Military Embedded Systems

2011: Top technologies for the warfighter


February 17, 2011

Chris A. Ciufo

General Micro Systems, Inc.

Chris chronicles his predictions for the "must-have" technologies that will equip the mil tech of tomorrow.

Coming to the military soon is the same technology empowering the civilian consumer market as it migrates from desktops to Netbooks and Tablets. Meanwhile, TV becomes an interactive part of “any available screen” fed by computing power stored in the Internet cloud. Oh, and that Verizon or AT&T iPhone in your pocket? Yep: The DoD’s gotta have one of those, too. Tie it all together with wireless networks and embedded security, and that becomes “Warfighter, 2015.” That is, today’s consumer tech will be deployed in military platforms well before 2015. Here are some of my predictions for the most likely “gotta have it” technologies for tomorrow’s embedded military systems.

1. Intel second-generation Core CPUs

At January 2011’s CES in Las Vegas, Intel rolled out their second-generation Core family, with additional performance improvements including more cores, higher frequencies, and dramatically improved graphics. This author was ready to buy a new laptop with last year’s Cadillac model Core i7 dual-core CPU. The plan now is to wait on hardware shipping with the 45 W, 2.30 GHz Core i7 2820QM with 8/4 (cores/threads) and 3.4 GHz Turbo Boost Technology 2.0, Intel AES/TXT/vPro, and Advanced Vector Extensions. (Figure 1 shows Intel’s 2nd Gen Core CPU lineup).


Figure 1: Intel’s 2nd Gen Core CPU lineup (SV laptop family shown)

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Loosely translated, this particular CPU is one down from Intel’s best Mobile (SV) processor family, although lower-power (LV/ULV) versions exist with weaker specs. Gen 2 is the Sandy Bridge architecture and instruction set that builds on last year’s Nehalem series. Turbo Boost 2.0 ramps up the clock speed above max power and schedules un- or under-used cores and cycles. AES/TXT (Trusted Execution Technology) are built into Intel hardware to facilitate security, and vPro provides remote management and security. Meanwhile, AVX renders a floating-point oriented 256-bit instruction set extension to SSE that I’m convinced will give Freescale’s AltiVec serious headaches.

How does all this really apply to defense applications? All that cool consumer multimedia gear is applicable to C4ISR, simulation and training, and secure red/black DoD platforms.

2. Rugged shoeboxes

A perennial favorite, the military has moved from conduction-cooled, open-standard, backplane-equipped ATR boxes to purpose-built, rugged “shoeboxes.” Recent examples include Kontron’s Cobalt with 38999 connectors, 50,000-foot operational environment, and small “boxed PC” fanless design. No one cares what format the cards are inside; military designers only want the right performance to fit in the available envelope. In Cobalt’s case, it’s a Computer-on-Module (COM) design, with common I/O in the baseboard and the CPU flavor of the month on top. In Kontron’s case (no pun), it’s a Core 2 Duo or Atom. But the box can dissipate close to 100 W with derating, says Product Manager David O’Mara, which puts a 2nd Gen Core i3 or i5 at 17-20 W within the realm of possibility.

Destined for UAS/UAV programs, these rugged shoeboxes are cheap, optimize SWaP, and focus on machine-to-machine computing with the office-like features of Intel vPro, GbE, and extra graphics muscle via NVIDIA GPUs or AMD Fusion microcontrollers. If a PC, graphics engine, or network controller is all that’s needed, then a rugged shoebox is likely to be the preferred choice over a VME, CompactPCI, or OpenVPX ATR-style chassis.

3. Cloud computing

Though the X-Windows phenomenon of the 1990s failed, the promise of a cheap, local, lightweight processor and graphics engine with an OS supported by heavyweight distant processing is a reality today. The Internet offers fast enough pipes to most desktops, with even 3G cellular speeds at nearly 1 Mbps and future 4G well in excess of that. To the desktop, wired connections exceed 5 Mbps and top out at double digits for fiber-to-the-home such as Verizon’s FIOS. Software companies have responded with more processing horsepower in the browser itself; Google’s Chrome includes advanced Java, while Microsoft’s latest IE includes support for patented HTML5 and H.264 decoding. In civilian tech, a thin client is key to saving money and easing IT management. And the DoD faces the same challenges. Rugged, full-spec laptops like those from Panasonic or GD Itronix are expensive, while cheaper Netbooks or even Android Tablets may do the trick of displaying recon video or moving maps, filing action reports, or requesting call-for-fire support. Says virtualization expert Bill Parker of Logicallis, a company selling Virtual Desktop Interface (VDI) software, VDI offers hard-cost savings, management ease, centralized backups, regulatory compliance, and productivity. Siamak Farah, CEO of cloud services company InfoStreet, has observed some of the same desktop and enterprise trends, but disagrees that putting resources in the cloud requires a VDI-type model. In fact, he predicts that cloud computing will be mainstream in the civilian world due to the advent of smartphones or Tablets running Google’s Android or Apple’s iOS. Software developers are likely to create more “Apps” (what he calls mini software) that will become Web-available. Apple’s App Store for the Mac OS (different from the iPhone) was followed quickly by Microsoft’s own announced but unnamed at presstime “App Store.” And the company’s own Steve Balmer predicted in April 2010 that “90 percent” of Microsoft’s customers would be entirely cloud-based.

