This article was originally published in EE Catalog in January of 2018 and written by Anne Fisher, Managing Editor.
Sky, sea, rail—VITA technologies call them all home, and indeed, our panelists would argue, also deserve a home anywhere that cost efficiency, performance, and longevity matter.
Mark Ellins, Global Sales and Marketing, Trident Infosol
Nigel Forrester, Technical Marketing Manager, Concurrent Technologies
Jerry Gipper, Executive Director, VITA
Robert Greenfield, Business Development Manager, Acromag
Ken Grob, Director of Embedded Technology, Elma Electronic
Rodger H. Hosking, Vice-President, Co-founder, Pentek, Inc.
Jacques Houde, President, Pixus Technologies
Richard Kirk, Director, Core Computing, Abaco Systems
Haydn Nelson, Director of Product Management for RF and DSP, Abaco Systems
Doug Patterson, VP, Military & Aerospace Business Sector, Aitech Defense Systems.
Gerald Persaud, V.P. Business Development, Reflex Photonics
Rob Persons, Senior Systems Architect; Artesyn Embedded Technologies
William Ripley, Trident Infosol
Qianqian Shao, Product Manager, Artesyn Embedded Technologies
Valentines, vampires, VITA. Wait. There are sound reasons the three have been racing around my brain as I enjoy reading the thoughtful responses from our Round Table participants.
Valentines, because standards are on the receiving end of valentine-like praise. Take VME.
Richard Kirk, Abaco Systems, lauds its “longevity, modularity and robustness.”
As a highly mature and widely proven technology, VME remains a cornerstone for military programs in the era of constrained defense budgets,” notes Qianqian Shao, Artesyn Embedded Technologies.
And with regard to another standard, Roger Hosking, Pentek, says, OpenVPX has shown deep and sustained support by vendors, and has proven itself in numerous fielded programs.
Vampires, because, well, again, take VME. Asked “What myths about VITA technologies are you tired of addressing,” Ken Grob, Elma Electronics, zeroes in on one particular myth: “That VME will die someday.” It’s undead. But while vampires owe their continuance to unauthorized helpings of Red Cross-type products, for VME, as Nigel Forrester, Concurrent Technologies tells us, “…there is still a sizable chunk of applications that want a low risk solution that can be satisfied with existing VME technology.”
And Robert Greenfield, Acromag, points out, While Navy and Air Force tech refresh projects often require faster VPX and XMC mezzanine technologies for high-speed processing of advanced sensor data (e.g. radar, SIGINT, EW), there are many tasks interfacing mechanical equipment where parallel busses are fast enough. As the old adage goes, ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
VITA, because the organization and the individuals offering time and talent to its working groups can take credit for the valentines bestowed here and elsewhere on the benefits of VITA standards, and for VME longevity. Doug Patterson, Aitech, observes, In time, components in electronic systems are replaced by the next generation of more technically capable components, resulting in the obsolescence of the earlier devices. This is a natural progression, but by implementing a standardized, structured approach, such as VITA technologies, that maps out the next electronics evolution, you can effectively guard against, or at least prolong, such obsolescence.
Edited excerpts of our panelists’ responses follow:
Richard Kirk, Abaco: Our customers are being pushed on two fronts in relation to VITA standards. Many have systems designed around the VME platform, which faces issues of aging and obsolescence. On another front, customers are pushing the state of the art with VPX.
While VME certainly isn’t the most current form factor, it has withstood the test of time with its longevity, modularity, and robustness. There are many VME systems out there with a lot of investment dollars behind them; naturally customers want to keep these investments alive if possible. New system investments are going towards next generation platforms; it only makes sense to save money by routing R&D dollars towards the future.
Abaco is responding by offering modular options for modernization of VME platforms such as with our modular Micro-Mezzanine System (MMS) on a VME carrier and with our Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) service, where we alert customers to component obsolescence and the opportunity to make a life time buy of those components and have Abaco safely store them in a stable environment until the customer needs to take delivery of their board. We have also designed our own VME bridge so that we have control over its supply in the long term.
Rodger Hosking, Pentek: The drivers include high-speed data connections between cards and chassis, thermal management of high-density components like FPGAs, tight synchronization and timing between cards for multi-element or MIMO systems, consistent protocols for moving software radio payload data between systems, and standard implementations of backplane I/O connections for coaxial RF signals and optical signals. Many of the new VITA extensions are addressing these needs. The 2017 releases of VITA 65.0 and VITA 65.1 help define new backplane I/O configurations and add provisions for timing signal distribution. Additional extensions to VITA 48 provide new methodology for cooling, and VITA 49 extensions now provide digitized RF and IF signal definitions for receive and transmit, as well as new status and control features.
