Military officials take a hard look at their needs for COTS rugged rack-mount computers

The notion of commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) rack-mount computers and servers rugged enough for all but the most punishing military and aerospace applications was a seductive idea back in the mid-1990s when the term COTS burst from the confines of the design lab and entered mainstream lexicon.

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By John Keller

The notion of commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) rack-mount computers and servers rugged enough for all but the most punishing military and aerospace applications was a seductive idea back in the mid-1990s when the term COTS burst from the confines of the design lab and entered mainstream lexicon.

In that era the military was trying to do more with less. Pentagon budgets had been shrinking since the Reagan Administration peaks years before, the Cold War was over, and the new global threat of terrorism was just beginning to emerge.

At the same time the commercial computing industry had come into its own and was surpassing military systems in performance, ease of use, and price. Converting to COTS for most military applications seemed an obvious choice.

Often COTS is still the obvious choice, but with some serious caveats. The long Iraq War, most notably, has shown in real terms where COTS works, and where it doesn’t. More to the point, military operations in the intense heat and powder-fine dust of the Middle East have demonstrated that not all COTS computers are built alike.

Despite the COTS philosophy’s wholesale rejection of military-derived equipment specifications and standards, some military users and computer manufacturers are finding that mil-specs sometimes provide valuable guidelines for computer hardware, and in fact can prove the be the difference between equipment that works in the field and equipment that does not.

“The military asks for servers, and you see a small percentage asking for true ruggedized servers,” says Vic Berger, lead technologist at CDW-Government, a large computer seller in Vernon Hills, Ill., that specializes in selling computer equipment to federal and local governments.

“Normally we are talking about a unit that is transportable, where the users stop and set it up,” Berger says. “It might be moved in the back of a humvee, but does not operate on the move. Usually the equipment is operated in stationary mode, and is not operated in motion.”

These kinds of COTS computer servers, of course, are not appropriate for all miliary applications, he says. “You see a small percentage of military users asking for true ruggedized servers that go through intensive testing for shock and vibration for things you put on a ship or put on a plane with constant vibration. For the most part the military doesn’t use those when they come to CDW,” Berger says.

That may be changing, however, say manufacturers of COTS servers that are designed from the ground up for harsh operating conditions.

“In the last two weeks we have had a lot of phone calls from people who know they need to use COTS, but are not getting the promised performance,” says Scott Kongable, president of Crystal Group Inc. in Hiawatha, Iowa.

“Their computers are not really passing MIL-STD-810F and MIL-STD-461,” Kongable says. “I really see the change in the last five to six months that a lot of integrators are stuck between mil-spec and COTS.”

Kongable says some of his most recent military customers have been buying off-the-shelf rugged servers, but are not getting the temperature and vibration performance they really need.

His advice: look closely at the published operating conditions of rugged servers, and match those to the intended application. The definition of rugged, he points out, can be vastly different among the equipment manufacturers.

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