Military Embedded Systems

VME forever? Could be – it’s lasted 40 years

Story

November 16, 2020

John McHale

Editorial Director

Military Embedded Systems

VME forever? Could be – it’s lasted 40 years
Photo: Michael Dziedzic on Unsplash

Ah … VME. I first wrote about the VMEbus specification in late 1996; now, in just under a year it will celebrate its 40th anniversary. Not much rust has grown on the open standard in its four decades, as VME-based products are still being designed into military programs today.

Released in 1981, the first draft of VMEbus specification was written by John Black of Motorola, Craig McKenna of Mostek, and Cecil Kaplinsky of Signetics/Philips. Black was also a cofounder of OpenSystems Media and our sister publication VITA Technologies. Back then it was called VMEbus Systems Magazine.

For those not around in the early 1980s, VME was originally called VERSAbus-E by Motorola engineers, as it was based on the VERSAbus developed by Motorola, according to the VITA (VMEbus International Standards Organization) website. The group was formed in 1985 out of what was the VMEbus Manufacturers Group. For more on these groups and other VMEbus history visit https://www.vita.com/History, where VITA Executive Director Jerry Gipper and his team have put up a comprehensive timeline on VMEBus and VITA.

The companies driving VME back then, at least those that are still around, have different names but still sell VME products. For example, through a process of various acquisitions and mergers, the Motorola Semiconductor that designed early VME solutions became Motorola Computer Group, then Emerson, then Artesyn, and is now called SMART Embedded Computing. Some of those Motorola VME designers are still around as well.

Rob Persons, senior sales architect for SMART Embedded Computing, – who’s been with the company since it was Motorola Computer Group – shares how VME remains a popular topic every year at the Embedded Tech Trends conference, which gathers embedded computing suppliers and technical media to discuss the latest trends, in his article, “VME: No time to die, again” on page 28. He writes that “inevitably we see a chart from a market research firm showing trends in the market for certain backplane technologies and we all anticipate the graph that compares VME versus OpenVPX/VPX sales projections. This is always the same time each year when we all look to see if the total revenue for VPX crosses the mystical total revenue for VME, which is nearly 40 years old.”

He acknowledges that “sales of all VPX/OpenVPX has probably surpassed VME by now,” but admits that it’s amazing that VME is still alive and kicking.

As for VME continuing to outsell VPX, Gipper says he still doesn’t know the totals for sure, but it’s close; he also says he does expect at some point that VPX will overtake VME, but even then VME will still be around for a couple more decades at least.

“VME is still performance-capable for many new and legacy military applications,” Gipper notes. “Its long life is fueled by the continued availability of VME parts and customer demand. Many users of VME don’t need VPX-like horsepower and prefer the durability, I/O, and affordability of VME.”

VME’s longevity reminds me of the long-lived MIL-STD 1553 databus and how it’s survived challenges from multiple high-speed replacements. I once wrote a headline asserting that “Death, taxes, and 1553” were the only constants in life. Add VME to that list.

Persons says some of the reasons VME persists is that “there are many military programs and industrial control programs that remain reliant on VME because it is good enough and any change would have major impacts to their systems. One factor that has driven the continued use of VME is the difficulty of replacing backplanes and cabling in existing designs – it is very costly to remove the chassis and recable.”

That reliance holds true for VME power supplies as well. “We do not see much demand on new platforms for VME or Compact PCI. But there is a sizable installed base that will need servicing for quite a while,” says Rob Russell, vice president of product marketing at Vicor in associate editor Emma Helfrich’s feature, titled “Small but mighty: challenges in military power supply design” on page 20.

During its four decades, VME has faced threats to its existence from faster, shinier, and more youthful standards and specifications, but it still thrives. Persons details these challenges – like multibus, CompactPCI, and VPX – and compares VME’s resiliency to that of Ian Fleming’s fictional British secret agent James Bond, also known as 007. Will VME last longer than Bond? Read the article.

Looking forward to next year: Gipper says he has big plans to mark VME’s 40th anniversary within the VITA organization and in the pages of the 2021 fall issue of VITA Technologies. We will also be covering VME’s legacy at Military Embedded Systems both in the magazine and online with blogs, guest blogs, and perhaps a podcast or two. Stay tuned.