PC/104 well positioned in military market
Typically, I’m hitting an average of one defense trade show or conference a month; while the size and attendance numbers go up and down depending on market health, the size of the electronic devices continues to shrink regardless of market behavior.
Whether it is a small form factor (SFF) computing product or a GPS module, a radio or a handheld display – or even an unmanned vehicle such as the Throwbot XT from Recon Robotics, which can be held and tossed one-handed – everything is getting smaller. This situation is especially true in military embedded-computing applications, where designers of radar, sonar, and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) equipment all want more signal-processing capability in the same footprint or smaller. This demand in turn puts pressure on designers of these devices to come up with new SFFs that can manage the thermal levels generated by modern processors in cramped quarters.
In a way, this makes the PC/104 standard unique: For years, it has been a de facto small form factor long before the SFF acronym became so popular. Dr. Paul Haris, PC/104 Consortium Chairman and President, touches on this in his column this month, found on page 6. He discusses how PC/104 has thrived for so long, in part due to its evolutionary architecture and backward compatibility across multiple generations.
The modular design of the standard also enables it to scale for large systems. “Obviously with PC/104 being infinitely stackable, designers can still make big systems without massive investment in a backplane,” says Flemming Christensen, president of Sundance Multiprocessor Technology. “It’s a cost issue again, isn’t it? With VITA 74 [VITA 74 is a VITA Standards Organization’s SFF standard intiative] you have the fixed size of a backplane and the backplane is 16 layers of printed circuit board, so it’s complex to design. It gets expensive.
“PC/104 remains a more cost-effective solution for many applications because it doesn’t rely on a backplane,” Christensen continues. “Looking to expand on this capability, the PC/104 Consortium is looking to announce a new smaller connector in 2015. The new connector will be about one-third the size while maintaining compatibility with the legacy version. This new variation reduces the footprint required, which is all in line with the global trend toward making electronics smaller, while still being compatible with Gen 3 of PCI Express, running at 8.0 GHz.
“The most important component in an embedded system is the connector, hence the pressure for more innovation in mechanics rather than electronics, because the mechanical parts are what break, with electronics being more reliable,” he adds.
Christensen also discusses how FPGAs, while ridiculously difficult and time-consuming to program, still have key advantages in embedded-computing systems, even those with modest signal- processing requirements. To read Christensen’s article, turn to page 16.
The new initiatives from the consortium and the leveraging of FPGA technology will enable PC/104 to continue to compete with new SFF standards that are popping up as well as with custom form factors that populate many military systems.
These characteristics and the fact that it is an open standard make PC/104 particularly well-suited for military communications and networking applications. The Department of Defense (DoD) wants to leverage the use of commercial technology and open architectures as military budget cuts are driving more commonality. This new DoD reality creates a need for more flexibility and reuse of equipment across multiple platforms to save costs. Companies and standards that answer that call will do well.
“DoD program managers are asking, ‘What can I get off the shelf to give me the protection I need now?’ They can’t afford to wait for costly development cycles to field equipment to keep pace with commercial technology,” said Eric Sivertson, executive vice president of Kontron’s Avionics, Transportation & Defense (ATD) Business Unit, in a Q&A with Military Embedded Systems magazine this summer. “This drives them to COTS now more than ever.
“The trend I’ve seen in my career was a push toward open standards,” he continued. “For decades defense customers were locked into customized solutions produced by only one vendor. Today, they want open standards and open platforms to drive competition and get the best price. If one vendor is not meeting their particular requirements they know there is a competitive solution available that will still work with their system. This need for commonality is driving the industry toward open platforms with hardware and software such as Android and Linux implementations.”
The opportunities for small form factor, open standards platforms such as PC/104 and others abound in 2015 and beyond. As the devices continue to shrink, here’s hoping your fortunes and profits go the opposite way in 2015 and beyond. Happy holidays.