The future has a name: VITA 58

April 1, 2006
A new electronics packaging standard continues to take shape that has the potential to revolutionize military and aerospace systems like no standard ever has before.
John Keller
Editor in Chief
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A new electronics packaging standard continues to take shape that has the potential to revolutionize military and aerospace systems like no standard ever has before. This emerging new standard, VITA 58, promises to change forever the way military electronics is specified, manufactured, installed, and maintained.

To help convey the magnitude of this paradigm shift, VITA 58, and the spirit behind it, is even leading to the transformation of its sponsoring organization, VITA of Scottsdale, Ariz.

VITA, until just recently, had been the acronym for the VME International Trade Association. Now the organization’s membership is moving away from the long name and is simply identifying itself as VITA. The group’s new logo proclaims “Open Standards, Open Markets,” yet no longer has the name VME.

The reason for this change goes directly back to VITA 58: it’s no longer just about VME, explains VITA Executive Director Ray Alderman. In fact, VITA 58 easily could embrace VME, CompactPCI, and even proprietary designs all in standard packaging.

VME, by the way, means Versa Module Eurocard, which largely through VITA has defined the sizes, connectors, and data networking for VME-based circuit cards, backplanes, and embedded computer enclosures.

VITA 58 seeks to do much the same thing, yet on a far broader and more inclusive scale.

On the face of it, VITA 58 aims to redefine open-systems embedded electronic and electro-optic technology by moving away from the foundation of backplane databuses populated with compatible printed circuit cards.

Instead, VITA 58 drives at the notion of embedding electronics in standard-size boxes, or “cans,” connected on high-speed serial network interfaces. The fundamental difference of VITA 58 is it offers an architecture that is no longer about buses, boards, and connectors. Physically, a VITA 58 architecture would look a lot like a collection of blade servers.

Physical connectors, cooling, ruggedization, and other environmental concerns could happen at the box level, rather than at the board level. No longer would systems designers argue about pinots, the connectors with the broadest appeal, conformal coatings, single- or double-slotted circuit cards, conduction versus convection cooling, or the countless other details that have gone into standard embedded designs.

The only crucial physical considerations would be the sizes the electronic enclosure “cans” and the networking interconnects between them. What’s inside the cans doesn’t much matter as far as the overall architecture is concerned, as long as the components perform as promised and can communicate with other boxes.

At the same time, however, VITA will continue supporting standards such as VITA 41 and VITA 46, which define some of the latest high-speed implementations of VME circuit cards and backplanes.

Alderman says the casual observer of VITA might see a rapid-fire set of developing standards that may appear to contradict one another. Despite this, Alderman says all of VITA’s standardization efforts make sense when people view them from the perspective of VITA 58, which seeks to be the all-inclusive architectural glue that could join not only the existing VITA standards, but competing standards such as CompactPCI and PCI Express as well.

Yet the notion of VITA 58 goes far beyond this kind of standard electronics architecture. VITA 58 would extend to physical quick-connect/quick-release brackets for securing electronics to platforms like combat vehicles and surface warships, satellite-downloadable software for mission flexibility and rapid upgrades, and improved battle readiness through two-level maintenance, a lean two-level repair process to replace the U.S. military’s three- and four-level maintenance systems of today.

Two-level maintenance would include field maintenance that relies on line replaceable unit (LRU) and component replacement, battle damage assessment and repair, recovery, and services, which technicians could do at all levels of the military nearly all the way to the front lines. The second level, sustainment maintenance, relies on end-item and component repair with some component replacement, and often can involve transporting equipment to depots or factories.

What this could mean in practice is nothing short of a revolution in electronics and electro-optics.

Alderman encourages us to imagine the inside of a main battle tank with no electronics in it at all-just driver and crew seats, main gun, and rudimentary support equipment. But a closer look reveals quick-connect brackets, some standard connectors, and accommodation for convection, conduction, or liquid flow-through cooling.

This tank is at a forward-deployed base and is due for a mission in just a few hours. Impossible? Not if the provisions of VITA 58 have anything to say about it.

Up rolls a supply truck with standard-sized metal boxes, many of which contain electronic components that make up subsystems such as computers, fire-control systems, sensor processing, radio communications, and electronic displays. Some of these cans also contain food, water, first-aid equipment, ammunition, and maintenance tools.

Uniformed technicians unload the metal boxes from the truck and move them into the tank, where other technicians slide the boxes into numbered slots and lock them down. The electronic subsystems might be labeled “computer,” “fire control,” or something else, but would have only three lights on the front, colored green, yellow, and red, plus an on/off switch.

That’s all the technicians have to do. The subsystems then communicate with orbiting satellites in much the same way that a satellite TV receiver does. The satellites download necessary software and might do a quick diagnostic. After that, the tank is ready to go on its mission.

The tank commander jumps in and scans the lights. All greens mean he and his crew are ready to go. Yellow or red means something is not right and needs attention. If the subsystem is failed, another truck rolls up with a spare box, and in minutes it is ready for the mission.

Certainly this is hard to believe, but this is the direction in which VITA 58 seeks to take standard electronics systems for the military. It’s a standard worth watching.

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