Bringing more good things to life: Industry consolidation, ISR, and GPGPUs - Interview with Rob McKeel, General Manager of GE Intelligent Platforms' Military and Aerospace Embedded Computing businessStory
September 14, 2010
Editor's note: GE Intelligent Platforms comprises SBS, Radstone, ICS, Ramix, VMIC ? and, of course, a healthy dose of General Electric DNA. So when VP Rob McKeel shares his thoughts on the market, technology, and the competition - it's time to listen up.
MIL EMBEDDED: What’s keeping you busy at GE Intelligent Platforms these days?
McKEEL: There are two major areas of focus for us at GE.
The first is on adapting what we do and how we do it with the shifting priorities in the defense market. There’s no question: Foremost in the military’s mind at present is gathering, processing, interpreting, and communicating more information than ever before. You might recall the 16th-century British philosopher Thomas Bacon’s coined phrase: “Knowledge is power.” This assertion is particularly true in the case of ISR, which absolutely underpins the approach of armies, navies, and air forces around the world.
To explain what I mean: Modern military contact is no longer about firepower – it’s about intelligence. So we’re looking at what we do – sensors that acquire data, multiprocessors that process and interpret data, switches that communicate data, and so on – and making sure that we are keeping up with industry needs. And because much ISR development effort is focused on unmanned vehicles, we’re ensuring that our solutions are compact, lightweight, and low in power consumption.
MIL EMBEDDED: Intelligence as a first priority, OK. What’s GE’s second focus then?
McKEEL: The second focal point is actually more intangible: It’s the way in which GE Intelligent Platforms is perceived. By just about any metric, we’re one of the largest embedded computing suppliers for the defense industry. However, that’s not the common perception, despite the fact that, for example, we’re present in a majority of high-profile military programs.
It could be that the misperception comes about because we’re “only a division” of one of the world’s largest companies, rather than a stand-alone organization in our own right. Or it could be the wide breadth of industries we serve and the range of technologies we offer, whereas many of our competitors are 100 percent focused on the defense market. But whatever the reason, we’ve recently made some adjustments to our organization that will further strengthen our focus on the defense market – and hopefully start to make those perceptions more accurate.
MIL EMBEDDED: Which technologies excite the company?
McKEEL: There are some really interesting technology trends starting to emerge. Perhaps the most visible of those is the race to multicore. Both Freescale and Intel have made exciting multicore announcements in the past few months, and the potential their processors offer is very exciting. Today, though, “potential” is the key word. The software tools and environments are lagging.
Then there’s the growing focus on low power consumption and heat dissipation, both of which are key to most unmanned platforms. We’ve already announced a couple of SBCs that feature Freescale’s P2020 processor, aimed at providing twice the processing performance but within a legacy power envelope. We also have plans for the Atom processor, too.
MIL EMBEDDED: Any other technologies that have caught your eye – and your investment – before we move on?
McKEEL: We’re also doing a lot of interesting things with image-processing technology. In video tracking, for example, video trackers can now operate over longer distances at higher resolutions and track multiple targets and eliminate clutter. Video-streaming XMCs are also providing a platform that supports the H.264 video compression codec and perhaps two channels of HD video.
MIL EMBEDDED: Defense budgets are being squeezed. How is that affecting your business?
McKEEL: There’s no question that today, the defense market is characterized by uncertainty. No one knows for sure what the future holds. But for COTS suppliers like GE, that’s actually positive. Why do I say that? Simply, because when customers are uncertain, one of their first instincts is to minimize risk. The economic equation for COTS is currently very favorable. If dollars are scarce, customers want to make sure those dollars are not wasted. The implication of that is that they’ll turn to major suppliers for COTS solutions.
The other phenomenon we’re seeing is that, when times are tight, major contractors are being forced to focus on what they do best. They’re turning to us and asking, “Can you build us a complete, integrated, tested subsystem that we can just plug in?” Previously, they would have just bought the boards and built the subsystem themselves. We’re also seeing significant interest in graphics subsystems and acoustic data conversion technologies. So basically, customers want much higher degrees of integration for more “packaged” products today than in times when funds were more available – when they could engage in non-core activities and when risk reduction wasn’t at the top of their agenda.
MIL EMBEDDED: OK, fair enough. GE has come out strongly in favor of GPGPU technology. Why is that?
McKEEL: I talked earlier about the growing focus on acquiring, processing, interpreting, and communicating sensor-acquired data in a multitude of forms. This includes a multitude of applications that cry out for massively parallel computing: The nature of the way the data needs to be processed means that it’s incredibly well suited to nonsequential processing.
GPGPUs, and specifically NVIDIA’s CUDA technology, lend themselves incredibly well to that kind of application. Take radar, for example, which is a relatively well-understood application. We’ve had a customer use GPGPU technology in a new radar subsystem, and he’s seen performance increase 15-fold. We’d expect to see comparable – possibly greater – improvements in applications like signals intelligence, encryption/decryption, video processing, and so on. If you look at an OpenVPX multiprocessor board with, say, two NVIDIA CUDA GPUs on it, you can build compact systems that are hugely powerful. No other technology – not DSP, not FPGA – comes close to what you can do with GPGPU technology.
MIL EMBEDDED: Curtiss-Wright just bought Hybricon, and Kontron just bought AP Labs. What do you make of that?
McKEEL: I don’t feel it’s appropriate to comment on specific cases, but what we’re starting to see is the inevitable fallout in a market that is at best flat, and is possibly declining. There are fewer programs, fewer platforms, fewer opportunities – and whichever market you’re in, that’s going to lead to consolidation as some companies find it increasingly difficult to compete. We expect that consolidation to continue at all tiers within the defense industry.
But this is good news for the competitive landscape. While it may seem counterintuitive to suggest that fewer competitors make for increased competition, the fact is that it makes those who remain in the market competitively stronger, better able to offer customers what they want. It resonates very strongly with customers who are looking to reduce the number of suppliers they use because, administratively, it’s much more cost effective: More than ever, customers are looking for a “one-stop shop.”
MIL EMBEDDED: How do you see the future?
McKEEL: In the near term, GE expects more of what we’re seeing today. Minimizing program risk is going to remain important, and that may mean that we don’t see as much technology innovation as we’ve historically seen in the defense market. And, more so than ever, customers will turn to suppliers they know will be around for the long term.
We’ll continue to see the military focusing on proven solutions – and that means COTS solutions. We’ll likely also see continuing consolidation on the supply side, because it’s a tough market to compete in. Beyond that, it’s hard to say. Of course, we’re hopeful that defense spending will rebound – but that depends on a number of factors that include the overall economy, the political landscape, and the stability of international relations.
Rob McKeel is General Manager of GE Intelligent Platforms’ Military and Aerospace Embedded Computing business. He began his General Electric career in 1993 at GE Fanuc Automation as an engineer. In 2002, he was appointed Vice President of Marketing for GE Cisco Industrial Networks. Prior to his current position, McKeel served as the Business Leader for GE Transportation’s Global Signaling business. He holds a Bachelor of Science in Engineering from North Carolina State University, an MS in Computer Science from the University of Virginia, and an MBA from James Madison University.