The thin client, cloud computing model – run on secure DoD networks such as the Navy’s NMCI – is likely to prevail for a handful of dismounted and many command post and data center computer platforms. Heavyweight embedded computers will still control mission and fire control boxes, along with sensor processors, but PC-like platforms will increasingly become thin clients, supported by processors and software in the DoD cloud.

4. Google

At 83 percent worldwide market share in search, according to analyst firm iSuppli, Google’s server farms’ compute horsepower rivals that of Amazon’s Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2). From Google Docs to Google Earth, Google lists 47 products or categories on its website, and many of these are finding – or could find – their way into deployed military systems. For instance, Picasa’s facial recognition software organizes your photo collection by a person’s name. Can that same technology be applied to find insurgents in Global Hawk video feeds? Google Earth’s zoom capability and image enhancement rely on state-of-the-art algorithms, as does Google Maps’ ability to download the appropriate chunks of database information to display maps, street views, or traffic-plus-roadway information in a mash-up. Google Voice technology provides excellent-quality VoIP packet processing, and Google’s server farms employ adaptive processing and echo cancellation that rivals some DoD contractors’ dedicated packet processing engines.

So although Google gives away their stuff for free, some of their products and technologies have incredible utility in military applications. Just wait until Google offers to provide enterprise-quality secure networks.

Honorable mentions

The following honorable-mention technologies (in no particular order) have definite military applicability and are already deployed on the battlefield or soon will be:

5. Cisco’s Radio Aware Routing

Part of Cisco’s Mobile Ready Net and offered on the company’s 3200 and 5940 (3U CompactPCI, air- and conduction-cooled) deployed routers, the concept of ad hoc routing applies cognitive radio techniques to route data across whatever battlefield assets are available. Radio Aware Routing (Figure 2) is part of RFC5578, PPP over Ethernet (PPPoE) Extensions for Credit Flow and Link Metrics.


Figure 2: Radio Aware Routing, Cisco style

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6. Wind River’s Linux Secure

This is the first Common Criteria EAL 4+ security-certified Linux distro, applicable for better-than-desktop Linux DoD systems. If Linux is the OS of choice, Linux Secure is worth a look.

7. Automated video analysis software, from vendors such as Kitware, IvySys, and others

These heavy-duty programs rely on beefy processors to scrub through video (and other) data looking for preprogrammed elements or events. The intent is to reduce operator workload and errors when scanning hours of UAS video.

8. Tablet PCs

All the rage at the 2010 and 2011 CES shows, all major laptops vendors – and many new players, too – hope to capitalize on Apple’s iPad’s success. Most of the new Tablets won’t be in production until the 2011 holiday season. Wikipedia, ZDNet, and myriad other consumer media sources have their own Tablet Roundup Web pages. Meanwhile, Apple’s current iPad is showing up in military technology demonstators, and iPad Apps are in the B&D stage at several primes.

9. Xilinx/AutoESL synthesis tool

The notable prediction here is not the FPGA itself, rather, it’s the shift in FPGA design from HDL to high-level languages. As I predicted in 2010, Xilinx sees value in programming in C/C++ as a way to get more people designing with FPGAs. As we went to press, Xilinx purchased AutoESL Design Technology, their partner in programming tools. The AutoPilot tool will “enable the company to deliver the benefits of programmable platforms to a broader base of companies.” What does all this mean to the defense industry? Design and deployment just got a whole lot faster.

10. OpenVPX

So Mercury Computer Systems’ 2009-initiated, outside VITA, OpenVPX Industry Working Group produced the spec later ratified by VITA and ANSI as VITA 65. Today, OpenVPX is showing up in wares from compact rugged systems to DSP engines, SBCs, PCIe cables, chassis, power supplies, and just about everything else VPX you can name. In light of OpenVPX’s original goal of defining interoperable VPX system-level specs leading to interoperable VPX LRUs, OpenVPX’s modern-day benefits are plenteous: fewer frustrated VPX systems engineers, more rugged, and more (2-Level-Maintenance) technologies on the battlefield. Bring it on: “Warfighter, 2015.”

1 There’s no obvious P/N differentiation between Gen 1 and Gen 2 CPUs except for the “2xxx” nomenclature. Previous Core CPUs didn’t have the “2” prefix.