Nigel Forrester, Concurrent Technologies: We see three critical demands for our VITA products, driven primarily from defense customers. Two of these demands are long standing: Do more in the same or smaller footprint with less power and provide very long life cycles with configuration control capabilities so that a product can be certified once and then deployed for many years. A third demand, to provide an extremely high level of security, has become much more important during the last year, driving some customers to look at enabling additional security features on existing solutions. All our VITA products have been designed so that we can enable enhanced hardware/firmware/software security capability as required and we’re continually developing our security offering to include more advanced features.
Ken Grob, Elma Electronic: Higher bandwidth over the backplane and more elaborate, smaller, rugged packaging are drivers affecting our customers, as well as pushing VITA technologies forward.
Looking at some of the deeper technical issues, at the chip level, we’re responding to interface speed changes in both PCIe to Gen 3 and looking towards Gen 4 as well as Ethernet adapting to 10Gb and 40Gb rates. Work has already begun on a new backward-compatible, high-speed VPX connector. Also, our new slot profiles and architectures driven by the emerging Hardware Convergence standards include new features like timing boards and radial clocks.
What drivers pushing VITA technologies forward most affect your customers and company, and how are you responding?
And as System-of-Systems Analysis (SoSA), C4ISR Modular Open Suite of Standards (CMOSS) and hardware open systems technology (HOST) drive new SBC, timing, and switch profiles as well as reference backplanes, Elma is producing reference backplanes that address these new backplane topologies. Our participation within the standards groups and developing new backplane and switch technology to prove the new designs is contributing to the VITA standards, via the consortia.
Elma’s approach is to address customer needs at all levels to ensure we’re positioned to respond to market demands, and going further, we take what we have learned and share it as leading members of open standards committees. To support our customer-centric initiatives, we’ve invested in signal integrity modeling and testing, thermal simulation and testing, modern printed circuit design and manufacturing, and enhanced mechanical design and fabrication capabilities.
Jacques Houde, Pixus Technologies: On the Systems Platforms side of our business, more powerful processors are generating more heat in the system. Pixus has introduced our RiCool ™ line of OpenVPX Chassis Platforms. They feature powerful reverse impeller blowers that reside directly above the card cage. They pull the air from the front lower part of the enclosure and blow the exhaust 90 degrees out the rear, providing front-to-rear cooling. The hot-swappable fans provide 284 CFM in the system and only take up 1U of the chassis height. This is especially beneficial for systems with Rear Transition Modules (RTMs), which are common in OpenVPX designs.
On the Components side of our business, the high insertion forces of VPX led us to create special rails and ramp up our rugged insertion handles with a metal engagement claw. With the offset spacing of the panel/PCBs in OpenVPX, we have created card guides, filler panels, and threaded inserts for the architecture. This ensures a precision fit for both aesthetics and EMC considerations.
Gerald Persaud, Reflex Photonics: Electronic Warfare is evolving faster than ever, as computing power increases exponentially and AI algorithms and sensor technology become more sophisticated. With new Electronic Warfare threats arriving at an alarmingly fast pace, VITA systems are being architected to scale quickly and cost effectively.
Fiber optics, with its enormous bandwidth, is the best interconnect technology for scaling systems. Once the fiber optic infrastructure is installed, it supports multiple technology generations with no change. We support scaling with an array of ruggedized optical transceivers offering line speeds of up to 25Gbps and I/O densities up to 24 lanes in small chip size modules. In the near future, we will double line rate to 56Gbps, and we’ll further ruggedize our optical transceivers for more harsh environments, such as space, where radiation hardness is needed.
Mark Ellins, Trident Infosol: Trident Infosol is an active member of the VITA Standards Organization (VSO) and a leading solutions provider for embedded COTS hardware, signal processing solutions, telemetry systems, and enabling software and drivers catering to the real-time computing and embedded system marketplace. A Trident Infosol representative chairs the VITA-74 Technical Committee, which recently ratified and published the ANSI/VITA-74.0-2017 (VNX) standard.
We see a growing demand from the embedded computer customer base for rugged Small Form Factor (SFF) COTS computers. It was a logical decision to develop the rugged SFF ANSI/VITA-74.0-2017 standard with VITA rather than with other standards bodies more focused on the commercial or industrial space. VITA standards such as VME and VPX served the market well for decades and are still preferred for most MIL/Aero applications over other industrial standards or proprietary options. VNX is a SFF derivative of VPX, much the same as VPX was an evolution of VME, and benefited from the lessons learned during the VPX / VME maturation process.
