Backplane chassis and enclosure design trends marked by high performance, small size, and thermal management

Sept. 22, 2010
Product intelligence -- When it comes to backplane enclosures and chassis for embedded computing applications, things are getting smaller, hotter, and more powerful, which is putting pressure on technological approaches like small rugged connectors, advanced thermal management, and the latest high-speed serial switch fabrics.    

When it comes to backplaneenclosures and chassis for embedded computing applications, things are getting smaller, hotter, and more powerful, which is putting pressure on technological approaches like small rugged connectors, advanced electronics thermal management, and the latest high-speed serial switch fabrics.

Interactive company list, see below

Designers and integrators of embedded systems, more than ever before, are demanding higher performance in smaller packages; extremely low-cost and low-power processors and circuit cards; the most efficient possible thermal management in the smallest packaging possible, and even backplane enclosures and board products that are smaller than today's 3U systems.

"There are two classes of CPU architectures going into embedded systems -- you can go after really high performance, or really low-power applications," says Bob Sullivan, chief technology officer of Hybricon Products, a Curtiss-Wright Controls Electronic Systems company in Littleton, Mass.

"One of the trends we see is smaller form factors and a combination of higher performance. New architectures such as 3U VPX are very attractive for applications such as UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] and small robotics," explains Justin Moll, director of marketing at Elma Bustronic Corp. in Fremont, Calif.

Functional densities of embedded computing power continue to shrink as systems designers seek to cram ever-more computing power onto small platforms such as UAVs, ground robots, and soldier systems. The other side of that coin, however, involves small systems where performance is not so much an issue as is cost and low power consumption.

"The other trend we see is a very, very SWaP [size, weight, and power]-constrained, low-power computing solution that isn't all that power hungry, yet is small, light, and inexpensive. This seems to be something people want to leverage," says Jacob Sealander, chief architect of embedded systems at Curtiss-Wright Controls Embedded Computing in San Diego.

Small size and low power usually mean high heat, which in backplane enclosures and chassis is putting a premium on electronics cooling and thermal management. Complicating this picture is the widespread adoption for embedded systems of the latest powerful microprocessors from Intel Corp., which tend to be hot chips.

For embedded systems designers, adoption of Intel processor architectures and small form factors "means hold on to your seats," says Hybricon's Sullivan. "Most of the Intel products tend to be on the hotter side, and VPX has much hotter boards than VME or VXS. The hottest boards we see are FPGA [field-programmable gate array] boards, so we are investing in new thermal-management technology."

The push to small form factors also puts pressure on making systems rugged enough to handle unmanned vehicle applications and body-worn soldier systems. While the popular VPX architecture uses a standard Tyco MULTIGIG RT connector, a new connector that some designers consider to be even more rugged for extreme shock-and-vibration environments is the Amphenol VIPER interconnect system.

"The VIPER tends to be for very harsh ground-mobile environments, and for very high vibration airborne environments such as helicopters and supersonic jets," says Hybricon's Sullivan. The VIPER connector, however, has yet to capture widespread industry popularity, he says.

On the horizon are board products, backplanes, and chassis for form factors even smaller than 3U VPX. This card, which likely will be the same length but half the width of 3U VPX, is being called Micro VPX, and would aim primarily at the extreme low power and low cost applications that designers are asking for.

"The overall thrust of those small-form-factor solutions is to provide a cost-effective solution in the $10,000 to $20,000 price range that can be squeezed into a small space on a vehicle that will be a few inches by a few inches by a few inches," says Curtiss-Wright's Sealander.

Specifications for Micro VPX are in their initial stages, and for the moment are called VITA 73, VITA 74, and VITA 75. Its chief proponents are Curtiss-Wright, PCI Systems Inc. in Laurel, Md., and Themis Computer in Fremont, Calif.

Company listing

AbelConn LLC; New Hope, Minn.;

ADLINK Technology Inc.; San Jose, Calif.;

Connect-Tek Inc.; Staten Island, N.Y.;

Dawn VME Products; Fremont, Calif.;

EIC Solutions Inc.; Warminster, Pa.;

Electrorack Enclosure Products; Anaheim, Calif.;

Elma Electronics; Fremont, Calif.;

Equipto Electronics Corp.; Aurora, Ill.;

Extreme Engineering Solutions (X-ES); Middleton, Wis.;

General Micro Systems; Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.;

Hybricon Products, a Curtiss-Wright company; Littleton, Mass.;

I-Bus Corp.; Santa Clara, Calif.;

Kontron Modular Computing; Poway, Calif.;

LCR Electronics; Norristown, Pa.;

Macrolink Inc.; Anaheim, Calif.;

Mercury Computer Systems; Chelmsford, Mass.;

Noren Products Inc.; Menlo Park, Calif.;

Optima EPS; Lawrenceville, Ga.;

Parvus; Salt Lake City, Utah;

Pentair Technical Products; Anoka, Minn.;

PCI Systems Inc.; Laurel, Md.;

Rittal Corp.; Urbana, Ohio;

SIE Computing Solutions Inc.; Brockton, Mass.;

Tracewell Systems; Westerville, Ohio;

Vector Electronics & Technology Inc.; North Hollywood, Calif.;

About the Author

John Keller | Editor

John Keller is editor-in-chief of Military & Aerospace Electronics magazine, which provides extensive coverage and analysis of enabling electronic and optoelectronic technologies in military, space, and commercial aviation applications. A member of the Military & Aerospace Electronics staff since the magazine's founding in 1989, Mr. Keller took over as chief editor in 1995.

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