Shipboard embedded computing and COTSStory
September 20, 2016
The U.S. military's funding for defense systems has been relatively flat in recent budgets, but Navy applications are seeing an uptick. The Navy is seeing a focus on modernization of shipboard systems - which require more rugged, embedded-computing systems processing - as well as rugged, state-of-the-art displays.
China’s aggressive moves in the Pacific region over the last few years have forced U.S. Navy leaders to refocus their efforts not only on procuring new surface ships and submarines, but also on modernizing their current fleets and helping their allies do the same.
“The U.S. Navy plans a substantial expansion of undersea warfare capabilities even as the U.S. defense budget declines,” according to Deloitte’s “Global Defense Outlook 2016.” The report says that recently announced plans include the acquisition of nine new Virginia-class attack submarines, development of new torpedoes and unmanned undersea vehicles (UUVs), and increased procurement of maritime and surveillance patrol aircraft. Nearly $42 million is budgeted for these naval spending programs.
Navy officials talk of applying Commander of Naval Surface Forces Vice Admiral Tom Rowden’s vision of distributed lethality throughout the surface Navy, which means every platform will have an offensive capability to better counter threats from potential adversaries. This strategy will require enhanced networking and embedded-computing capabilities as the solutions fuel the performance of modern combat systems and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) applications
Embedded COTS tech
The increase is absolutely good for commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) embedded computing suppliers, “however, the budget does not necessarily mean new weapons systems,” says Michael Carter, president of IXI Technology in San Diego. “I believe there will be continued focus to replace or upgrade aging systems through data conversion, emulation, virtualization, and the use of embedded, small-form-factor computing devices.” IXI Technology offers the IXI-1 general-purpose processor solution on a configurable single-board computer (SBC) that integrates an Atom chipset into a small and low-power package that supports video processing for image recognition and analysis.
“The Navy embraces COTS as much as the other forces,” Carter continues. “The Navy wants to buy COTS, but requires companies to design and develop products to Navy requirements and qualify them at company expense. If a company has a ready-made off-the-shelf product, it is still required to qualify it to Navy requirements; that’s the real world. If that is the definition of COTS, the Navy has it down to a science.”
Navy programs and priorities reflect the push toward COTS. “They don’t have the same SWaP [size, weight, and power] constraints and so the Navy is able to save some costs by using less-expensive technology,” says Jason Wade, president of ZMicro in San Diego. “They definitely embrace COTS and an example would be the upcoming CANES [Consolidated Afloat Networks and Enterprise Services] program that represents a new, more cost-effective business model for delivering capability to the fleet. Where Navy shipboard applications differ from others is that they have more available space and less sensitivity to weight and power than, say, an aircraft or a ground vehicle.
“We definitely see growth in the military naval market,” he continues. “This is attracting new entrants, such as Dell, who can provide low-cost commodity computer systems. Where we see new opportunities is in addressing the need for advanced video capability on virtually every Navy ship, aircraft, and vehicle.”
Other embedded computing suppliers also see their COTS business growing in this application area as the gain in capability does not equate to a drop in environmental performance.
“The naval market continues to be very strong and growing for [us],” says Scott Kongable, president of Crystal Group in Hiawatha, Iowa. “Programs are willing to explore using rugged COTS servers in their technology-insertion and next-generation development efforts. “We find once clients realize they are gaining important advantages while giving up nothing in terms of environmental performance it is an easy decision to change architectural approaches.” Crystal Group offers the RE1218M with SM XS11SSV-Q, which accepts the 6th-gen Core i7/i5/i3 processors and has 32 GB of DDR4 SO-DIMM. (Figure 1.)
Figure 1: The rugged RE1218M from Crystal Group is used in Navy shipboard applications.
However, the choice of COTS is not always service-based, but rather more application-based and is often based on mission parameters.
Whether or not to use COTS often “boils down to the application, not necessarily the service itself,” says Amos Deacon III, president of Phoenix International Systems in Orange, California. “Some naval-aviation platforms might use more COTS than, say, an Army platform, or vice versa. It really depends on the mission parameters and on the environmental requirements. Platforms with more benign environmental specifications, regardless of service branch, will likely use more COTS. Surface ships in the Navy have more room and more benign environments for electronics to save money and buy more COTS technology for their 19-inch rack systems. Submarines not so much.
“Those with more stringent requirements might need more custom-designed solutions,” Deacon continues. “It also depends on how much funding a program has. They might like a certain commercial product, but the supplier or customer isn’t willing to spend the extra dollars to get it up to snuff in terms of environmental or security specifications.” Phoenix International offers the RPC24 4004 Series Drive magazine-based rugged storage solution, which supports TCG-compliant and FIPS 140-2-certified AES 256 encryption as well as instant secure erase when configured with solid-state disks and hard disk drives that have these capabilities.
Naval applications likely to use embedded COTS technology “in order, but not necessarily in volume, from first to last: unmanned systems, naval aviation, submarines, and shipboard applications,” IXI Technology’s Carter says. “The exact inverse order is in volume. SWaP requirements dominate unmanned systems and naval-aviation applications – both are searching for new technology to increase operational functionality while reducing weight. Submarines and ships are less impacted by SWaP, but are faced with aging systems and obsolescence that is driving the use of more embedded computers. The sale by IBM to Chinese company Lenovo of its blade servers has wreaked havoc on the Navy. Now Ingram Micro, the largest VAR of network servers in the world, is selling to a Chinese company.”
Some of the new technology that Navy program managers are getting excited about are innovations popular in commercial markets, as well such as virtualization, cloud computing, big-data solutions, and the like.
