Military board suppliers ride the economic storm

Aug. 1, 2001
Single-board computer companies with a strong foothold in military applications are poised to weather the current recession while their brethren in the telecommunications industry struggle to stay afloat.

By John McHale

Click here to enlarge image

Single-board computer companies with a strong foothold in military applications are poised to weather the current recession while their brethren in the telecommunications industry struggle to stay afloat. Meanwhile VME and PMC continue to be mainstay technologies in military systems designs.

War may be hell but during a slow economy and under a conservative administration it is money in the bank; today's single-board computer suppliers are perfect examples.

Board suppliers that banked solely on the telecommunications industry — mostly with CompactPCI printed circuit boards — are finding their orders canceled and products shipped back as leaders of the big telecommunications equipment suppliers such as Lucent and Nortel streamline their operations after seeing their stock prices nosedive.

The economic downturn in the technology sector is not all bad news, however. "It is a compartmentalized recession," says Ray Alderman executive director of the VME International Trade Association (VITA) in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Those companies that diversify among military, industrial, and telecommunications applications, or that are almost exclusively military suppliers, are growing their business, Alderman explains. This is good news for VMEbus suppliers since VME is the bus of choice among military designers, Alderman says.

Meanwhile, demand for CompactPCI is as "dead as a doornail," because the telecommunications industry is going doing so poorly, he continues.

"The reason that capital investment in [telecommunications] gear is down 57 percent this year (including board and box sales), according to some business analysts, is that the services offered by [telecommunications] service providers are Neanderthal," Alderman says. "That includes the wireless, landline, and the ISP community's service offerings. Just look at wireless as an example. People are dropping their landlines from Quest, and paying $70 per month for a cell phone, local service, and 1,000 minutes of long distance. They don't want caller-ID, last-number redial, making the phone ring funny when your grandmother calls, or any of those low-value services being offered, and they won't pay for them."

Alderman says he predicts layoffs among board companies to hit in the fall of this year with companies focused predominantly on CompactPCI and the telecommunications industry getting the brunt of it.

"I have received and heard many of the [telecommunications] market analysts predictions about when the [telecommunications] equipment providers (Nortel, Ericsson, Alcatel, Lucent, etc.) will recover," Alderman continues. "I have also read and heard many reports on the recovery of the networking equipment providers (Cisco, JDS Uniphase, Juniper, etc.). The first reports were saying sometime in Q-1 or Q-2 of 2002. Latest financial reports are saying a recovery sometime in 2003. No one really knows when we will see recovery.

"I believe, from what I have seen and heard, that the recovery in the [telecommunications] equipment sector will be based on the new technologies needed for enhanced services and high-speed interconnect from the access layer to the services layer. With the latest technology developments, that seems to suggest about 18 months, maybe a bit longer (based on the testing and design-in cycles at the [telecommunications] companies)."

Board suppliers that find themselves in this recession will have a tough time breaking into military designs because design-ins take anywhere from two to 10 years, and they need money right away, Alderman says. The only way they may be able to break in is by designing the latest and greatest technology, which takes time and money in the form of research and development, he explains.

Military COTS boards see growthDesign-ins for telecommunications applications are hitting all time lows, but military suppliers, which are traditionally more stable, are seeing steady growth especially in commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) equipment, says Duncan Young, director for marketing for DY 4 Systems in Kanata, Ontario. DY 4's military business has a steady growth of between 3 to 5 percent, while the military market for COTS is growing between 15 and 25 percent each year, he adds.
The Fibre Channel/RACE++ daughtercard from Myriad Logic, pictured at right, integrates several interfaces on one Xilinx FPGA called the RMP.
Click here to enlarge image

The U.S. Defense budget usually falls around $3.2 billion with COTS only making up about $200 million to $300 million, but that number is getting bigger every year, Young says. Aiding the market will be the conservative Bush Administration in Washington, which is expected to increase defense funding over the next year or two, he adds.

C-MAC, DY 4's parent company, is a big player in the telecommunications industry, but should weather the storm well because they have diversified during the last couple of years, Young says.

DY 4 also recently announced a business strategy based on diversification into the commercial applications, Young says "Evaluating leading-edge commercial technologies for deployment in mission-critical systems has always been a DY 4 strength," he continues." Now, we're looking further and deeper into the commercial sector for the solutions to drive our next generation products to even higher performance levels."

