Military Embedded Systems

Specifications on the defensive


August 12, 2009

Jerry Gipper

VITA Technologies

The defense market is among the brightest stars in the bleak economic downturn, and specifications are guiding the way.

By Jerry Gipper

The defense market is among the brightest stars in our economic downturn. Many computer board suppliers have turned to this market segment as a safe haven as they ride out the slump. Fortunately for them, the technologists have several solutions and specifications in the works that address requirements of future defense programs.


In January 2009, the formation of the OpenVPX Industry Working Group was announced. This alliance of defense prime contractors and COTS systems developers is working to solve potential interoperability issues of VPX systems. They plan to publish a comprehensive system design guide that, if implemented by designers, should improve interoperability of COTS 3U and 6U VPX-based systems through implementation of predefined system profiles.

The OpenVPX techies have been racing against the clock to roll out their efforts by this fall. They have been holding conference calls and meetings to work out the details that will enable the VITA VPX specification to better address system-level requirements to improve interoperability and reduce customization, testing, cost, and risk. They have set a September 8, 2009 deadline for final approval. Work is progressing on schedule, and they remain optimistic that they can meet their schedule. They anticipate then turning the work results back over to the VITA Standards Organization (VSO) for incorporation into the total VPX body of work.

The same working group has also been developing a process for adding architectures to the specification and retiring those that later are determined to have no market traction or product support. Their goal is to improve future VPX interoperability and protect supplier innovation intended to improve or extend VPX. They are obviously trying to assure a smooth and successful expansion of the core VPX specification that will ensure a reliable life cycle for both developers and implementers of VPX products. It is reassuring to see this as a recognized deficiency in the original launch of VPX, and suppliers are gathering to resolve the issues at an early stage in the life of the VPX specification.


Momentum is also picking up with product announcements leveraging the VITA 57 (FMC) specification. Xilinx announced a series of Virtex-6 and Spartan-6 FPGA evaluation kits that include FMC slots. The standards-based approach enables the most efficient creation of specialized IP, components, and base boards for them and their network of third party suppliers. Several other FMCs and carrier boards have been announced or have been put into production this summer. As FPGA technology grows in demand for use in MIL/COTS platforms, the FMC demand should grow quickly.

PICMG – MicroTCA, AdvancedTCA

On the PICMG front, last May PICMG announced the Air Cooled Rugged MicroTCA specification that extends temperature, shock, and vibration ranges. This opens up new doors for the platform beyond its original telecommunications focus by addressing needs of applications requiring enhanced environmental performance. Industries serving the needs of transportation, industrial control, and outdoor communications infrastructure can now take advantage of MicroTCA's small footprint, high compute power and communications bandwidth, and managed architecture.

Work within PICMG to provide an even more robust MicroTCA platform is planned, with members working on a hardened, conduction-cooled version of MicroTCA intended for use in military and aerospace applications. The work is expected to be completed later this year. Engineers working in these areas understand the benefits of MicroTCA’s managed, high-availability architecture as the platform can continue to operate in the event of component failures.

PICMG continues work on the AdvancedTCA family to enhance its capabilities into other markets. New efforts are addressing additional features including double-wide boards, enhancements to power and cooling, optimizations for non-NEBS environments, allowances for double-sided shelves, and other enhancements while maintaining forward and backward compatibility with existing AdvancedTCA products. Applications that can leverage an open blade architecture are sure to benefit from these new initiatives.

Specifications support defense market

Work on specifications that benefit technology used in military applications is getting an extra dose of attention, as this market is holding steady during this economic slowdown. One common theme appears to be the emphasis on smaller form factors such as the 3U VPX, FMC, and MicroTCA sizes. Many programs are very space and power limited, driving the need for smaller boards. Suppliers are refocusing efforts on this market and working to ensure that they will have a steady stream of technology to consider for possible defense programs. It is no secret that the military will continue to increase its reliance on embedded electronics in future programs.

To learn more, e-mail Jerry at [email protected].