Military Embedded Systems

Telecom equipment nets big benefits on the battlefield: Q&A with Anthony Ambrose, VP and GM of Radisys


May 31, 2010

Editor's Note: Editor Chris Ciufo jumped at the chance to learn how Radisys, one of the larger COTS telecom companies serving the embedded space, is finding homes for its technology in Aerospace and Defense (A&D). Radisys is being pulled into the market by DoD platforms demanding network-centric equipment in semi-rugged deployments. Edited excerpts follow.

MIL EMBEDDED: So can you start by familiarizing our readers with RadiSys?

AMBROSE: Sure. RadiSys has been in business for 22 years. For the first 12 to 15 years of our life, the customer would sketch what they wanted on a napkin, and we would design and deliver it to great results. And, then really after the telecom bubble of 2001, the whole dynamics of the industry changed, and not just in telecom. So it was pretty clear that we needed to go to more of a standard embedded product portfolio, targeted to customers who cannot have the products fail.

MIL EMBEDDED: Where does the military focus come in?

AMBROSE: About a year or 18 months ago, we said, “We’re not really targeting the military space, so why are military customers choosing our products?” We talked to some experts in the industry, and they came back and said, “Look, RadiSys, you’ve got some great products here. You’ve got about 90 percent of what the military and aerospace market already needs. You just have to make a few simple changes in some of your basic processes and basic marketing, highlight some of the things that you’re already doing, and you’ll have a very good mil/aero solution including ATCA and COM Express.”

And it turns out that for applications like ground stations or command and control – or anything needing extremely high compute performance – ATCA is a superior solution, far in excess of what VME or CompactPCI or even VPX would deliver. And ATCA has been on the market for six or seven years so we have learned a lot and earned a high level of trust from our customers. Our ATCA products are very much field-proven.

MIL EMBEDDED: Skeptics might say, “Those comm guys don’t speak our language, and we don’t understand those telecom standards like MicroTCA or ATCA.”

AMBROSE: You know, I’d be surprised if many were saying that. The reason is that ATCA has adopted almost the exact opposite approach of MicroTCA. And aside from having three letters in common, there’s really not much commonality between the two. ATCA is field proven and deployed, and it’s been discovered by customers as very useful for the military and aerospace markets. ATCA was “stealth” technology, meaning it had no marketing energy behind it in the military and aerospace market. So it’s been selected with no hype, with no buzz, with no top-down standard because it’s the best product, period.

MIL EMBEDDED: So will we be seeing more of RadiSys targeting the military market?

AMBROSE: Yes, we’re absolutely targeting more for military and aerospace markets. It’s a pretty straightforward strategy. We’ve selected products that have traction in these segments already, such as ATCA for C4ISR and information assurance and COM Express for ruggedized computers, robots, UAVs, and UGVs.

MIL EMBEDDED: Which technologies are you bringing to the military arena that perhaps weren’t there before, given your telecom background?

AMBROSE: We’ve had an opportunity to work with several of our technology partners to develop a ruggedized chassis, and we’ve come up with a conformal coating capability for ATCA. So now we can provide a ruggedized ATCA chassis, which expands the market even further.

MIL EMBEDDED: I’ve not heard of a ruggedized ATCA chassis. So let’s talk boards. A typical benign commercial temp range would be 0 to +50 °C, or maybe 0 to +70 °C. Are your boards rated for a wider temperature range than that?

AMBROSE: Yes, we deliver a wider temperature range than that, specifically on the COM Express. [Editor’s note: RadiSys’ Intel Atom-based Procelerant CEZ5XT and CEGSXT COM Express modules both boast an operating temp range of -25 °C to +70 °C.] Another point to bring up is that a lot of people use a simple screen when testing; that is, they test a product one time in the factory then if that happens to work at that lower temperature, they certify it as having some extended temperature properties. However, we utilize both HALT and HASS test methodologies. This ensures that a product works to the extreme of its temperature range; unlike other products certified based on a single test, it doesn’t leave the factory until we see those results.

MIL EMBEDDED: You’ve described your company’s ATCA products several times as “field proven,” which might be analogous to “mission critical.” But isn’t an ATCA board just a commodity?