Jerry Gipper, VITA: The demand for Open Systems Architectures for hardware and software is growing each year. Existing standards need additional work and new standards need to be developed. This means that working groups are very busy on documenting standards and taking them through the review and approval cycle. VITA is encouraging more involvement from both product developers and the user community to contribute and collaborate during the standards development process. VITA has been working to improve the tools and the processes to ease the efforts and to make standards development more streamlined.
Relieving cost anxieties
The Artesyn Embedded Technologies MVME5500 SBC. Originally released in September 2002, it will continue to be supported to at least 2025.
Our customers are asking for ways to build older military systems that they have supported for years. An amazing number of new systems are being fielded based on programs awarded well over 10 years ago. Of course, new systems designs are being awarded, and VPX based products may be an option. But many programs cannot afford a complete redesign that would allow the potential use of VPX. Having said this, these same customers fear the cost to maintain these older systems because of VMEbus board obsolescence or component obsolescence on existing VMEbus boards. We’re helping customers reduce risk by maintaining our current set of products, including, for example, our MVME5500 SBC to 2025 and beyond and doing so without any major changes to these products. Our commitment to support our products based on the IDT Tsi148 has had a significant effect on our customers and their customers in maintaining some very old designs.
— Rob Persons, Artesyn Embedded Technologies
Doug Patterson, Aitech: Processor and memory technology roadmaps are a critical element in developing new COTS products for our customers. Their appetite for increased performance, more RAM and ROM memory, and smaller size, weight and power, coupled with the demand for lower cost continues to pull the industry as technological advances push the market.
What trends will be most pertinent to systems integrators working with VITA technologies?
Bill Ripley, Trident Infosol: The most pertinent trend we see, even happening today, is a trend to merge VITA standards with commercial and industrial standards such as PICMG’s COM Express, PCI-SIG’s MiniPCIe and SGeT’s SMARC modules, to name a few. In the short span of a decade, with ever-increasing integration and functionality, everything is changing. With the evolution of small module-based computing techniques and the nearly universal adoption of System-on-Chip (SoC) components, the end user can now receive better solutions, at lower costs, with lower development risk, which more closely meet their needs.
Our customers still want to adhere to VITA standards, but they are also wanting to take advantage of best practices used in the commercial, medical, and heavy industrial market. VNX is such an example of on the one hand following an ANSI/VITA standard designed for rugged SWaP computers, and on the other hand using popular industrial standards for I/O, memory, and System on Chip (SoC)/ System on Module (SoM) processors.
Rodger Hosking, Pentek: VITA initiatives will continue to accommodate market demands by incorporating innovations developed by embedded product vendors and systems integrators. This infrastructure not only helps each member of the vendor community, but also embedded system customers, particularly defense organizations with 20-year life cycle concerns. Now that VITA 65 OpenVPX has shown deep and sustained support by vendors, and has proven itself in numerous fielded programs, it remains the most widely adopted architecture for high-performance embedded computing since VMEbus.
Qianqian Shao, Artesyn: VME will maintain a sizable market for the next five years or even another decade. In this market, PowerPC architecture based VME solutions account for more than 80 percent of market share. As a highly mature and widely proven technology, VME remains a cornerstone for military programs in the era of constrained defense budgets. VME is expected to continue its important role in system refreshes and upgrades as sequestration has extended the life cycle and altered the terms of maintenance and upgrade for many existing programs. On the other hand, VME still represents an optimal solution for the new programs requiring low risk and low cost with its salient competitive advantages of low power, small system size, and proven experience in deployment.
As part of the group of innovative companies that invented VME technology over 35 years ago, Artesyn has laid the groundwork and consistently worked to enhance and extend VME technology. Artesyn will continue to be committed to VME technology. To underline our commitment, we have been investing heavily in our VME offerings. We have secured a number of critical EOL components, including the Tsi148 VME to PCI-X chip and the Marvell system controller chip, to ensure that we can continue to offer an extensive portfolio of VME boards, including up to at least 2025.
Nigel Forrester, Concurrent Technologies: Our biggest opportunity is still based around the acceptance of using Commercial Off the Shelf (COTS) technologies. More than 20 years since Secretary of Defense William Perry issued his memo mandating the use of COTS by the Department of Defense, there are quite a few defense solutions that are designed from scratch rather than constructed using ‘good enough’ COTS building blocks. This is often because a ‘home made’ product exactly fits the requirements, whereas COTs building blocks provide a superset of features.
VME I/O boards were relatively simple to design, but today’s high-performance VPX based server and processing solutions are much more complex. Conversely there is high pressure to save program cost and to deliver on time, both of which are helped by using off the shelf boards when available. To help make our COTS products easier to use, we continue to develop our middleware solutions that provide security and connectivity enhancements, allowing system integrators to concentrate on their application.