The strategy has been in the works for some time — well before when C-MAC acquired DY 4. Having a company with C-MAC's capital and strong foothold in the commercial sector does help, he adds. "Part of the end result will be more synergy between ourselves and C-MAC," he adds.

In conjunction with their new business initiatives, DY 4 released a graphical display line for harsh environment military avionics, known as Insight. The new line of products includes two high-performance PMC mezzanine modules, Trinity I and Trinity II, for either VME or CompactPCI processor boards, plus a new 6U VME board. Part of the new strategy will be to take products like the graphics boards into commercial designs, Young says.

Demand for COTS boards is definitely showing growth, says Gorky Chin, vice president of advanced technology at Vista Controls in Santa Clarita, Calif. Unlike the telecommunications suppliers, "we never fear nonpayment," he adds.

Chin says he sees more and more of Vista's customers asking for PowerPC technology especially the AltiVec or PowerPC generation 4 (G4) devices. The AltiVec has created whole new markets for vista, Chin continues. Vista can now compete with suppliers of digital signal processing (DSP) boards because of the G4's ability to do general purpose processing and DSP functions, he explains.

Vista engineers are working a dual G4 processor board scheduled for release the later part of this year, Chin says.

Leaders of General Micro Systems in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., say they expect to be strong in military, industrial, and telecommunications in the second half of this year, says David Bogut, accounts manager for military and aerospace applications at General Micro Systems. However, it is COTS military applications that are "truly our bread and butter," he adds.

Customers who want COTS increasingly ask for it off the shelf, but with some minor tweaks, Bogut says. However, this usually only happens when they buy a lot of products, he adds. General Micro Systems recently released the V158 Mariner 2 single-board computer, which can have as many as five PMC slots in a two-slot solution, Bogut says.

Customers are also looking for COTS technology such as Pentium processors on ruggedized boards, Bogut says. General Micro Systems is still examining that those potential applications and if they see growth potential will enter it, he adds.

Themis Computer in Fremont, Calif., has also benefited from the COTS environment, says John George, the company's vice president of sales and marketing. During the last two years Themis's overall business has increased about 50 percent, with a large part of that being military COTS products, he adds.

Military systems designers are demanding COTS because their budgets are tight, and they and need more bang for their buck," George says. They want products with a rugged, military-standard look and feel at COTS prices, he adds.

Themis executives recently released their Rugged Enterprise Servers, the RES-2014, RES-2014s, and RES-204 servers that strongly tolerate extreme shock and vibration environments. The servers exceed 20 Gs of shock for military use in land, air, and sea environments, company officials say.

Based on Sun's Ultra-SPARC-80 Server technology, Themis's RES-204 extends the capabilities of Sun's successful workstation. Themis engineers redesigned the system to provide a suitable platform for demanding federal and aerospace markets, including expanded I/O in an open, modular system. Themis is Sun Microsystems main partner in supplying rugged UltraSparc servers and boards to the military, George says.

CompactPCI and the militaryDespite projections, SBS officials are still seeing a lot of interest in CompactPCI, says Clarence Peckham, president of SBS Technologies in Raleigh, N.C. Of particular interest to the SBS military customers is 3U CompactPCI for avionics applications, he adds. Military designers working on embedded systems prefer 3U CompactPCI to 3U VME because the CompactPCI board has more connectors for I/O, Peckham says.
Click here to enlarge image

SBS's CR7 conduction-cooled 6U CompactPCI board is part of the Pegasus rocket program, Peckham says. The CR7 is designed to meet the needs of embedded application developers addressing markets such as military and aerospace, industrial automation, medical, scientific, imaging, and telecommunication. Options include conduction cooling, extended-temperature operations between -40 to 70 degrees Celsius, increased shock and vibration immunity using stiffener bars and wedge locks, as well as conformal coating.

General Micro Systems's Bogut says he also saw interest in CompactPCI at COTScon East in Washington in May. General Micro representatives displayed CompactPCI and VME products at the show and said they had customers interested in trying it just because they heard it might be the wave of the future, Bogut says. However, the majority of General Micro Systems customers military customers still prefer VME, he adds.

