrain, ravines, hills, and obstacles in less than 10 hours. The CompactPCI 2.16 systems, using a total of six processors each, integrated the complex tasks of navigation, artificial intelligence, sensor and image processing, and vehicle control. The Grand Challenge was specifically designed to promote technology development for future military systems, and it’s extremely gratifying to see CompactPCI used by the winners.

The PICMG CompactPCI family also includes CompactPCI 2.16 interoperable mappings of 622-megabit-per-second StarFabric and 1.25-gigabit-per-second Serial RapidIO onto the standard connector system. In addition PICMG 2.20 adds the option for switched serial communication at 2.5 gigabits per second and above, supporting the same interconnects as Advanced Telecom Computing Architecture (ATCA) though with fewer total links per slot. All of these are part of an ongoing development of the CompactPCI architecture. We’re also working on extensions to the CompactPCI management infrastructure that would leverage much of what we’ve learned from ATCA.

CompactPCI continues to evolve, recently adding the PCI Express fabric as detailed above. I expect it to continue to evolve over the next 10 years. And, no, we don’t have a Renaissance as such. We don’t need it, as we’re not crawling out of the Dark Ages.

Q: What technology is the current frontrunner in your mind for switched fabrics for the military?

A: It amazes me how Ethernet, like the Energizer Bunny, just keeps going, and going, and going. There are lots of things on paper that one shouldn’t like about it, but it keeps up in the speed wars, is cheap because it’s the basis of 95 percent of the world’s packet communications systems, is familiar, and there is lots of software around. The recent emergence of TCP Offload Engines, or TOEs, is a major step forward, as they all but eliminate central-processor overhead. So, while more exotic isochronous fabrics like PCI Express and RapidIO will be used for specialized image transmission and similar applications, I think Ethernet will be used in similar percentages and for the same reasons as civilian communications networks.

Q: In the October 2005 issue of Military & Aerospace Electronics, Ray Alderman, executive director of VITA, is quoted: “PICMG 2.16 deals with 1 gigabit Ethernet, which is too slow to be effective. It is only used for small communications in the field such as sending Red Cross messages, ordering pizzas, or sending e-mails to husbands and wives that take two or three days to arrive. CompactPCI is used in small, embedded applications in the 3U form factor such as unmanned aerial vehicles. 6U CompactPCI is extremely slow and not deterministic enough for mission-critical military applications. Basically CompactPCI is a dog and PCIMG 2.16 is a dog with fleas.” What is your response?

A: Well, Mr. Alderman is a master of one-liners, and when you’re on the technology defensive, as he surely is, sometimes you have to resort to comments like that. PICMG 2.16 systems have an aggregate bandwidth of more than 40 gigabits per second when nonblocking switches are used. That’s a whole lot faster than 64-bit VME, which provides up to 640-megabits-per-second transfer rates-hardly a fair comparison. Interestingly, VITA’s first-switched-fabric specification, VITA 31.1, uses standard PICMG 2.16 switch cards. So, while colorful, the remarks are incorrect. The world is moving to packet-based communications everywhere, including mission-critical military applications.

Q: There is a lot of buzz these days in the telecommunications market regarding ATCA and Micro Telecom Computing Architecture (MicroTCA). Intel is also pursuing the technology for military markets. Where do you see ATCA fitting into the military market?

A. Interestingly, there is a lot of interest in ATCA for military applications. I know of a couple of very sophisticated systems being built for military applications already. ATCA was originally developed for critical telecommunications applications. The requirements for telecom systems are extremely tough. Most customers expect a system, once operating, to work uninterrupted for 30 or more years. That necessitates a new way of thinking encompassing fault tolerance, field-replaceable units, redundant resources, hot-swap capability, and sophisticated system management. While many military systems have even higher shock, vibration, and operating temperature range requirements, the traditional approach to designing them has been to build one very rugged box and replace it when it fails. Much of the technology in ATCA that keeps systems running when a failure occurs can be brought directly into next-generation military systems.

A 16-slot ATCA system using a full mesh backplane is capable of transferring a whopping 2.5 terabits per second of data. That’s orders of magnitude faster than any other open standard out there, and next- generation C4ISR systems will need that degree of bandwidth, so I expect to see a vibrant military ATCA marketplace.

Q: What is the next major standard that PICMG is pursuing?

A: There are a lot of PICMG activities going on in parallel. We continue to upgrade older specifications like CompactPCI, and add capability to the newer ones like ATCA and the Advanced Mezzanine Card-AMC. A lot of activity is taking place now with the MicroTCA effort, which is based on the concept of plugging the small, highly functional AMC modules directly into a backplane. This concept scales from small, inexpensive-but very high-performance-boxes containing a handful of modules up to larger, redundant, “five nines” systems for applications requiring continuous service.

Q: What is the current hot technology in the bus-and-board world that military designers should keep an eye on?

A: Certainly the move from conventional parallel databuses like PCI to switched-fabric architectures is a very important technology shift, as silicon suppliers are going to move in that direction, and already are, and the larger volumes of commercial silicon dictate product availability. Many military designers maintaining older systems are painfully aware of that phenomenon.

Cooling is a major issue facing both commercial and military designers, as chips just keep getting bigger and hotter. There are many activities in a variety of standards organizations aimed at developing liquid cooling standards, and I think liquid cooling will be important going forward.

I also think there is a lot military designers can learn from high-end telecom technology, which is architected to keep running when something fails. Concepts such as small failure domains, redundancy, and high-availability middleware to manage the hardware will become important to future robust military systems, which will need to keep running continuously. The old notion of “24 by 7” is being replaced by “3600 by forever” as mean time to repair becomes measured in seconds, not in minutes or hours.

PICMG and its 450 member companies are at the forefront of developing very high-performance, rugged, highly reliable platforms. I think PICMG standards will continue to increase their penetration into a wide variety of markets, including military and homeland security.

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JOE PAVLAT, President and Chairman of the PCI Industrial Computer Manufacturers Group

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