Dichotomy vs. continuum

The apparent dichotomy between today's VMEbus-based single-board computers that dominate rugged military applications and the promising Compact PCI technology evolving from the personal computer industry might also be thought of as a continuum on which the competitors stake out niches in a changing defense market.

by John Rhea

WASHINGTON — The apparent dichotomy between today's VMEbus-based single-board computers that dominate rugged military applications and the promising Compact PCI technology evolving from the personal computer industry might also be thought of as a continuum on which the competitors stake out niches in a changing defense market.

That market is changing, although the directions are not clear at this point. In a sort of "stealth budget" released with zero fanfare April 9, U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) officials asked Congress for $310.5 billion, up 4.8 percent from the $296.3 billion budget they inherited from the outgoing Clinton administration. The new fiscal year begins Oct. 1.

Significantly, the new budget envisions cutting weapon system procurement by $2.6 billion to $59 billion while boosting research, development, test, and evaluation (RDT&E) by about the same amount. There are no details available yet, and there won't be until the real defense budget is unveiled, probably around the middle of this month.

The defense industry got some good news the day after the budget submission, however, when the Pentagon announced that the Air Logistics Center at McClellan Air Force Base in Sacramento, Calif., had been officially closed that morning and that the last step in the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) round begun in 1995 would be accomplished in July with the closure of the comparable facility at Kelly Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas.

These steps represent new opportunities for defense contractors in the operations and maintenance account of the defense budget. DOD officials are now outsourcing more than three-fourths of that business, which has a steadily growing electronics content, and the completion of the BRAC process should add to that business.

What makes any near-term transition from procurement to RDT&E significant, observes Donald Barry, president of Sky Computers Inc., Chelmsford, Mass., a subsidiary of Analogic Corp., is that the RDT&E segment of the defense budget represents opportunities for new programs — and thus new board-level technologies — while the procurement dollars are spent mostly on current and even legacy systems.

Even if these changes at the Pentagon do occur, they won't happen overnight. Companies participating in this market are well advised to find their niches on the continuum now and begin to leverage their capabilities in order to muscle in on their competitors as the programs get under way.

There is general agreement that the VME form factor dominates the existing military and aerospace slots and has the advantage of momentum going for it in an industry that doesn't change technologies readily.

There is also agreement that Compact PCI is closer to the cutting edge and can build on the economies of scale in the dynamic personal computer industry to offer superior cost-performance benefits in any new weapon systems derived from today's RDT&E efforts.

At issue is how superior. The consensus is that VME and Compact PCI will coexist for about another 10 years, and the suppliers need to tailor their strategies accordingly to anticipate the new generations of systems.

Upgrades too. Desmond Coffee, manager of maritime business development at BAE Systems' Information and Electronic Warfare Systems unit in Nashua, N.H., points out that new systems tend to be called upgrades in order to get them past the bean counters at the Pentagon and in Congress. In the Air Force this used to be called jacking up the aircraft tail number and building a new airplane under it.

One company that has decided to put all its chips on Compact PCI is Flight Visions Inc., in Sugar Grove, Ill. The company is a supplier of head-up displays for military and commercial aircraft, and its president, Bob Atac, explains his strategy as expanding into modular mission display processor modules using Compact PCI and PMC boards with the Motorola 7400 AltiVec PowerPC processor.

The new product line, designated the FV-4000, will have all the usual avionics bus interfaces and operate at military temperature specifications of -55 to +70 degrees Celsius, Atac says. The system can use available commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) microprocessors, so he reasons that Flight Visions is better off using what he calls the "open architecture" of Compact PCI than the "common architecture" of VME.

At Sky, the strategy is to develop a bus-independent architecture, or what Barry calls a "busless" approach, that can accommodate VME and Compact PCI. The company is employing this approach in its new line of Xtreme ruggedized multicomputers launched last month based on the AltiVec PowerPC that will be available in versions from 0 - 40 degrees C to -70 to +71 degrees C.

VME is still the safest choice, adds Ed Hennessy, marketing vice-president for Sky, and most of the company's shipments to date have been VME-based products. Now, with Compact PCI beginning to win slots in the less demanding telecommunications environments, the goal is to be able to cover both technologies and in rugged and COTS environments to achieve what H.L. Mencken once called the "quiet confidence of a Christian holding four aces."

This trend toward commonality parallels the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which states that physical processes tend inevitably toward entropy. Once there were many competing microprocessors and many proprietary system architectures, and they were produced in relatively small volumes. Today the volumes have soared, but the choices of implementing technologies have dwindled.

A basic premise of engineering is that there is always one best solution to every problem. The challenge is defining best. Improved performance is obvious, but that criterion has to be weighed in the equation with cost, reliability, and availability. A useful guideline is a saying attributed to the French and later adopted with near-stellar success within the Russian space program: "The best is the enemy of the good."

Whatever the final mix of competing technologies at the board level, the taxpayers should benefit from the ongoing shift of the cost of technology development from the government users to the industry suppliers that is implicit in the COTS process. And, as we have been painfully reminded in recent weeks, we are all taxpayers.

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