While the military is looking at CompactPCI for some new designs, "it is still mostly in the labs," DY 4's Young says. Designers are using it in laboratory experiments, but there are still issues involved in migrating it from the laboratory to deployed programs, he says.

If a military system designer needs to upgrade his VME boards, about 90 percent of the time he will replace them with VME, Peckham says. There is too much cost involved in software and requalification when switching from a VME-based architecture to one based on CompactPCI, he explains.

What of PC-MIP and IndustryPak?Just as military designers shy away from CompactPCI they have also been slow to embrace mezzanine choices such as PC-MIP and IndustryPak; instead they continue to look toward the PCI Mezzanine Card — better known as PMC — for mezzanine solutions.

"The growth for PC-MIP has been fairly slow," SBS's Peckham says. It is small and there are currently no military versions of it, he continues. However, SBS has not given up on it, Peckham adds. SBS Technologies purchased the creators of PC-MIP and IndustryPak — GreenSpring Modular I/O — in the late 1990s.

IndustryPak, which has a conduction-cooled version, is doing well in the industrial environment, Peckham says. It also has not taken off in the military market, where PMC is definitely the mezzanine of choice.

SBS released two versions of their Palomar PowerPC PMC modules — Palomar IV and V. Palomar IV's design supports ECC memory with a PowerPC 750 processor with 64 to 256 megabytes of SDRAM. The Palomar V has as much as 1 gigabyte of SDRAM.

Myriad Logic designs uses flexible FPGA technology for new daughtercardExperts at Myriad Logic in Silver Spring, Md., have designed a Fibre Channel/RACE++ daughtercard that integrates the RACE++, PCI, and memory interfaces on one Xilinx field programmable gate array (FPGA) called the RPM. The card is targeted at radar applications.

"By providing a full Fibre Channel interface on RACE and RACE++ Series daughtercards, Myriad Logic has maximized both communication performance and density," says Richard Jaenicke, director of product marketing at Mercury Computer Systems, Inc. in Chelmsford, Mass. "Many of our customers have a requirement for high-performance data storage and playback, and the MYRIAD-4110 can satisfy a broad range of those requirements in both military and commercial applications of RACE++ multicomputer systems."

The RPM enables full-rate transfers between RACE++ and the SDRAM with simultaneous transfer of data between the PCI bus and the same SDRAM. The unit is designed to connect high-throughput, real-time data acquisition systems, RAIDs, and general-purpose computers with sustained data transfer rates of 200 megabytes per second, Myriad officials say.

Typically a PXB chip from Mercury brings Raceway with the PCI bus on a board, says Lou DeBenedetto, vice president of marketing and sales at Myriad Logic. The memory interface ties directly to the PCI bus. "By doing that if somebody wants to take data from a PMC module and send it to memory, then have Raceway go in and pull data out," DeBenedetto explains. This involves two passes, he says.

However, the RPM ties the Raceway, memory, and PCI interfaces to the FPGA. This enables the same process in only one pass, thereby saving bandwidth for other tasks, DeBenedetto says. The inherent flexibility of FPGAs helped make this design possible, he adds.

The MYRIAD-4110 is optimized for real-time applications requiring high bandwidth and low latency. The Agilent Tachyon XL2 controls the Fibre Channel interface. To make the most of performance, the IBM PowerPC 405 processor provides a flash-based, high-level application program interface.

The MYRIAD-4110 is a high-speed, low-latency chassis-to-chassis interconnect between sensors and digital signal processing equipment, Myriad officials say. Since it can sit directly on the user's existing Mercury motherboard, it does not require an additional VME slot and will inject data directly into the heart of the user's RACE-accessible compute node.

The single-site Fibre Channel/RACE++ daughtercard for Mercury MCJ and Multiport RACE series 6U and 9U products is available in commercial and industrial versions. The MYRIAD-4110 is software configurable for either 1.0625 gigabit per second or 2.125 gigabit per second operation. The MYRIAD-4110 can also be factory-configured with a short wavelength dual LC optical connector or a copper HSSDC connector.

Myriad engineers also recently enhanced their MYRIAD-4030 VME64/RACE++ dual PMC carrier to provide 64-bit, 66 MHz PCI on both PMC sites. This change, together with 64-bit, 66 MHz on the RPM bridge and PowerPCs, increases the available PCI data bus bandwidth from 266 megabytes per second to 532 megabytes per second. — J.M.

