Surprises from Bus & Board tech insider conference; Fabrics and RoHS ruleStory
January 23, 2006
Every year January brings December?s credit card bills, the beginning of tax season, and VITA?s Bus & Board conference. While the first two items are downers, B&B is an event that editors and vendors alike look forward to. This most...
Every year January brings December’s credit card bills, the beginning of tax season, and VITA’s Bus & Board conference. While the first two items are downers, B&B is an event that editors and vendors alike look forward to. This mostly closed conference (few people from the public attend) kicks off the board industry’s year with a series of announcements and company revelations that usually sets the tone for the subsequent 12 months. This year was no exception, though there were a few noteworthy surprises.
Figure 1: VITA Executive Director Ray Alderman and Elma Bustronic Marketing Director Justin Moll
Sponsored by the VMEbus International Trade Association (VITA), B&B was originally founded to promote “all things VME.” Over the years, a handful of other non-VME technologies have been creeping in. The telecom industry’s PCI Industrial Computer Manufacturer’s Group (PICMG) was once a co-sponsor, and this year’s B&B revealed just as many products announced against PICMG standards as those against VITA standards.
Figure 2: VMEbus 25th
Qualitatively, I noted a wide distribution of new products following the standards AdvancedTCA, CompactPCI, MicroTCA, AMC, and VME/VITA. OpenSystems Publishing’s magazine CompactPCI and AdvancedTCA Systems covers many of these specs in detail. 2006 is also the 25th anniversary of the VMEbus specification.
Telecom specs speak to military applications
Motorola shocked me with their announcement of support for MicroTCA in rugged, military communications applications. The inventor of VME, Motorola’s most recent VME product was announced in mid-2005; at Bus & Board, they specifically indicated their plans to “evolve” their product line from VME to MicroTCA. This is consistent with the company’s corporate strategy and move towards telecommunications, as their Corporate VP and General Manager Wendy Vittori has told me on previous occasions. (A longtime leader in communications, “Motorola” got its name when radios were first installed in automobiles in the early 1900s and Jack Galvin combined "motor" with the “-ola” from "Victrola".)
This move towards telecom – and specifically towards MicroTCA – is cohesive with Motorola’s acquisition of communications leader Force Computers a couple of years ago, and with the company’s recent success and “hipness” in the consumer cell phone market with products like the RAZR and ROKR. Motorola told me at B&B that both MicroTCA and VME will be used in the rapidly growing class of networked applications – and specifically in equipment such as military battlefield networks.
“VME Renaissance” opens market to serial fabrics
As the move towards VITA 41 VXS heats up, plenty of companies announced products at B&B. Of note, TEK Microsystems, QinetiQ, and Elma Bustronic came together to announce a unique spin on the VXS architecture that promises up to 112.5 GBps throughput in a single chassis. Their secret is taking an advantage of a loophole in the VITA 41 spec that doesn’t preclude adding more than one switch card slot on the backplane. In fact, the trio worked together to add six switch slots, which Elma Bustronic morphed into a hybrid backplane containing two VME64x slots, three VME64x/VXS payload slots, and six VXS switch slots.
The companies claim a throughput improvement of 6x over currently available technology, and they took a swipe at both RapidIO and AdvancedTCA. According to the companies, VITA 46.3 Serial RapidIO supports four x4 links for a total of 5 GBps per slot, and AdvancedTCA supports fifteen x4 links for a total of 18.75 GBps per slot. TEK Microsystems is a proponent of VITA 55 Virtual Streaming Protocol, a new standard that eschews serial fabrics like PCI Express or RapidIO and relies on the Xilinx lightweight Aurora protocol for interprocessor mesh communications. TEK Microsystems told me that, in the limit, there is no reason to use VXS payload cards in addition to switch cards. With this new mesh architecture, FPGA-equipped switch cards offer substantial performance without the use of payload cards.
New boards for harsh environments
VMETRO also got into the act by announcing shipments of their conduction-cooled VPF1 dual-FPGA/dual-PowerPC single board computer that’s compliant with VITA 41 VXS. With their acquisition of Transtech DSP last year, VMETRO is angling to get into the harsh environment military space in a big way.
Not to be outdone in the area of next-gen fabric-based computing, Curtiss-Wright Controls Embedded Computing (CWCEC) announced what is probably the industry’s first VITA 46 (now called VPX) DSP engine, the CHAMP-AV6. VPX represents the next evolution of the entire VME ecosystem, substituting a series of high-speed connectors at the card’s rear edge and promising serial data rates in excess of 5 Gbps, plus I/O routing capabilities beyond a systems engineer’s wildest dreams.
The company also announced the VPX6-185, which it claims is the first VPX single board computer. The ’185 is a Freescale 8641 PowerPC-based SBC with two PCIe XMC/PMC sites and four Advanced Switching Interconnect (ASI) ports. With so much I/O available with VITA 46 VPX, expect to be “wowed” with eye-popping connectivity options on manufacturers’ new products.
RoHS and lead-free take center stage
Most manufacturers also reaffirmed their support for lead-free versions of their products as the European Union’s RoHS (Reduction of Hazardous Substances) mandate goes into effect on July 1, 2006. Most vendors started shipping RoHS-compliant boards around January 1.
At one of the B&B main sessions, OpenSystems Publishing’s very own European Representative Hermann Strass presented an informative overview of RoHS and its worldwide implication. Coincidentally, we announced our new Environment website that’s focused on RoHS and other environmental issues. With eight publications serving the embedded electronics industry, we’ll be regularly updating this website with resource material, specifications, and articles.
(Still) in with the old, in with the new
This year’s B&B was in many ways the end of one era and the beginning of another. It’s a certainty that VME as we know it will survive well into the future. But it’s also now obvious that the switch is underway (pun intended) to serial fabrics and to smaller modules such as 3U VITA 46 VPX and PICMG’s Advanced Mezzanine Card. SBS Technologies has for several years been targeting what I call “shoe-horned” applications with 3U CompactPCI modules. These boards fit nicely into nooks and crannies while offering tech refresh technologies.
Clearly, there were many more announcements made at Bus & Board than I can cover here, and I offer my apologies to those company representatives with whom I met, who took the time to fill me in on their latest products and strategies. They include: ACT/Technico, Advanced Micro Devices, Aitech, GE Fanuc Embedded Systems, Mercury Computer Systems, Pentek, Performance Technologies, Radstone Technology, SBS Technologies, Schroff, and Thales Computer.
Figure 3: VITA
VME continues to dominate in harsh environment, deployed military systems. But VITA, the trade organization, is expanding its role. In the next issue of Military Embedded Systems, I’ll reveal the changing face of VITA, an organization that started out exclusively focused on VME but is evolving into a broader organization supporting additional standards activities.
Do you agree with these statements or think I’m off-base? Drop me a line at [email protected], and we’ll publish insightful responses.