Gerald Persaud, Reflex Photonics: The trend towards autonomous or SMART systems is one that will greatly affect system integrators working with VITA technologies. VITA technologies will have to support machine learning or artificial intelligence capable of accurately characterizing the environment and recommending the best course of action based on massive data input from sensors and other data sources. VITA systems will need to deliver enormous processing power in a smaller and smaller footprint. From the start, Reflex Photonics was structured to make the smallest rugged optical modules capable of supplying enormous BW and optical channels. Today our rugged technologies are field proven and well positioned to take advantage of the trend for smarter and smaller systems.
Jerry Gipper, VITA: The open systems architecture demand is very important to VITA technologies. VITA is all about open standards and more of the critical embedded computer community is realizing the value of the work that goes into developing the right sets of standards. No one solution fits all, and new needs drive the demand for additional efforts. VITA has a roadmap study group focused on key technology areas to track trends that may influence the development of standards to meet future requirements.
Ken Grob, Elma Electronic: Optical networking within the chassis will become the primary path for high-bandwidth, card-to-card communication. Security and chassis management will become a major factor in the choice of solutions.
Increasing technology changes and demands are compounding the complexity of the overall system—boards, backplane, and SWaP—putting pressure on design, design verification, manufacturing, test and project management. Elma addresses this complexity all the way through the process, from requirements review to delivery.
Jacques Houde, Pixus Technologies: We see a growing trend of special requirements for RF and optical. Pixus is incorporating VITA 66 (Optical) and VITA 67 (RF) designs into our OpenVPX backplane offering.
Haydn Nelson, Abaco: We’ll see continued adoption of standards like VITA 65 as the drive for lower size, weight, and power underlines the benefits of the 3U VPX form factor. On the semiconductor side, there has been a convergence of processing technology with GPU cores included in some versions of Intel processors and multicore Arm processors being included in FPGAs, such as Zynq from Xilinx. As Moore’s Law continues to provide more resources on silicon, chip designers will find creative ways to take advantage of the space. Many heterogeneous digital architectures today blend CPU, GPU, FPGA, and RF. This convergence of technology at the chip level will lead to smaller designs and more adoption of the smaller form factors such as 3U VPX.
Greater integration at the chip level will also lead to greater data bottlenecks., the limitations of data movement will lead to many customers looking to optical interconnect for its speed, signal integrity, and security properties. Abaco is already capitalizing on these trends with VITA 66.4 offerings as well as being early to market with the Zynq Ultrascale+ device family on the VP880 product line.
If It Ain’t Broke…
Doug Patterson, Aitech: Three reasons…customer, customer and customer. If the technology remains relevant and customers still demand it, then it makes sense to continue to build it for as long as is feasible. At Aitech, we support a product’s declared lifecycle as it aligns with our COTSLifecycle+ program, which provides a minimum of 12+ years of products availability and support.
Robert Greenfield, Acromag: Acromag remains dedicated to supporting VME and VITA 4 IndustryPack (IP) modules developed 20 years ago. Our customers continue to specify these product technologies because of their proven track record of dependable operation, compatibility between vendors, and cost-effectiveness.
In many aerospace and defense applications, IP modules hosted on VMEbus carrier cards still deliver an acceptable level of performance and are quite economical compared to newer embedded computing technologies. While Navy and Air Force tech refresh projects often require faster VPX and XMC mezzanine technologies for high-speed processing of advanced sensor data (e.g. radar, SIGINT, EW), there are many tasks interfacing mechanical equipment where parallel busses are fast enough. As the old adage goes, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” So, many subsystems employing KHz-speed A/D and D/A converters, discrete-level I/O, and RS-232/485 interfaces are carried forward with little change. The biggest challenge supporting these older products is with end-of-life components. However, Acromag has successfully redesigned many IP modules with form, fit, function compatibility using inexpensive FPGAs for extended availability to prevent any unwanted software or system changes.
Three main reasons your company continues to support the VITA technologies you’ve supported the longest?
Rob Persons, Artesyn, notes that VME has a place in traditional SIL2 applications within the rail industry, while the company’s ControlSafe® SIL4 certified systems serve the needs of customers who employ VME for traditional SIL2 applications, but also need to add safety critical control systems.
Rob Persons, Artesyn:
- Military budget constraints represent a big opportunity to continue to support legacy VMEbus support. The military continues to rely on systems that were designed a long time ago that were designed using VME. As other companies chance new programs with VPX, we see a nice business supporting these older programs.
- If it ain’t broke, don’t try to fix it! We have a number of large commercial customers who have control systems based on VME with custom designed VMEbus boards. They are happy we are continuing to support some of our legacy products and are planning on new products based on VME. This reduces their need to reinvest in new custom products for another platform architecture. They can add capabilities by migrating to newer VMEbus technologies.
