VPX is at the right place, at the right time, for serious market growth in embedded systems

Product intelligence -- It's been a long time in coming, but the market for VPX-based embedded computing is ready to take off, now that interoperability standards are settling down, the need for small, fast computer boards is higher than ever before, and powerful new multicore microprocessors like the Intel Core i7 are hitting the market.

It's been a long time in coming, but the market for VPX-based embedded computing is ready to take off, now that interoperability standards are settling down, the need for small, fast computer boards is higher than ever before, and powerful new multicore microprocessors like the Intel Core i7 are hitting the market.

VPX single-board computers use a high-speed switched fabric architecture for communications among computer boards in a chassis, rather than a parallel backplane databus, which enables systems designers using VPX to employ fast networking like Gigabit Ethernet, RapidIO, or other high-speed serial interconnects for data throughput.

That's music to the ears of engineers who are looking at new generations of multicore processors, need to stuff high performance in a small space, or face daunting signal processing demands from radar, forward-looking infrared, or other advanced sensors.

"What we like about VPX is it gives you a rich serial fabric environment for I/O at exactly the right time -- when multicore processor technology is really on a march," explains Bill Kehret, president and chief executive officer of embedded computer specialist Themis Computer in Fremont, Calif.

"VPX has lovely I/O bandwidth that we could only dream about in the VME world," Kehret says. "This is a state-of-the-art thing. In the next 18 months we will see processor offerings from AMD and Intel of six to eight cores; those will be pretty power-hungry chips."

Standout features

One standout feature of VPX is its ability to bring powerful computing performance to a 3U card -- a feat that VME never was able to perform well. Big performance in a small space, with several kinds of circuit card cooling available, makes VPX attractive for size-weight-and-power (SWAP)-constrained applications like unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), which are incorporating ever-more-sophisticated sensor payloads.

"In VPX our customers see a real benefit in performance, SWAP, and everything good about VPX," says Jeff Porter, senior engineer with Extreme Engineering Solutions (X-ES) Inc. in Middleton, Wis. "It has high-speed serial interconnects, and a platform to get a lot of power and performance out of a small space. Any technology looking at getting more out of less space is a candidate for 3U VPX."

The choice of VPX was not always so straightforward, however, despite the technology's benefits. Until this past fall, systems integrators were concerned about the lack of interoperability standards in the VPX specification. Embedded computer manufacturers and systems integrators put their heads together in the OpenVPX group, however, and hammered out standards for interoperability acceptable to virtually everyone involved.

Now the OpenVPX group has handed its VPX interoperability guidelines off the VITA open standards group in Scottsdale, Ariz., which should ratify its interoperability guidelines for VPX into a new industry standard called VITA-65. Work on this standard is expected to be completed as early as this month.

"In its first few years, VPX was all over the map in terms of interoperability," explains Rodger Hosking, vice president at signal processing specialist Pentek Inc. in Upper Saddle River, N.J. "It's not perfect yet, but our feeling is it will be adopted and released, and will be something that people can design to."

OpenVPX

Work done in the OpenVPX group was key to nailing down crucial interoperability standards, he says. "The right people were there and they were extremely motivated to get this thing passed," Hosking explains. "There is business there, and there is money to be made."

With the VITA-65 standards in place, systems integrators "don't have to deal with the headaches of designing from scratch when there is a new program," explains X-ES's Porter.

New programs vs. system upgrades can be a tricky question for engineers looking for the latest embedded computing technologies. Industry consensus holds that VPX is best for new programs, rather than systems upgrades, which might benefit from the latest developments in legacy technologies such as VME and CompactPCI.

With all the pieces falling into place, embedded systems suppliers are ready for serious market growth in VPX. "We see it as a growth market -- especially on new programs looking for new opportunities and not tied to a specific backplane," says Steven Edwards, chief technical officer for embedded computing at Curtiss-Wright Controls Embedded Computing in Leesburg, Va.

"Requirements in these new programs are exceeding the ability of VME to meet them," Edwards says. "We are looking at much higher-power blades in these systems, and we must deal with power, multicore processors, and FPGAs, and VME is not really set up to handle that higher power."

The data-throughput demands of streaming video, real-time sensor processing, and network-centric warfare can seem tailor-made for VPX. "Sensor I/O rates are just out of this world in terms of gigabits per second," Edwards says. "We need a new technology like VPX to support higher sensor rates, higher processor power, and bandwidth on the backplane."

VPX company information

AdvancedIO Systems Inc.
Vancouver, British Columbia
604-331-1600
www.advancedio.com

AP Labs Inc.
San Diego
800-822-7522
www.aplabs.comwww.aplabs.com

BittWare Inc.
Concord, N.H.
603-226-0404
www.bittware.com

Concurrent Technologies Inc.
Woburn, Mass.
781-933-5900
www.gocct.com

Curtiss-Wright Controls Embedded Computing
Leesburg, Va.
703-779-7800
www.cwcembedded.com

Elma Bustronic Corp.
Fremont, Calif.
510-490-7388
www.bustronic.com

Elma Electronic Inc.
Fremont, Calif.
510-656-3400
www.elma.com

Extreme Engineering Solutions (X-ES)
Middleton, Wis.
608-833-1155
www.xes-inc.com

GE Fanuc Intelligent Platforms
Charlottesville, Va.
800-433-2682
www.ge-ip.com

Hartmann Elektronik GmbH
Stuttgart, Germany
+49 711/1 39 89-111
www.hartmann-elektronik.de

Hybricon Corp.
Ayer, Mass.
978-772-5422
www.hybricon.com

Kontron AG
Poway, Calif.
888-294-4558
http://us.kontron.com/

Mercury Computer Systems Inc.
Chelmsford, Mass.
866-627-6951
www.mc.com

North Atlantic Industries
Bohemia, N.Y.
631-567-1100
www.naii.com

SIE Computing Solutions
Brockton, Mass.
508-588-6110
www.gavazzi-computing.com

SprayCool
Liberty Lake, Wash.
509-232-2600
www.spraycool.com

TEK Microsystems Inc.
Chelmsford, Mass.
978-244-9200
www.tekmicro.com

Themis Computer
Fremont, Calif.
510-252-0870
www.themis.com

Tyco Electronics Corp.
Schaffhausen, Switzerland
800-522-6752
www.tycoelectronics.com

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