Military Embedded Systems

Keeping a nation's military in-step


February 22, 2008

Gene Gray


From the U.S. Army's sponsorship of ENIAC to today's computer-controlled flight systems, defense drives computing. Today, a military advantage can come from better processors as much as it can from better weapons. Accordingly, defense organizations are some of the world's most active users of High Performance Computing (HPC) systems, and the Intel Itanium 2 architecture is making strong market inroads.

From the U.S. Army's sponsorship of ENIAC to today's computer-controlled flight systems, defense drives computing. Today, a military advantage can come from better processors as much as it can from better weapons. Accordingly, defense organizations are some of the world's most active users of High Performance Computing (HPC) systems, and the Intel Itanium 2 architecture is making strong market inroads.

Processors to handle military HPC

The Intel Itanium 2 architecture is a solid
platform for military HPC. Itanium 2-based systems efficiently process large
technical workloads because of their unique architecture. They have high
floating-point performance, so they can perform complex calculations
efficiently. Running Linux (among other OSs) -the standard in many
government settings -is another advantage. These capabilities have led
to the adoption of the Intel Itanium 2 microarchitecture to fulfill some of the
world's most demanding military computing needs.

Many of these needs are in the region where science
and defense cross paths. The U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command (SMDC)
added a 128-processor, Itanium 2-based system to its simulation center (run by
Madison Research) in June of 2005 to help develop more accurate and effective
missile defense technology. As with all Itanium 2-based systems, the SMDC
installation is particularly good at crunching data, a powerful benefit for
modeling, simulation, and R&D.

The installation handles data-intensive modeling of
chemical reactions and fluid dynamics well, in part because the Intel Itanium 2
microarchitecture supports a higher degree of parallelism than RISC-based
systems, which attempt to discover parallel processing opportunities at
runtime. In contrast, the EPIC (Explicitly Parallel Instruction Computing)
protocol designed by Intel and HP provides massive, hardware-based parallelism,
which relies on the compiler to discover and flag operations to be processed
simultaneously. The Intel Itanium 2 architecture also has the ability to
address more data at once because of the 64-bit address space available to it,
as well as the large on-chip memory caches that reduce latency.

SGI's Altix systems enhance this capability by
using shared-memory architecture, in effect like the unified memory used by a
traditional mainframe. According to Larry Burger, director for the SMDC's
Future Warfare Center
, this design "allows fast access to all data in the
system's memory directly and efficiently, without having to move data through
I/O or networking bottlenecks." It accomplishes this,
however, at a lower price point than a custom-built vector-based system might.

Scalability is key in Itanium 2 systems

Itanium 2-based systems are also supremely
scalable, as demonstrated by the Defense Department's most powerful
supercomputer -and one of the most powerful in the world. The computer
was purchased as part of the High Performance Computing Modernization Program
(HPCMP) and serves the Aeronautical Systems Center's Major Shared Resource
Center (ASCM-SRC). Also based on the Intel Itanium 2 microarchitecture and
SGI's Altix
server platform, the "Eagle" system was installed in 2005 at Wright-Patterson
Air Force Base in Ohio and contains 2,048 Intel Itanium 2 processors addressing
2 TB of global shared memory.

According the Air Force's official
press release
, "the supercomputer contains 41
racks, each of which uses as much power and cooling as a regular four-bedroom
house, and more than 1,400 interconnecting cables." The system, which
has been benchmarked at over 11 teraflops, is among the 50 most powerful supercomputers in the world.
According to Steve Wourms, deputy director for the
center's advanced computational analysis directorate, "this supercomputer
will help power groundbreaking research and development for the DOD weapon
systems of the future."

Like many installations of Itanium 2-based systems,
"Eagle" is used for high-end imaging and simulation, mostly aircraft and
weapons design using innovative materials. In addition to its capabilities,
however, two notable features stand out: ease of installation and ease of use.
The Eagle was
intended to be operational within 90 days of the contract award, a very
short time for such a powerful and complex computer. Also, as Wourms noted,
despite its intricacy and the unique nature of the Intel Itanium 2
architecture, the system is easy for their engineers to use even though they
are not all computer scientists.

Sample application: Flight simulators

Flight simulators represent another highly
appropriate use of Itanium 2-based systems. Lockheed Martin uses Linux-based
SGI Altix 4700 blade servers in their pilot training devices for the upcoming F35 Joint Strike Fighter (also known as the F35 Lightning II). This
next-generation aircraft is being funded by the United States, the United
Kingdom, and eight other nations and is designed as an affordable yet
cutting-edge replacement for several prior models.
Lockheed Martin needed a sophisticated processor platform to run the simulator,
which will help pilots learn not only to fly the aircraft but to use its
cutting-edge helmet-mounted display. The simulator exemplifies "hard real-time"
processing in which calculations must be performed within a specific window of
time -necessary for a fully realistic flight experience.

Although processing power was crucial, the "plug
and solve" scalability of SGI's Altix
4700 blade server system
also helped clinch the deal, allowing the system
to be upgraded as new capabilities are added to the F35. The total package has
been turning heads on its tour of Air Force bases in anticipation of the F35's
impending release. As Clyde Bellinger, Joint Strike Fighter Pilot Interface
Representative for Lockheed Martin, says, "It is very
close [to the real thing] Ö what we are showing, as far as the demonstrator is
concerned, should be very close to what's going to be on the actual aircraft."

France's CEA demonstrates criticality in defense

The United
States is not the only country where Itanium 2-based systems are critical to
defense, and is not, in fact, home to the largest such system. France's
Commissariat ‡ l'Energie Atomique (Atomic Energy Commission) takes that honor
with Tera 10, the No. 5
supercomputer in the world and No. 1 in Europe. The computer was designed and
implemented by Bull, the French computer giant. Tera
uses 4,500 Dual-Core Intel Itanium 2 processors contained in 544 Bull
NovaScale computing nodes and I/O servers. CEA was the first customer to use
the Dual-Core Intel Itanium 2 processor, which provides twice the processing of
its predecessor while using fewer watts. Tera 10 addresses one petabyte (a
million billion bytes) of memory. The operating system is based on Linux.

All this processing power serves a unique function.
Tera 10's main job is to carry out accurate simulations of nuclear weapons.
Because of France's decision to cease nuclear testing in 1996, these
simulations are necessary to keep France's nuclear deterrent safe, reliable,
and effective. They provide the ability to keep current weapons systems in good
shape and to replace them with new ones as time goes on.

The evolution of the CEA's computing systems
parallels that of supercomputing at large. In 1998, their main computing
resource was a Cray T90 with 24 vector processors. Knowing that they needed to
gradually increase their computing resources by orders of magnitude presented
an economic problem: Even though Cray's vector-based system was powerful, the
price/performance ratio was extremely high. With the arrival of high-end,
off-the-shelf processors, CEA scalability
requirements could be met at a reasonable cost. The Intel Itanium and Itanium 2
processors have been major factors in this supercomputing "revolution."

A powerful foundation for military computing

Contemporary defense organizations need not only
superior strategy and superior defense capabilities, but superior computing
resources as well. Itanium 2-based systems already represent some of the most
powerful defense-specific installations in the world. As the Intel Itanium 2
microarchitecture continues to evolve, there is little doubt that it will also
continue to be a cornerstone of military computing.

Gene Gray is government, defense, and intelligence segment manager at SGI, a founding
sponsor organization of the Itanium Solutions Alliance.


Featured Companies


1201 Harmon Place Suite 100
Minneapolis, MN 55403