- For one older product family and one that is brand new, we see a lot of synergy with VMEbus products. With the huge adoption of ATCA in Navy programs, many times the subsystems that are attached to these ATCA based tactical systems are based on VMEbus. We have the ability to support both types of applications. We also see customers who have traditionally bought VME products from us to build SIL2 based systems for the rail industry have the need to address new safety requirements with SIL4 based systems. Our ControlSafe® SIL4 certified systems are a nice complement for those customers who need to add safety critical control systems while still using VME for traditional SIL2 applications.
Ken Grob, Elma Electronic: It comes down to the relationship between the supplier to us, to the customer and to the integrator. Many technologies can do the job, but supplier relationships to the market drive technology choice.
And the technology continues to evolve, so it maintains its viability, and is still highly regarded among well-established defense contractors. The argument can be made that in terms of processing power per unit of space, VPX is out in front. It may not be the cheapest, but if there are no other options, then price, at least for now, is not much of an issue.
Gerald Persaud, Reflex Photonics: Reflex Photonics VITA Technology focus is on optical interconnects such as VITA 66 and 67 standards. We see great benefit from active optical blind-mate connectors to simplify system assembly and upgrades. As well, optical blind-mate connectors reduce space and enable field servicing. Our latest LightCONEX blind mate connector integrates an optical module into the backplane connector, thus eliminating the need for separate optical modules, cables, and cable routing. LightCONEX simplifies board assembly since there is no optical cable to assemble and no chance of cracking the glass fibers during assembly.
Mark Ellins, Trident Infosol: First, our customers demand computers that are built using COTS technologies, based on the notion that using COTS often minimizes technical risk, economic costs, and the potential for schedule creep. The COTS solutions are generally based on ANSI/VITA standards such as VME, VPX, and VNX. Second, since we are also system integrators, there are many options for suppliers of ANSI/VITA standard-based modules to choose from. Last, purchasing standard-based products not only allows for better prices overall with less need for NRE, they also promise a longer life cycle, thus complying to typical obsolescence management requirements.
Richard Kirk, Abaco: We recently released a white paper titled “VME Forever.” The title is somewhat tongue in cheek, but the paper describes why it is that, so many years after its introduction, VME is still relevant to customers and to the market. The adoption of VME for new programs may be shrinking, but it has an extensive installed base, it’s rugged, it’s proven and many customers—especially those who were late adopters—remain committed to it as a trusted and safe option.
It’s clear that VME isn’t the platform of the future. VITA 65 with VPX has shown a lot of traction and is poised to see growth in adoption over the coming years. Abaco has been committed to VPX since the standard was first launched, and was the first company to launch a 3U VPX single board computer. We see VPX as having many of the same benefits as VME—modular, rugged, and incrementally adaptable. Just as VME went from 3-row connectors to 5-row, from 32-bit to VME320, we see VPX being adapted to use higher bandwidth connectors including optical, and adapting to fabrics such as PCIe and Ethernet as it moves through successive generations.
Bill Ripley, Trident Infosol: The laws of physics and thermodynamics constitute our biggest challenge. Customers continually want stronger processors, GPUs, and even GPGPUs for their applications. They envy the processing power of what’s available for the gaming market. Small Form Factor computing doesn’t always allow the luxury of the stronger processors given the challenge in cooling the system. While it can be said that companies such as Intel, NVIDIA, and AMD have drastically reduced the power budget needed to achieve a given processing benchmark, because of the ever-increasing desires of the industry, it is still a challenge to satisfy an insatiable appetite for higher performance. The VITA-74 committee understood this and created a standard that is optimized for conduction cooling and for taking heat out of small packages.
This figure shows a typical thermal VNX 19mm module design, with one module’s end plate removed. Here, the VNX 19mm compliant plug-in module is made up of two stacked boards; with the lower board having the 400-pin high-density VNX backplane connector. Hot components can be thermally connected to the outer enclosure using compressible thermal interface materials (TIM) and a metal skyline mechanical heat spreader, contoured to maximize TIM efficiency, which then interfaces to the module packaging. Multiple plug-in modules are installed in a chassis with side-plates designed to conduct heat to the chassis fins or heat exchanger.
What developments are you keeping an eye on with regard to the more efficient processing of graphical information and/or with regard to other current challenges?
Haydn Nelson, Abaco: Graphical information processing is critical to many military embedded systems deployed today. By and large, the GPU is the core technology element in graphical processing as these are designed with graphics in mind. However, we have seen some adoption of GPU technology for other applications such as cognitive algorithms, neural networks, and deep learning systems.
