Military Embedded Systems

The shift to standards-based hardware for military communications: What role will COTS systems play?


December 09, 2014

Thomas J. Kelly


A paradigm shift has taken place within the Department of Defense (DoD) when it comes to deciding which military hardware to use in the field. Traditional purpose-built platforms, with development cycles of five to seven years, have given way to commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) systems, which feature development cycles of just a few months. This shorter development time facilitates a much quicker response to emerging threats. COTS systems also have inherent cost savings that make them an attractive option. These systems are also much more complex than traditional proprietary systems, as they handle exponentially growing sources of information that require near-real-time analytical processing and a rich media experience for the end user. Given all this, the shift toward higher utilization of COTS hardware is a powerful tool for efficiently and effectively managing military threats.

There are many advantages for using standards-based equipment as the basis for designing a new system. Chief among these is the ability to leverage the research and development resources of outside organizations, enabling internal resources to focus on core competencies. Additionally, the DoD can access best-of-breed platforms from a multivendor ecosystem, thereby avoiding vendor lock-in. These factors also translate to greater parts availability, competitive pricing, and interoperability. Another advantage to leveraging standards-based hardware is that it has been validated by a community of users that develop and document best practices that can later be sourced. Finally, the fact that core compute, storage, and switching components will continue to evolve creates an ongoing need for the standardization, economies of scale, and proven technology provided by a COTS system (see Figure 1).


Figure 1: Proprietary systems development cycles vs. COTS systems development cycles.

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COTS systems based on industry-leading specifications from PICMG and VITA

COTS systems used in the aerospace and defense industry for battlespace communications networks are based on standards from PICMG and VITA, and provide access to the improved reliability, availability, and information processing of standardized equipment.

PICMG is the organization responsible for the development of the AdvancedTCA (ATCA) and computer-on-module (COM) Express specifications. ATCA- and COM Express-based form factors are beginning to be used extensively in the deployment of LTE networks for battlespace communications. PICMG currently focuses on developing and implementing specifications and guidelines for open standards-based computer architectures from a wide variety of interconnects.

Members of the VITA Standards Organization (VSO) have worked together to define and develop key computer bus, board, and system specifications such as VMEbus, PCI Mezzanine Card (PMC), VXS, VPX, FMC, and others. In particular, VPX technologies are targeted at defense and aerospace.

PICMG and VITA specifications were developed to deliver critical infrastructure in embedded systems, with the resulting standards-based hardware meeting NEBS requirements. By taking the incremental step to adapt this hardware for MIL-STD, the systems can be leveraged in military applications that require ruggedized equipment.

High availability important for military applications

Being NEBS-compliant, these COTS systems are designed to provide 99.999 percent reliability, a level known as “five nines.” A system designed with five nines as a basis will experience less than 5.26 minutes of downtime per year of operation. This level of high availability is gained through a combination of the inherent board designs along with the structured redundancy, monitoring, and reporting capabilities defined in the PICMG and VITA standards. The reduction and/or elimination of single points of failure, along with pre-emptive notification of events indicating excursion for defined operating characteristics, provides a robust foundation for mission-critical systems.

LTE technologies support failover, automatically switching to a redundant or standby hardware component upon the failure of one or more components. In addition, users can swap out failed system components with readily available and inexpensive COTS hardware in the field. Similarly, military users can quickly and easily scale the LTE communications infrastructure, adding COTS system building blocks and expanding capacity on demand and as needed.

COM Express and ATCA: Ultra-portable and ruggedized small form factors

Equipment manufacturers can develop military communications solutions using standards-based products offered in a variety of platform architectures and form factors that include COM Express and ATCA (see Figure 2). Since Intel processors are used across the board, developers can leverage a common code base.

COM Express modules are increasingly being used for military applications. Designed for the latest sets of chips and serial signaling protocols, COM Express modules deliver powerful processing in a small form factor. As military budgets shrink and battlespace needs evolve, more defense communications networks – from the base station through the core – are being consolidated into small, ruggedized communications platforms based on these COM Express modules. Platforms based on COM Express are small enough to allow an entire network to be picked up and moved, or even carried in a soldier’s pack.

The standards-based COM Express form factor also enables future upgrades to the latest processor technology to continue to support demanding Command and Control (C2) applications. Radisys was the first to announce COM Express modules with Intel quad-core processing technology, along with ruggedized, extended temperature variants that equip defense customers with the processing power required for embedded technology applications.


Figure 2: COM Express modules and ATCA platforms are commonly used in the defense industry. Photos courtesy of Radisys.

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ATCA specifications are designed to provide an open architecture that meets the next-generation requirements of carrier-grade communications equipment. ATCA is also ideally suited for challenging defense applications; LTE communications networks based on ATCA can support thousands of users, as ATCA delivers increased density and scalable performance.

VITA specifications gaining traction in the defense industry

According to a 2013 report by industry research firm IHS, 80 percent of the world market for VME and VPX components is in the defense industry (see Figure 3).


Figure 3: VME and VPX components are primarily used for military applications. (Source: IHS.)

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VPX is an ANSI/VITA 46.0-2007 standard that offers VMEbus-based systems support for switched fabrics over a high-speed connector. It was designed specifically for military applications, as the defense sector is the primary market for VPX technology today. VPX is used almost exclusively for military applications that require high performance and rugged computing platforms. In contrast, VMEbus technology was initially used primarily for industrial applications before gaining a foothold in defense. Products that support the VPX standard, available in 3U and 6U form factors, include single-board computers, multiprocessors, graphics processors, and FPGA-based processing modules.

What’s ahead for standards-based hardware

Given the DoD’s increased push for cost efficiency, better connectivity in the battlespace, reliability, and portability, the increasing role of standards-based COTS platforms in the future of military operations is inevitable. Equipment manufacturers can take advantage of COTS reference designs for base stations and core networks that can reduce development time and speed up time to market. Whether developers use COM Express, ATCA, or VITA, COTS-based platforms deliver the performance needed in a compact environment.

Thomas J. Kelly, P.E., is a senior field application engineer, Aerospace & Defense, at Radisys. Tom supports the product development and integration of COTS equipment to create custom solutions to meet customer-driven requirements with a focus on size, weight, and power (SWaP) to create sustainable product lines. Prior to Radisys, he held several positions with General Dynamics. Readers may contact him at [email protected].

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