New VPX industry group creates stir by going outside VITA membership

Feb. 16, 2009
CHELMSFORD, Mass., 16 Feb. 2008. -- A new industry working group built around solving interoperability issues for an embedded computer standard gained more attention for its membership than its stated goal of solving system interoperability issues in VPX (VITA 46) -- a standard defined by the VITA open standards and open markets trade organization in Fountain Hills, Ariz.

By John McHale

CHELMSFORD, Mass., 16 Feb. 2008. -- A new industry working group built around solving interoperability issues for a military embedded computing standard gained more attention for its membership than its stated goal of solving system interoperability issues in military VPX (VITA 46) -- a standard defined by the VITA open standards and open markets trade organization in Fountain Hills, Ariz.

Mercury Computer Systems in Chelmsford, Mass., leads the alliance, which is called the OpenVPX Industry Working Group, run by a steering committee of VITA members, but which operates outside of the VITA Standards Organization (VSO)

Mercury officials confirmed that steering committee participants include rugged military computer companies and VITA members Aitech Defense Systems in Chatsworth, Calif.; GE Fanuc Intelligent Platforms in Charlottesville, Va.; Hybricon in Ayer, Mass.; Tracewell Systems in Westerville, Ohio; and a handful of defense suppliers.

Mercury cannot name the defense suppliers until they give their approval, says Greg Tiedemann, product line director at Mercury. The group's charter is to publish a comprehensive System Design Guide then bring it back to the VITA Standards Organization (VSO) for mapping into various VITA 46 dot specifications, he adds.

The glaring omission from this committee is Curtiss-Wright Controls Embedded Computing in Leesburg, Va. Curtiss-Wright is one of the top three -- if not the leading supplier -- of VPX products to the defense industry. The company's win on the Marine Corps Ground/Air Task Oriented Radar program, was the first publicly announced military contract for VPX technology and they also provide VPX systems to the U.S. Army's Future Combat Systems program.

Curtiss-Wright leadership does not have any opinion on the Mercury-led group at this time; the membership is still private and Curtiss-Wright leaders so not have knowledge of its charter, says Mike Hornby, director of marketing at Curtiss-Wright. However, if the VSO is too slow to solve these issues, "why can't that be addressed and solved with in VITA?"

Does Hornby have a point? Does the new working group defeat the purpose of the VSO?

Mercury's Tiedemann says his group does not defeat the purpose of the VSO, and that they will bring their results back to the VSO for approval and changes. It is the end customers that are driving this initiative to speed up the standardization process, he adds.

Jim Robles, senior technical fellow at Boeing in Seattle, agrees. Many of the VITA 46 dot specifications have bogged down for some time and the new group should speed up the process when they bring back their document to VITA, he says.

"I will confirm that Boeing is participating in the OpenVPX Industry Working Group, but with a with one caveat -- that Curtiss-Wright be involved," Robles adds.

The fact that the defense system integrators are upset with the process may be the most important point. They drive the requirements for VPX products as they are the biggest end-user. Therefore if the end-user is frustrated with the VSO process then there is a problem not being addressed.

The new industry group may very well turn out to be the instrument that solves this problem down the road, but in the mean-time VITA members need to do some self-examination and ask if they are their own worst enemy in this process.

As for Curtiss-Wright's absence from the OpenVPX steering committee, it may just come down to pure competition. No one ever kicks a dead dog, and Curtiss-Wright has succeeded in providing VPX technology to defense programs and has the respect of prime contractors such as Boeing.

Before Curtiss-Wright and GE Fanuc Intelligent Platforms started gobbling up embedded hardware companies, Mercury was the lead systems company in this space. Leading the formation of the OpenVPX group showed initiative and a desire not to concede that role.

Tiedemann says everyone will be able to join in a couple weeks once the infrastructure and rules are in place and the prime contractors "get clearance to publicly announce their membership in the steering committee."

However, there may be more unrest during this process once OpenVPX opens up to everyone in the community. Members of the Mercury-led steering committee have the authority to overrule any suggestions by non steering committee members as to what goes in the final document, Tiedemann says.

Competition and the promotion of open, interoperable standards are good things, as long as they do not shoot the hand that feeds them -- VITA. The final word on that will have to wait for OpenVPX's work to be done and they have not even finished building their infrastructure yet.

Ray Alderman, executive director of the VITA, says he is torn. On one hand there is a need for getting things done more quickly outside of the VSO, but he says he is concerned that it may go against the "equality and fairness that VITA promotes" by excluding some members in the charter group.

Mercury may have avoided some of the controversy around their announcement if they had waited until their infrastructure was in place, "yet secrets are hard to keep in this community," Alderman says.

"I'm comforted by the fact that the OpenVPX group will follow VITA rules and procedures" while creating their document and that they will take it back to the VSO for approval, he continues.

Alderman says he believes Mercury heeded a call to action he gave during VITA's November 2008 VSO meetings. During that discussion Alderman says he asked the members to figure out a way to create interoperability from the many different technologies for VPX from the top down in a system approach. The industry itself is no longer an embedded single-board computer community that works from the bottom up but rather an embedded systems community and the VPX dot specifications need to reflect that, he adds.

Mercury was involved in a similar effort in the PCI Industrial Computer Manufacturers Group (PICMG), but VITA is different animal and the defense user is much more demanding, he says.

In the PICMG example a working group was formed outside the standards organization to develop a system approach to high-end ATCA and MicroTCA systems, Tiedemann says. The group then brought back their work to the PICMG standards committee for an efficient approval, he adds.

The OpenVPX group should have their materials completed by late fall, early winter and in the hands of the VSO for approval, Tiedemann adds.

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