One area that has seen growth is where graphical processing is used in systems with extremely low latency requirements. Low latency is often required in systems such as those for degraded visual environments (DVE), automated self-protection systems, and autonomous vehicles. In each of these three areas, there are common video processing elements using FPGAs, standard CPUs, and graphics processors. The FPGA processor is often used for streaming portions of the algorithm that can be fixed in gates; however, the GPU for its parallelism is often center stage. At Abaco, we have a long-standing relationship with top GPU chip providers such as NVIDIA, and we offer many GPU capabilities in rugged form factors such as the GRA113.
With the GRA113, we significantly increase performance per watt, which translates into either more performance in the same space and/or reductions in overall heat, space, spares, maintenance, and money.
Furthermore, the ability to configure video output offers an increased flexibility in applications that often need to output the video to displays with differing resolutions and legacy standards such as RS-170. This capability has the potential to translate into lower costs by combining configurable output on one board rather than having to buy separate boards and offers truly rugged GPU capability in products such as the 3U VPX form factor GRA113.
Doug Patterson, Aitech: Leapfrog advances in GPGPU technologies from companies including NVIDIA and others…from handling increased graphics output to operating as DSP engines, GPGPUs can take on the cumbersome task of image characterization as well as identification. This continuous learning process provides a solid output for the system to ‘act on.’
Using sophisticated pattern recognition, this type of processing works like the brain, employing a multilayered, neural network approach. System intelligence and efficiency enhances, since images can be identified more easily, while context assigned to the image itself provides an even deeper understanding of the surrounding environment that image resides within.
Qianqian Shao, Artesyn: Our VME solutions are used in airborne radar systems and semiconductor lithography systems machines by leading companies worldwide. For the design of new VME boards, selection of processors with powerful graphical information processing capability is key for us to stay relevant to the target applications. In addition, in-house or third-party mezzanine card solutions remain a flexible approach for us to provide add-on processing power while using existing VME boards as infrastructure.
Ken Grob, Elma Electronic: In graphics or the use of GPGPUs, we’re seeing customers use the NVIDIA Tesla architecture like the M6 for number crunching, instead of doing this work with an FPGA. Also, lower power applications are using the NVIDIA Jetson SOM. There’s some trade off with Intel processors now including GPGPU cores within the chip, so for certain applications the local capability can be used.
What myths about VITA technologies should be put to rest?
Richard Kirk, Abaco: Three myths come to mind as they are related to VITA standards.
- The end of VME is here… Yes, it is declining, but it will be a slow fall off as systems with VME are phased out. It doesn’t make economic sense for the entire Navy to abandon VME when every ship uses it for many systems such as a navigation and weapons control. Abaco is committed to maintaining VME for as long as our customers need it–and right now, that looks like a very long time!
- Other standards such as COM Express will push VME and VPX into the background. Bearing in mind that VME and VPX are primarily used in defense and aerospace applications, there is absolutely no sign that any other standard is going to make a significant dent in this market. Small dents, maybe–but in general, system developers are focused on rugged, expandable, high performance solutions which is exactly what VME and VPX are all about. That’s no surprise, as the users played a big part in defining the specifications in the first place,
- FPGA Mezzanine Cards (FMC) aren’t inherently rugged. While it is rare, we occasionally face fear of using a modular mezzanine approach in systems that have stringent environmental–specifically, high G shock and vibration – requirements. There is nothing about FMC that prevents a high ruggedization level. In fact, the FMC form factor connector is designed to accommodate conduction cooling and to survive in the harshest of environments. Modularity doesn’t necessarily mean fragility. The XMC and PMC mezzanine standards have stood the tests of ruggedization and FMC is no different.
Doug Patterson, Aitech:
- Can we get past the bastardization of “COTS” once and for all? Add the word “-available” after Commercial to get “Commercially-available Off-The-Shelf” and it solves a figurative ton of misnomers for the military and defense markets/community at large.
- Not every application needs to scream data with PCIe speeds over a system backplane. Get over it—there are defense and space markets for “simple” control systems where the “speeds and feeds” (and added costs of OpenVPX) are just not warranted.
- New, SWaP-oriented, “standardized” small form factor (SFF) “systems” should concentrate on standardizing the mechanical form and size, not the electronics inside it, or the connectors it uses. Those are application-specific requirements, let the application dictate the “guts” and move on. Can you imagine the “cluster” if the VITA standards 30 years ago decided to define what an SBC was and the functionality within it? We’d still be stuck with a separate system controller with one interrupt controller and a system clock crystal oscillator on it and separate memory RAM/ROM boards on VME.
