Military Embedded Systems

ROUNDTABLE: SOSA having an impact on military program requirements, business practices


May 20, 2024

John McHale

Editorial Director

Military Embedded Systems

It’s been nearly three years since ratification of the Sensor Open Systems Architecture (SOSA) Technical Standard 1.0 and its impact is being felt across the services as requests for SOSA aligned products are finding their way into program requirements. SOSA, an example of the modular open systems approach (MOSA) mandated by the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD), is also changing the way government leverages commercial technology and existing open standards like VPX. To learn more, I gathered a roundtable of SOSA Consortium members to discuss SOSA’s impact on the community, business practices, common misconceptions, and the future of what SOSA may look like five or 10 years down the road.

Our panelists are: Ken Grob, Director of Embedded Computing Architecture, Elma Electronic; John Sturm, Chief Technology Officer, Vicor; Noah Donaldson, Chief Technical Officer, Annapolis Micro Systems; Emil Kheyfets, Director of Engineering/Director, Military & Aerospace Product Line, Aitech Systems; Christopher Fadeley, Chief Technology Officer, EIZO Rugged Solutions; Dave Walsh, Senior Vice President and Chief Technology Officer, Parry Labs; and Marc Couture, Vice President, Hardware Products & Programs, Parry Labs.


McHALE: The first release of the SOSA standard is nearing three years old. What has its impact been on radar and electronic warfare?

GROB: With the release of the Technical Standard 1.0 and subsequent snapshots, new designs are encouraged to make use of OpenVPX and the standardized profiles to realize modular systems, where 3U VPX and 6U VPX form factors are appropriate. With the COTS [commercial off-the-shelf] ecosystem now making many standard off-the-shelf cards, backplanes, and power supplies, building blocks are readily available to allow system integrators a choice of SBCs [single-board computers], transceivers, and switches to use as building blocks for radar and electronic warfare (EW) systems.

The standard provides guidance on how to implement custom VPX modules that may be required if off-the-shelf products are not available. In adopting SOSA, new radar and electronic warfare systems can gain the benefits of applying MOSA principles through the use of open standards.

STURM: From a design standpoint, as programs get upgraded we are starting to see designers take a closer look at SOSA aligned architectures. From a power perspective, we are also starting to see new statements of work (SOW) that are heavily skewed toward using SOSA aligned products. A key driver is in EW and radar systems, where the threat level on the sensor is evolving rapidly pushing faster time-to-market solutions that support the MOSA/SOSA design methodology.

KHEYFETS: The SOSA standard has a big impact on the radar, EW, and C5ISR [command, control, computers, communications, cyber, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance] designs. All new designs include SOSA aligned cards and systems, and SOSA aligned modules are available from multiple vendors in the industry.

FADELEY: SOSA has been a welcome force in the past few years. I believe it has radically helped with the adoption of newer technology paradigms. It forced integrators to not immediately leverage existing hardware and solutions. And, with accepting that, integrators have used it as an opportunity to re-audit their solution from a clearer perspective.

The use of GPUs for processing of signal data has always been experimented with, but this SOSA induced reset has allowed everyone to consider alternate approaches to solutions like GPUs. In doing so, it has allowed for more software-defined approaches to solutions which, in turn, is going to allow much more rapid adoption of upgrades.

WALSH & COUTURE: The widespread implementation of blind-mate interconnect in SOSA via VITA 67.3 RF coax and VITA 66 fiber for wideband, high-density RF [radio-frequency] and IF [intermediate-frequency] signal transport has enabled wider bandwidth, deeper dynamic range, and higher channel count relating to EW and ISR applications. The additional benefit has been improved 2LM [two-level maintenance] logistical support with the removal of front-panel cable chaos.

McHALE: How has SOSA, and the MOSA mandate for that matter, changed how business is done with the DoD?

GROB: The mandate drives integrators and primes to use components for their system that follow MOSA principles, encouraging builders to use the SOSA Technical Standard to implement new system designs. From the hardware perspective, off-the-shelf building blocks that are aligned to the SOSA standard must now be considered.

By mandating adherence to the SOSA standard, where practical, designers must consider hardware building blocks that follow standardized interfaces and make use of hardware form factors that adhere to open standards. In so doing, this promotes interoperability, and where standard hardware is available off the shelf, it can reduce overall development time by focusing on new system capability.

STURM: Relative to new SOW, more and more hardware designs in EW, radars, and C5ISR are moving toward SOSA aligned solutions. It’s not clear if the MOSA movement has yet to change or impact the DoD. However, we believe the goal is to make design requirements and sourcing more compatible and less custom, making systems more interchangeable to help simplify logistics and drive lower cost of operation. This should enable the DoD to react and pivot much quicker as new requirements are identified and flowed down to the defense primes.

KHEYFETS: All new RFIs/RFPs for DoD programs have SOSA/MOSA requirements. An RFI/RFP response is not even considered if the proposed solution is not based on a SOSA/MOSA implementation.

FADELEY: The DoD has always put emphasis on trying to procure COTS material, but how to convert that emphasis over to logistical implementation has been difficult. MOSA – specifically with SOSA as an implementation – has better directed a path forward for how to be successful.

There are, and will always be, competing factors and nuance for corner cases. I believe the key change recently is acknowledgement and acceptance of this complexity, but not accepting it as a system-wide excuse. MOSA isn’t just a blanket “all or none,” but can be iteratively applied, and the realization and acceptance of this from the DoD and vendors has been welcome.

