ESC's hot market segments: Rugged, industrial, and military

The Silicon Valley Embedded Systems Conference (ESC) is the industry’s premier event showcasing the embedded stuff likely to find its way into next-generation systems. Increasingly, “stuff” means software development tools, Small Form Factor (SFF) boards and systems, open-source OSs, and Systems-on-Chip (SoCs) designed for specific vertical markets. Interesting stuff, yes. But it was the market segments talked about at this year’s conference that got my attention – not the products per se.

Countless vendors emphasized three broad segments: Android (primarily handheld doodads), medical, and Rugged/Industrial/Military (R/I/M). Yeah, that last one surprised me, too. Rarely do software, IC, and network infrastructure vendors talk about the rugged market. But unlikely companies from Mentor to Dell disclosed their plans to focus technology on rugged platforms. After meeting with nearly 50 vendors, I identified some trends to watch during the next 18-24 months that affect the R/I/M markets.

Smartphones and video: Soldiers, Marines, sailors, and airmen all want the same rich media and Internet connectivity to social media on the battlefield that they have in their off time. They want Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) video feeds, Blue Force Tracking to know where the good guys are, and moving GPS maps that make sense on portable handhelds. And DoD brass wants to give it to them. I discovered at least two contracts – one from the NSA and one from DARPA – that aim to create Android-based, military-secure, iPhone-like handsets. Already, companies like Thales offer secure BlackBerries with https and IPsec. And consumer devices like Apple’s 3GS iPhone make the video experience so compelling that it’s likely all dismounted soldiers will eventually tap into some data stream, somewhere. Many vendors at ESC have spotted this trend and now offer OSs, prepackaged SFF boxes, and IP for dedicated handheld SoCs.

The trend isn’t limited to the DoD. Service technicians in the field, plant managers on the assembly line, and anyone not chained to a desk or vehicle wants a rich media experience. Consumer smartphones provide the catalyst, but segment-specific platforms are emerging based on Android (and soon, Chrome). Will Apple’s new iPad raise the bar on “smart media” platforms and spawn new embedded clones that offer a better media experience than the small-screen smartphone?

Cloud computing: Not all embedded computers need heavy horsepower. “Fat” client devices can feed database and image information to low-performance SFFs relying on ARM Cortex M3 or QorIQ CPUs. These thin clients – connected to fat pipes and rack-mount servers such as AdvancedTCA or 2U rigs from Emerson, RadiSys, or Z Microsystems – are cheaper, lighter, and use less power while providing access to information residing elsewhere on the Internet. This is the cloud computing model first theorized in X-Windows a decade ago. Intel’s Mobile Internet Device (MID) vision maps perfectly to many R/I/M sensors and embedded platforms to realize cloud computing.

The obvious way to enable cloud computing is with SFFs – lightweight Atom-based boards and shoe boxes running Windows 7 Embedded or Linux. But SFF powerhouse Eurotech has changed its strategy to focus on “Elastic Cloud Computing” (EC2) by building a software infrastructure to connect all those embedded devices. Relying on its existing Everyware Software stack that ships with all hardware, the company provides infrastructure connectivity through the “Everyware Cloud” using a publish-subscribe Message Queue Telemetry Transport (MQTT) protocol (www.mqtt.org). Eurotech recognizes that commodity SFFs are only differentiated on price, and the company plans to make its money on Device As A Service (DAAS). The company’s Parvus subsidiary is all about the R/I/M market segment. It’s hard to argue with their assumptions, but it remains to be seen how the strategy will play out.

Fatter pipes: Every embedded device that connects to the Internet needs node connectivity, whether via satellite, mesh networks such as SNAP from Synapse, femtocell-equipped cellular, or, in a DoD application, via a loitering aloft UAS relay station. But with video routed everywhere and to everyone, more bandwidth is required. Trouble is, current technologies are maxed out, and forklift upgrades are cost-prohibitive. Instead, COTS technologies like JPEG2000 compression, H.264, and deep packet inspection will reduce the amount of data being piped around. New CPUs from ARM, Freescale, Intel, and VIA are optimized for one or more of these data-reduction schemes.

SFF shoe boxes: I’ve talked about this one for years. It’s where a vendor such as WinSystems, ADLINK, or Parvus builds a custom SFF box with the “right” amount of I/O and processing power to meet system requirements. In R/I/M applications, the shoe box is desirable because it can overcome the environmental limitations of just about any module type.

Despite the efforts of board-level standards bodies such as the SFF-SIG, PICMG, or PC/104 Consortium, designers care less about the card inside the box than they do about the box itself. And since shoe boxes are inexpensive and available in myriad ruggedization levels, they can often be tossed out during the next tech refresh. Who needs standards at the box level? Updates given at ESC by the PC/104 Consortium and SFF-SIG show that standards like PCI/104-Express and SUMIT are stable and have not changed since last year, though vendors are introducing new products.

Diamond Systems is teasing the market with a new 43 mm x 65 mm FeaturePak I/O mezzanine that is three-fifths the size of a credit card and one-third the size of PC/104, sports two 50 I/O undefined connectors, and is designed to fit on PICMG COM or PC/104 baseboards. There’s even a new trade association attempting to get the SFF off the ground (www.FeaturePak.org). As we went to press, two new rugged SFFs were introduced to VITA. Tentatively called SFF-73 and SFF-74, one is based on the 2.5" HDD form factor and designed to fit onto a 3U VITA 46 VPX basecard and the other is based on Nano-ETXexpress. While SFF-73 is a card-level format that includes a provision for a rugged shoe box, SFF-74 is a sealed module format called NanoATR with an associated rugged shoe box.

It would’ve been easy to get caught up in the shiny new CPUs or the shouting over RTOS kernels at ESC. But the fact that nearly everyone exhibiting talked about the R/I/M market was a real revelation. As they say: “Watch this space” for more announcements.

Chris A. Ciufo, Group Editorial Director cciufo@opensystemsmedia.com