Rob Persons, Artesyn: The obvious one, that VMEbus is dead. Although the market is not growing in real terms, the decline is by no means steep. There is plenty of need and Artesyn Embedded Technologies understands how to support products that must have a long life. We design and manufacture our products and own our supply chain and this gives us a huge amount of capability to support our customers for the long run.
Nigel Forrester, Concurrent Technologies: For nearly 10 years there have been predictions that VME is dead. This is still far from true. Whilst new applications requiring high bandwidth interfaces are advised to utilize VPX technologies, there is still a sizable chunk of applications that want a low risk solution that can be satisfied with existing VME technology. Conversely, the hype level around new and exciting technologies always seems to exceed real demand.
Ken Grob, Elma Electronic: That VME will die someday.
Rodger Hosking, Pentek: One myth is that OpenVPX is “too open,” i.e., it offers too much flexibility in defining cards, slots and backplanes. In 2017, this myth was significantly shattered with the advent of the latest releases of VITA 65.0 and 65.1 in two major ways.
First, details of the “profiles” for cards, slots and backplanes were migrated from the base standard into the new VITA 65.1 standard, making it easier to document the details of each and easier to define new ones. Secondly, many of the options for connectors for optical and coaxial backplane I/O were more consistently defined for improved compatibility across vendors.
Gerald Persaud, Reflex Photonics: Myths we hear are the ruggedness of fiber optic interconnect and the cost of fiber-optics versus electrical interconnects.
Yes, fiber-optics may require some additional handling during installation and maintenance but this is small compared to the numerous benefits such as immunity to EMI, light weight, superior bandwidth, reach and scalability. As well, there are many technical approaches to manage the handling issues and Reflex Photonics can provide solutions.
With respect to cost, fiber optics interconnects are generally more expensive, but one has to consider the overall effectiveness of the systems and the cost of upgrades over the life of the equipment. For example, if the cost of fiber optics increases the system cost by 5% but enhances the system by 20% then one has to decide if the additional 15% effectiveness is worth it. For an expensive aircraft, this may mean the difference of losing that aircraft because it was unable to counter a threat quickly enough. As well, the cost of upgrades could be far greater if one has to replace the electrical with optical interconnects to support more advance technologies.
Mark Ellins, Trident Infosol: The key issue in the embedded computer market is being as flexible as possible to customer requirements without having to charge NRE. Standards have a stigma of being a less flexible or compromised design compared to proprietary design. And in the “old-school,” this stigma was prevalent, even with VITA standards. The major recent paradigm shift is related to the introduction of System on Chip (SoC) and System on Module (SoM) technologies that allow the use of proven industrial standards like COMe, MiniPCIe, mSATA, and SMARC. Manufacturers can now simply design hybrid carrier boards that are compliant to VME, VPX, or VNX, and utilize mezzanines that support the industrial standards and can support the requisite CPU / GPGPU / FPGA processing, I/O, video, communication, serial capabilities. Taking full advantage of appropriate standards based solutions debunks the oft-misplaced notions that the use of COTS yields a non-optimal design.
Jerry Gipper, VITA: Myth: The technology is too expensive.
Expense is relative. A critical embedded computing solution requires a completely different cost reference than a common consumer electronics product. Considerations must be made for reliability, interoperability, life cycles, unique needs, and many other areas that are not a concern for a typical commodity consumer product. While the commodity consumer market is driving the development of much of the electronics in use in all computing platforms, education on cost considerations for critical embedded computing platforms will help in understanding the additional expense.
Myth: Time to develop new standards takes too long.
The time to run a concept through the development and approval process is a direct relation of the energy put into developing the standard. Focused working groups driven to get a standard approved can often complete the efforts in well under a year. The process has certain time gates to pass to ensure that contributors and reviewers have adequate time to review the materials, but no other process time restrictions apply. Working group chairs that are well motivated can get a standard through in a very reasonable period of time.
There’s an application drive for more processing—both CPU and FPGA—and on the analog side, the thirst for wider bandwidth I/O is never quenched. In 2017, we released a state of the art 3U VPX FPGA carrier that supports a single VITA 57.4 FPGA mezzanine card (FMC+). We then followed on with our first FMC+ board, the FMC134, which delivers on the need for more analog bandwidth. The FMC134 uses two TI ADC12DJ3200 devices, which can produce upwards of 24GBps of data into the FPGA. All this data is passed to the FPGA and must go onto very wide internal data interfaces. This is kind of like merging from the Autobahn in Germany onto a 12-lane freeway in Houston Texas—you are going to need a lot of width. Fortunately, the VP880 features the latest from Xilinx with its Virtex Ultrascale device to meet the need.Once the data is inside the processing fabric, there are two options; reduce the data or transfer it off the boards. The latter leads to a significant data rate issue, as 24GBps of data is beyond what is possible with a copper interface. This is somewhat reminiscent of the old saying “you can’t connect a firehose to a garden hose.” We see many customers looking to VITA standards like VITA 66.4 to solve this high-speed data offload problem. We have helped our customers by recently offering our latest FPGA carrier, the VP880, with this option.
