Thinking Outside the Rack

Dec. 18, 2018

Whenever we talk with customers about what they need in a mission computer, they always tell us to reduce size, weight and power. We’d respond by looking for new lightweight materials and finding new ways to optimize our designs. However, at a certain point, we couldn’t reduce much further because we were constrained by the rackmount form factor. So, we asked our customers, “What’s the higher priority: reduced SWaP or the ability to rackmount?” They told us by far SWaP is more important. Figuring out how to bolt down computers is the easy part for them.

The 19-inch rack form factor was established as a standard by AT&T around 1922 and has been widely adopted across telecommunication, computing, audio, video, entertainment and other industries. It’s interesting to realize that so much of the rugged computer industry still revolves around this legacy approach. In fact, relatively few manufacturers have developed the capability to develop the custom shapes and sizes customers need today.

Like other manufacturers, we designed our computers to fit in a rack. We used ATX / Extended ATX motherboards because they offered the most capabilities. However, with the latest COM Express Type 7 spec, we can replace the motherboard with a much smaller, versatile baseboard. COMx Express provides the flexibility to tailor the daughter board to unique factors that traditional form-factors don't support and still maintain the relevant I/O capabilities.

The compute requirements for mission computers are on a par with enterprise computing. They typically include a 16-Core Intel Xeon D processor. Dual processor sockets are no longer required, because with the growing emphasis on graphical content, much of the workload has shifted to the GPU. The NVIDIA Quadro P6000 GPU is the powerhouse at the heart of today’s high-performance mission computers. It’s the single most expensive component and, as it turns out, it’s the form factor of the NVIDIA card that ultimately determines how small you can make a mission computer.

With a fresh canvas, we set out to give customers exactly what they asked for. Along the way, we discovered some unexpected things. First, we were able to take all the enterprise compute capability of our 30 pound rackmount system and fit it into a new design that’s about the size of a shoebox and weighs only 9 pounds. The new box requires less power and its shape allows better airflow making it easy to cool. Instead of a bunch of little fans—which tend to be noisy—we can use just two larger fans, so the unit runs much quieter and is cool to the touch. The design is quite scalable because COMe type 7 provides up to 32 PCIe lanes that can be allocated as needed. For example, in our ZM3 mission computer, we use 8 lanes for storage and the remaining 24 lanes for expansion cards, typically up to 16 graphics cards and 8 encoders.

COM Express Type 7 supports the NVMe PCIe Gen 3 interface, designed for SSDs. Using NVMe drives increases read/write speeds three to four times compared to SATA 3.  The new spec also provides 10GbE LAN for rapid communication of video over the network.

Recently at SOFIC 2018, we had the chance to demonstrate our new ZM3 mission computer and we took the cover off the unit to let people look inside. The feedback from military customers was exciting and, at the same time, a little humbling. What they said was, “Thank you for hearing us and finally giving us what we need.”  Have we been overestimating the importance of rackmount systems and missing out on the opportunity to give customers what they actually need?  

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Courtesy of Kontron
Courtesy of Kontron