AMBROSE: Well, I would characterize ATCA as an open standard, not a commodity. But even working with an open standard doesn’t mean that everyone has chosen to invest at the same level, or will actually have the same experience level, or will build the same types of products at the same quality level. So, again, RadiSys focused on more of a premium position in the market, where our products go into applications that just can’t fail. By “field-proven,” we mean our products have been successfully deployed in these applications.

In fact, we’ve had our systems NEBS certified, which is very important in telecom. A lot of this is very similar to what you need in military and aerospace: Shock and vibe tests, for example in NEBS, electrostatic discharge, flame tests, things like that … the ability to work in a very hot environment. When you certify to NEBS, your product has to work at up to +55 °C.

MIL EMBEDDED: Why do you think your military customers are turning to telecom-based technologies?

AMBROSE: We’re seeing a new set of applications emerge, outside of the standard avionics/vetronics space. It doesn’t mean customers don’t want to have rugged, reliable systems, but it means that they’re in a network-centric warfare mode. So it’s very logical that they would want to have solutions that look more communications-centric.

MIL EMBEDDED: OK, so they’re willing to use a different set of metrics to describe and procure those products then?

AMBROSE: Right, they still want rugged, they still want field proven, but in a number of cases, we’re selling a COTS technology. Because we’re selling a commercial technology, they know it’s open. When they choose ATCA, they want to know it’s not something where RadiSys or anyone else can suddenly say, “Wait a minute, I own this, you can never bid it from anyone else in the future.”

MIL EMBEDDED: What about long-life support for your ATCA products? Telecom isn’t known for lengthy EOL management practices.

AMBROSE: Actually, telecom equipment does need to survive long-term. Because of our history in embedded segments that demand long life, we already know how to provide long-life solutions for typical military and aerospace requirements. And we’ve done that. We can point to customers that say, “Look, here’s a product we designed in 1995 and we supported it all the way to 2007. Here’s a product we designed in 2001 and it’s still going.”

MIL EMBEDDED: Whom would you consider your biggest competitors in the market?

AMBROSE: The biggest competitor overall across all of our businesses continues to be in-house design: The concept is a lot of people “roll their own boards,” and we understand why. They used to do that in commercial, they used to do that in communications. Those markets now are rapidly adopting COTS technology that allows them to deploy their R&D resources to areas of their own differentiation.

Then you have the traditional CompactPCI and VME companies. And we’re not targeting direct replacement of those form factors; but I certainly think that they’re going to want to take their products and try to extend them as far as they can. Our competitors are also the PC/104 [small form factor] companies that could potentially do something with PCs. But realistically, the COM Express way of building robots, UAVs, and ruggedized personal computers is a very robust method.

MIL EMBEDDED: So far we’ve focused on boards; let’s shift gears and talk about systems. Does RadiSys do systems integration?

AMBROSE: Yes, we’ve been doing that for a while. We’re going to see more and more customers say at the end of the day, “Just please manage the whole thing for me.”

MIL EMBEDDED: Which technologies do you foresee into the future?

AMBROSE: ATCA is a very rich ground for technology. We’ve just announced ATCA 4.0 – our first 40 G products and strategies. You can fast-forward two or three years and this will become very important across a broad range of applications that need such high performance. And that means if you have backplane performance, you can get a lot more I/O, even if your base technology’s around 10 G.

I also think the whole concept of integrating packet processing and applications processing for secure networks information assurance is gaining traction. That means you can do deep packet inspection on a lot of your communications, and you can improve security within your networking infrastructure. It also gives you the ability to have a lot of performance so that even if you’re securing and encrypting information within the network, you still get a pretty reasonable user experience on either end.

MIL EMBEDDED: What would you say to those who remain skeptical about using telecom-based technologies such as ATCA in the military?

AMBROSE: Unlike some other technologies that have been out there, as I mentioned, the marketing has lagged the reality in this case. We know [ATCA] products work, we know the products fit a need in the mil/aero industry, and we’re going forward on that basis.

Anthony Ambrose joined RadiSys in 2007 and is the Vice President and General Manager of Communications Networks. Previously, Anthony was Intel’s General Manager of the Modular Communications Platform Division in the Communications Infrastructure Group. In this role, he led Intel’s ATCA effort while his organization had the responsibility for servers, blades, boards, and software for the telecommunications industry. Anthony holds a B.S. in Engineering from Princeton University. He can be contacted at [email protected].

RadiSys 503-615-1100


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