Haydn Nelson, Abaco Systems
More Capability on a Single Board
Ken Grob, Elma Electronic: Using high density 3U VPX cards allows system footprints to be reduced, and we are looking towards new NVIDIA and AMD GPGPU products as well as Xilinx and Altera FPGA products through our partners. High definition applications require all the above and Elma has the design capability to integrate these solutions.
To continue to support SWaP goals as performance increases, new cooling techniques will be required to allow higher power, small footprint boards to be cooled. As one compresses the design, the power density increases. Adopting new cooling schemes, like VITA 48.8, can address higher performance 3U VPX implementations.
Proving next generation connectors will allow VPX to address PCIe Gen 4 and follow-on Ethernet standards.
Jacques Houde, Pixus Technologies: Pixus continues to develop rugged ATR and rackmount solutions that reduce SWaP-C. It starts with a highly knowledgeable team that knows how to efficiently design a system platform to reduce the size and weight. We are introducing a compact 3 payload slot OpenVPX ½ ATR that is robust and designed to meet avionics needs such as MIL-STD-810, MIL-STD-461, MIL-STD-704, and DO-168. This rugged conduction-cooled system maximizes heat dissipation for the higher OpenVPX wattages. Leveraging over 25 years of modular chassis designs helps us minimize costs and lead-times. Additionally, Pixus is developing more compact and cost-effective power solutions to help reduce SWaP-C.
Gerald Persaud, Reflex Photonics: In addition to reducing size, weight, power and cost, Reflex Photonics produces the most rugged line of optical modules to meet high reliability and long operational life. As well, we plan to release modules with up to 600 Gbps in a chip that is less than 4.5 cm2. Recently, we released our LightSPACE radiation hardened optical module that meets the harshest environmental requirements for space.
Mark Ellins, Bill Ripley, Trident Infosol: We are one of the first suppliers of the recently approved ANSI/VITA 74.0-2017 standard, better known as VNX. VNX is a COTS module standard for SFF, conduction-cooled, inherently rugged modules, including Single Board Computers, signal processors, storage modules and I/O devices which are to be used as part of an integrated system. Utilizing Modular Open Systems Architecture (MOSA) principles, VNX provides the first standards based, slotted module approach to building conduction-cooled SFF systems. Trident has released a VNX computer called the Raptor
A VNX computer, the Raptor, from Trident Infosol.
How does your company use VITA technologies to reduce SWaP?
Richard Kirk, Abaco: There are two fronts where we can see how reduction of size, weight, power, and cost relates to VITA standards. With the emergence of many ‘systems-on-chip,’ we expect to be able to offer more capability on a single board into the future. While the size of a single 3U VPX board isn’t getting smaller, technology convergence at the chip level has given Abaco the ability to offer highly integrated solutions that often reduce the number of cards needed in total. Fewer cards means the whole system can shrink in size, weight, power, and cost. For example, a customer may need an Intel single board computer, an ADC, discrete digital I/O, an IRIG signal, and three ARINC 429 ports. With Abaco’s Micro Mezzanine System, all this processing and I/O can fit into a single 3U VPX slot (the Abaco SBC329) and an MMS XMC Carrier.
Another factor is the advances in thermal management techniques, which mean that a high-power CPU’s maximum performance can now be maintained even at the highest operating temperatures—potentially meaning fewer CPUs in the system, and all performing optimally. The convergence of high performance SoCs with this new thermal management technology opens up many opportunities.
Doug Patterson, Aitech: Not all VITA technologies are widely adopted by the customer base. Having said that, Aitech’s product marketing managers will continue to canvas our key customers regularly to determine the technologies needed for their project successes. And if there’s sufficient market traction for that SWaP technology, with sufficient ROI to make the exercise worthwhile, we’ll produce those products for our customers, so they have what they need or want into the future.
Qianqian Shao, Artesyn: While extending the life cycle of our VME products, Artesyn is also planning to develop new VME boards that will enhance our tiered product portfolio, which includes committed research on VME bridge solutions for future portfolio additions. Artesyn’s extensive VME portfolio based on Power Architecture processors offers customers flexibility to migrate between boards when they seek optimal solutions for their applications. With a deep understanding that software compatibility is vital to make a product migration successful, Artesyn always goes the extra mile to provide technical support to help customers migrate smoothly.