Radstone Technology wins Eurofighter contractOfficials at BAE Systems in Stanmore, England, recently awarded Radstone Technology in Towcester, England, a contract to supply customized rugged PowerPC processors for the electronic warfare suite of Eurofighter's Defensive Aids Sub-System (DASS).

"Radstone's PowerPC technology has enabled us rapidly to take advantage of some significant advances in processor performance and packaging technology," says Peter York, Eurofighter DASS project manager at BAE Systems. "With their close co-operation and expertise we have been able to integrate leading-edge silicon into the Eurofighter program within a very demanding timetable."

Radstone engineers will replace an existing general-purpose processor (GPP) based on Motorola 68020 microprocessor technology, Radstone officials say. A total of five processors will compose each DASS unit and the first production versions are due to be delivered in October 2001. The new GPP is consistent with Eurofighter's common processing module requirement.

The processor derives from Radstone's successful VMEbus PowerPC family, already in service in a variety of U.S. and European defense applications will be among the first commercial-off-the shelf (COTS) computer modules to be integrated into Tranche 1 of the Eurofighter production program, company officials say.

The experience of Radstone's engineers in military COTS applications enabled them to provide a ruggedized, high-performance solution for the demanding operational environment of Eurofighter in a short development timescale, company officials say. The winning solution benefits from computer architecture and packaging technology, which has been field-proven in more than 4,000 generically similar Radstone processor units over the last five years.

Radstone's technology-insertion model will enable engineers to implement future DASS performance improvements with minimal software modification and risk, company officials say. It also will enable seamless system upgrades to be implemented during the aircraft's service life, they claim.

Eurofighter is a swing-role combat aircraft, from Alenia Aerospazio of Italy, British Aerospace, CASA of Spain, and Germany's Daimler-Chrysler Aerospace.

An overall production contract for 620 Eurofighter aircraft was signed in January 1998. Production of the first of these is now in progress, with a planned delivery date to the four participating partners in 2002. Production will be carried out in three tranches between 2001 and 2014. — J.M.

COTS designs aid PC-104 growth, says Parvus CEOThe military commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) initiative is stimulating the growth of PC/104, says Troy Takach, chief executive officer of Parvus in Salt Lake City. Currently about 40 percent of Parvus's business is PC/104, with a good chunk of that being COTS based, he adds.

"We've seen a lot of growth in our COTS business," Takach says. Parvus's PC/104 product's low cost and inherent ruggedness made it appropriate for embedded applications such as the U.S. Q113 radar and communications jammer for the U.S. Navy's EA-6B electronic warfare aircraft and NASA's Ultra Long Duration Balloon.

PC/104 cards such as the board from Parvus, pictured above, stack together to provide systems designers with deeply embedded off-the-shelf computers.
Click here to enlarge image

PC/104 is inherently rugged because pin to pin it has fewer connectors than traditional backplane products, and because of its small size can perform in high-vibration environments, Takach says. It is also "more flexible connector wise" than traditional backplanes because you can run connectors off three sides of the board, he adds.

PC/104 cards are much smaller than buses such as VME or CompactPCI, and stack together, which eliminates the need for a motherboard, backplane, and/or card cage, officials say.

One of the complaints against PC/104 is that it is difficult to maintain. If one board fails, technicians cannot pull it out and replace it; instead, they must replace the whole stack. Takach points out that PC/104 "is an embedded stack and it is meant to be embedded in a module." In most cases of module designs such as displays, Takach admits, the entire module is changed out.

PC/104's modularity is one of its best features, Takach says. "It keeps down the cost of product entry into PC/104," he says. Because the boards are modular they can interface easily with a variety of architectures, such as CompactPCI and PC/104, Takach adds. Since PC/104 is an asynchronous bus it can work with a variety of processors such as the Motorola PowerPC and Intel's, x86 technology, Takach says.

Commercial field programmable gate array technology is also expanding the possibilities for PC/104, he says. For example, designers can buy and place several different Ethernet cores on an FPGA, thereby improving the capabilities of the PC/104 bus, Takach explains.

