Certifiable COTS

April 29, 2016

The commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) defense and aerospace embedded computing business presents many challenges. Rapid advancements in silicon eclipse the slow aerospace acquisition cycle for new computing capabilities. Adapting commercial silicon to very demanding operational environments present some risk. And bridging the chasm between the most safety critical applications and COTS computing hardware requires bold steps and/or a lot of money. The “lot of money” challenge sometimes drives in-house-custom vs COTS for safety critical systems, particularly for Design Assurance Level A (DAL A), the most stringent level of assurance. Abaco Systems steps up to these challenges each and every day. And we are now making bold steps to help our customers leverage COTS hardware and the concomitant cost and schedule savings in DAL A applications. And we bring this capability together in our FORCE2 computing platform.

Design assurance applies to both hardware (RTCA/DO-254) and software (RTCA/DO-178). And design assurance is classified in five levels from A to E in descending criticality levels respectively. DAL A applies to systems whose failure would result in a catastrophic failure condition likely resulting in total loss of life. DAL B is classified as hazardous/severe, C being major with possible serious injuries and so on. DAL A imposes the highest cost to certification and has challenges with hardware that was not designed to certifiable standards from the get go. And the level of effort and artifacts are not linear between the lowest assurance level and DAL A. There is still a huge leap from DAL C to DAL A for instance in terms of potential cost and complexity of design data artifacts.

Sporadic demand

Abaco has supported safety certification with our hardware and software products across the spectrum on a number of programs over the years but generally on a case by case basis. But COTS suppliers have generally not designed to the most stringent certification standards nor have they been in a position to provide artifactual design evidence at this level as a normal course of business. This is because business demand for certifiable COTS is somewhat sporadic based on the issues outlined above, and the cost to achieve certifiability is fraught with unknowns at the start of the process.  It is somewhat a chicken and egg problem. OEMs many times revert to in-house design and known parameters to avert a perceived risk with COTS hardware.  

Deliberate design and artifact development toward DAL A is a bold move in the COTS arena. But Abaco is doing just that—developing speculative DO-254 artifacts on COTS embedded computing boards for DAL A systems. This will save our customers significant dollars and schedule, and evaporate the perceived certifiable COTS risk for the highest design assurance level. It will also enable reusable designs and artifacts further offering our customers efficiencies toward system certification. 

The FORCE2 computing platform brings this certifiable product and technology together in an integrated system solution. The SBC314 NXP T2081/1024-powered OpenVPX processing engine in the FORCE2 was designed to meet DO-254. No "lifting" of the design is required, from what is typically standard catalog product, to higher DAL levels. DAL A is, many times, out of reach if this is not the case.

So we are essentially solving the chicken-and-egg problem that’s existed for years. It’s tough to rationalize the commitment and resources on speculative designs and DO-254 artifacts toward the highest assurance levels. The modus operandi has been to expect that customers and programs will fund the effort, which either leads to the "lifting exercise" on existing COTS designs, or a custom design that is only applicable to the one program and brings associated business risk for the supplier. 

Abaco is going to tackle this chicken and egg problem.

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