“The need for virtualization is becoming standard and not just for niche applications,” says Chip Thurston, technical director at Crystal Group. “This means more compute, more memory, and less reliance on configurations that cannot change (as virtualization adds an abstraction layer between hardware and the [operating system]). The result is additional power draw requiring bigger power supplies.”
“Technology exists today that can translate data from one protocol to another, with the use of an electronic interface with software operating code,” Carter says. “Technology also exists that can use the same operating code, without the electronic interface running on an embedded computer in a server – true virtualization. Embedded computing, especially products with multiple processors and interfaces and that are small, light, and consume little power will dominate.”
“Customers are also following the IT industry’s lead on storage, mainly the shift to hyperconvergence,” Thurston continues. “Over the past five years, hard drives were removed from servers, and most storage was on a local cloud, such as a SAN [storage area network]. With hyperconvergence, we use software to combine the disks on the individual compute notes into a networked cluster, and share them as local storage with backups, [which enables] scalability of the entire virtualization cluster with additional capacity in both compute and storage, dynamically and as needed.”
Space-saving technology such as zero-client servers are gaining favor with the Navy as well. “Navy shipboard users are looking at saving space by leveraging thin-client or zero-client systems with no application software,” says Steve Motter, vice president of business development at IEE in Van Nuys, California. “They are networked, and those networks are similar to other networks and will scale higher and higher as the size of the application continues to grow.”
Much like the computing systems they are paired with, shipboard computing displays and video systems are also leveraging commercial innovations.
“Primarily, the types of displays placed onto submarines and surface ships have been operator consoles,” says Motter. “Many of the ships are small cities themselves, with all sorts of different infrastructure, from the CIC [combat information center] to maintenance panels. What each display requires is an operator interface that accepts input of data, status, or maintenance information and then communicates back to a central location. The typical size is 24 or 25 inches.” IEE offers the 24-inch Rugged Military Display for shipboard environments. It is based on a high-performance, heavy-duty, industrial grade, full-color, high bright, WUXGA resolution active-matrix liquid crystal display (AMLCD) with very wide viewing angles. (Figure 2.)
Figure 2: (IEE24inch) The Rugged Military Display from IEE offers full-color display technology and wide viewing angles.
As Navy users look to present more and more info on the same display, they are exploring 4K technology for better resolution on a console that is typically viewed at arm’s length, Motter explains. “The balance is to make sure you have effective pixel resolution while not flooding the operators with a lot of pixels shining at them.”
“We are definitely seeing an emerging requirement for sophisticated real time video processing, including video enhancement, management and routing,” Wade of ZMicro says. “I’m talking about the kind of real-time video ISR capability we see on an UAS [unmanned aircraft system] that provides actionable intelligence and supports split-second decision making. The Navy is looking at longer range “fixed-wing” UASs (like STUAS) on all ships. [Our] real-time video enhancement technology is already being used in the Phalanx CIWS, a close-in weapon system for defense against anti-ship missiles.” ZMicro’s ZX2-VCES video-capture and encoding platform is specially designed for high-performance video exploitation and integrates Intel Xeon processors, the latest e-ATX motherboards, high-performance NVidia and ATI graphic cards, and the GE ICS-8580 card for video capture, compression, streaming, and archiving capabilities.
The touch interfaces of Navy consoles are also becoming more commercial-like. “Touch screens are popular with the Navy as well, especially as everyone today is so accustomed to gesturing with tablets and cell phones,” he continues. “They want multipoint gesturing on touch screens, which in the past has been a problem when it came to meeting the gloved-hand requirements of the Navy and other services. But touch screen controllers are accommodating gloved-hand operations now, enabling multiple levels of sensitivity that you can adjust on the fly.”
Navy shipboard applications, which have more benign environments than, for example, a fighter jet or an armored ground vehicle, still have tough ruggedization requirements for computing and display systems that operate in their unique mission environments.
In terms of ruggedization and thermal management, shipboard requirements “tend to be much less stringent,” Wade says. In fact, in many cases, commodity hardware will suffice. “While the open sea can certainly be a very rough environment, a Navy ship actually provides a relatively controlled equipment environment, not unlike a data center. So, in general, there has not been a stringent requirement for ruggedization or thermal management. Navy customers have traditionally come to us to help solve many of the logistical challenges associated with the shipboard environment, which is essentially a moving city. They want reliable servers and displays that are easy to maintain and upgrade. For example, the biggest value-add we provide beyond baseline environmental requirements are removable disk drives and fault-tolerant and failover power supplies for shipboard applications.”
“When not on deck, many of the naval shipboard environments are shirt-sleeve ones, where it can be pretty benign in terms of temperature and they can get away with air-cooled and light ruggedization,” Motter says. “The displays typically have the same ruggedization requirements as the computing systems – they have to be shock-isolated at the console level. It is nowhere near as severe an environment as a fighter aircraft.”
Some shipboard environments do have tough ruggedization requirements to deal with, such as fog, salt, and corrosion, he continues. “They also require systems that meet MIL-STD 901 for big-impact shock, which is very challenging.”
Rugged-computing supplier Crystal Group breaks its ruggedization techniques down “into three categories: 1) temperature, 2) shock/vibration, and 3) humidity,” Kongable says. “To address temperature, we focus on moving a significant amount of air through our units by using high-speed, redundant fans. We provide a base system that operates at 55 °C or higher without the processors throttling at 100 percent. Custom systems to operate significantly above the 55 °C threshold [may] also be produced. In addition, we develop custom heatsinks to better cool processors and other high-temperature components. In some units, we integrate very-high-power GP/GPU cards with a liquid cooling system.”
“We have seen very little difference between the requirements for shipboard applications versus ground or airborne applications,” he adds. “We do find higher demand for our front I/O units for undersea programs.”