Parvus leaders also recently launched a PC/104 board as part of their Versinet Communication Products line. The Parvus PC/104 1553 dual interface board provides the systems engineer with a new option for interfacing between MIL-Std-1553 avionics data buses and the rugged, compact PC/104 bus platform. The PC/104 processor can access a 1553 bus to configure it for remote terminal mode, bus control mode, or monitor mode, Parvus officials say.

The PC/104 1553 Dual Interface Board provides an interface from its two dual-redundant 1553 buses to any standard PC/104 computer system bus. The 1553 Dual card uses two United Technology SuMMIT 1553 support chips. Eight 16-bit register locations within the SuMMIT and the Pseudo Dual Ported Memory (PDPM) allow complete access to interface functions through PC/104 I/O space. — J.M.

GE Fanuc to Acquire VMICOfficials at GE Fanuc Automation North America Inc. in Charlottesville, Va., are acquiring VMIC in Huntsville, Ala., to enhance their capabilities in embedded computer and storage area networks.

"By joining with a world leader in automation technology, VMIC will increase its presence and gain access to GE Fanuc's and GE's full range of global services and products," says Carroll E. Williams, VMIC president, chief executive officer, and chairman. "This will allow us to continue our strong growth in our core segments while expanding into new areas."

Under the agreement, VMIC will become a wholly owned subsidiary of GE Fanuc. The agreement is subject to approval of various government regulatory bodies, with the acquisition approval expected in September, VMIC officials say. The two companies have worked closely for years through various joint developments and private branding arrangements.

GE Fanuc Automation is a supplier of industrial control systems and is a joint venture between GE and FANUC, Ltd. of Japan. GE Fanuc is part of GE Industrial Systems.

VMIC specializes in providing embedded computer products for open-architecture buses such as CompactPCI, VMEbus, PCIbus, PMC, Multibus, and PC-MIP. The company's product lines include single-board computers, communication/network products such as reflective memory networks, Fibre Channel and SCSI host adapters, gigabit Ethernet, and data acquisition and control products such as analog and digital I/O. — J.M.

Who's who in single-board and mezzanine computersAcromagWixom, Mich.248-624-1541http://www.acromag.comAitech Defense SystemsSanta Clara, Calif.408-980-6200http://www.rugged.comAmpro ComputersSan Jose, Calif.800-966-5200http://www.ampro.comCarlo Gavazzi Mupac Inc. Electronic PackagingBrockton, Mass.508-588-6110http://www.carlogavazzi.comComputing Devices CanadaNepean, Ontario613-596-7000http://www.computingdevices.comConcurrent TechnologiesAnn Arbor, Mich.734-971-6309http://www.gocct.comDawn VMEFremont, Calif.800-258-3296http://www.dawnvme.comDNA Computing SolutionsRichardson, Texas469-330-4705http://www.dnacomputingsolutions.comDY 4 SystemsKanata, Ontario613-599-9199http://www.dy4.comGeneral Micro SystemsRancho Cucamonga, Calif.909-980-4863http://www.gms4vme.comInteractive Circuits & SystemsOttawa, Ontario613-749-9241http://www.ics-ltd.comLockheed Martin Systems IntegrationOwego, N.Y.607-751-4888http://www.owego.comMacrolinkAnaheim, Calif.714-777-8800http://www.macrolink.comMEN Micro USACarrollton, Texas972-939-2675 Computer SystemsChelmsford, Mass.978-256-1300 Computer GroupTempe, Ariz.800-759-1107

Myriad Logic
Silver Spring, Md.

Salt Lake City, Utah

PEP Modular Computers
Pittsburgh, Pa.

Litlington, England

Radstone Technology
Towcester, England

SBS Technologies
Raleigh, N.C.

Sky Computers
Chelmsford, Mass.

Synergy Microsystems
San Diego, Calif.

Systran Corp.
Dayton, Ohio

Thales Computers
Raleigh, N.C.
800 848 2330

Themis Computer
Fremont, Calif.

Tracewell Systems
Westerville, Ohio

Transistor Devices/Circuitek Division
Cedar Knolls, N.J.

Huntsville, Ala.

Houston, Texas

Vista Controls
Santa Clarita, Calif.

Voiceboard Corp.
Oxnard, Calif.

Voice your opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of Military Aerospace, create an account today!