WALSH & COUTURE: As government customers have begun to describe their desires and requirements relative to MOSA, and specifically SOSA, it is enabling industry to more consistently invest. As the government begins to consistently leverage standards like SOSA and consistently communicate their lower-level desires, it enables industry to lean forward and make investments in products that meet those requirements. This reduces the amount of guessing industry has to do relative to investments and makes it much easier to convince company leadership that the investment is a wise one.

With clear and transparent requirements being used across multiple programs, this further makes it easier to lean forward with investments and increases the amount of competition and the quality of the competition for the government PMs. If 10 companies are guessing on what the requirements will be, then when the requirements come out, it is likely that only three or four guessed well enough that they have a very competitive product.

McHALE: In what areas are you seeing requirements for SOSA aligned solutions?

GROB: Elma is seeing requirements for SOSA aligned solutions in systems from all three service branches. There is demand for plug-in card (PIC) products, like switches, SBCs, and other payload functions, and development chassis required to set up labs, as well as [demand for] new rugged deployable hardware.

STURM: Since power is ubiquitous for any system, new SOSA aligned power solutions have the real potential to benefit a variety of defense platforms including EW, advanced radar, C5ISR, and directed-energy applications, just to mention a few. The ability to use interchangeable power supplies over a range of independent systems would yield significant advantages in design, routine maintenance, field repair, and supply-chain management.

DONALDSON: Mostly in Air Force systems, for airborne EW and other high-performance rugged applications. That’s a big part of our business, though, so maybe that’s sample bias. There might be similar levels of adoption in other [service] branches and applications. As we move forward, we expect procurement will specify SOSA even more often. After a conformance program is established and the DoD develops confidence in it, look for SOSA requirements in more contract opportunities.

KHEYFETS: We see requirements for SOSA aligned solutions for mission computers, I/O concentrators, radars, networking/communication systems, AI [artificial intelligence] systems, flight-control systems, etc.

FADELEY: Next-generation vehicles that are started from the ground up with a SOSA approach are the solutions getting headlines, but it’s been refreshing to see the penetration to legacy refresh. It isn’t possible in every situation, but we are seeing SOSA alignment – especially with slot-profile selection – being requested almost across the board.

WALSH & COUTURE: We are seeing SOSA requirements making their way through all of the services.

McHALE: What is the biggest misconception about SOSA within the military community?

GROB: SOSA provides a framework for how to build systems. It does not define a system design, but rather provides guidance on how to build systems using a modular approach. It is up to the prime or systems integrator to implement the hardware and software designs to realize a new type of system.

STURM: In the beginning SOSA was met with cautious optimism. The open standard approach has been a welcomed change, helping to streamline design processes while enabling companies to retain their IP internally and add value. For example, if power density needs to increase, those vendors that can scale in the same form factor (3U or 6U) will have a distinct advantage as the need for bandwidth or latency increases on the sensor.

DONALDSON: The biggest misconception about SOSA is that it throttles innovation. Our experience has been the opposite. We no longer spend thousands of hours on myriad PIC backplane profiles or custom system user IO. Instead, we have more time to focus on high performance advancements – like Direct RF – within the module, which is somewhere that SOSA encourages innovation.

KHEYFETS: While the SOSA standard is good in limiting the number and options of major modules in the SOSA aligned system, it may not be the best solution for all electronics in a specific platform. Some custom electronics, which are not SOSA/MOSA aligned, will still be needed to support smaller/custom size constraints and custom sensors interfaces.

FADELEY: That SOSA as a full specification is an “all or nothing” requirement. SOSA is a complex beast of many different modalities and elements. It would be unrealistic to assume every element of SOSA is at the same maturity level. There is a lot of work still to be done in many areas, and that work will continue for many years. But many parts (especially hardware and its slot profiles) are mature and are readily being adopted. I think it’s important to keep the perspective that everything is an iterative approach and vendors and integrators should continue to lean forward as other elements reach maturity.

McHALE: Predict the future: Where do you see SOSA and MOSA impacting DoD procurement five years from now?

GROB: As the SOSA standard and MOSA mature, new systems should benefit from the ecosystem offering products, including hardware and software, that enable more rapid development of system capabilities required by the services. This should help the DoD get capability to the warfighter faster and in a more cost-effective way, and be in a position to affect upgrades using new building blocks that are aligned to the modular open systems approach.

STURM: We anticipate the open standard approach will continue to gain momentum over time as the benefits of quicker design times and lower program costs are realized. As the adoption rate of the open standard increases throughout the industry, it will enable the DoD to have more options regarding supplier selection. Ultimately it will provide more opportunities for vendors to align with solutions and form factors that will help increase their customer base, while also retaining their IP and value to the defense community.

KHEYFETS: Aitech strongly believes that five years from now the majority of electronic systems on DoD platforms will be SOSA/MOSA compliant. SOSA/MOSA requirements will be included in most of the RFIs/RFPs for DoD programs.

FADELEY: In five years, I expect a lot of the “MOSA from the ground up” implementations to be more settled and being used as clear proof of work of using MOSA. I also expect many of the legacy refreshes having implemented MOSA over the past couple years will hit a refresh cycle. I am especially excited for that as it will show true proof of concept of upgradability ease.

Lastly, I expect the SOSA specification to be even more mature and the procurement to be further armed with knowledge on how to use SOSA in requirements specification.

WALSH & COUTURE: This is super dependent on the government. Congress has provided clear expectations relative to MOSA. If the government takes the time to define major system components and major system interfaces, and communicate which standards are important to them, then the government has the ability to bring substantial and healthy competition to the DoD marketplace to include small businesses that are the true heartbeat and innovation arm of the U.S.

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