Tiny new packaged modules shake up the rugged SFF market

What’s up with the market for rugged SFFs, folks? Seems like every Mini-ITX, PC/104, COM, SUMIT, and VME vendor has its sights set on small form factors for rugged, industrial, or military as discussed in the Spring issue of PC/104 and Small Form Factors (www.smallformfactors.com/articles/id/?4621). Fast-forward a mere 30 days, and more pop onto the radar screen, including proposals from PCI-Systems and Themis Computer and an in-production module from General Micro Systems (GMS). What’s unique about these SFFs is that they come from traditional 6U-sized VME suppliers used to doing long life-cycle business in the defense industry with big ANSI/VITA-compliant bus and backplane boards.

Each company boasts it has a better solution than the traditional consortium-backed SFF flavors we always write about. VITA’s executive director Ray Alderman told me, “It’s the evolution of the Line Replaceable Unit (LRU) to the box level.” Makes me wonder about the future of interoperable board-level SFFs.

GMS’s iPhone-sized Atom XP40x is available now. The PWB is custom-sized, eschewing any industry standard since the O.D. envelope is what low-cost system buyers are concerned about. It’s a pretty traditional Atom-based 10 W (max) SBC inside a rugged shell (3.5" x 2.5" x 0.5") that’s conduction-cooled and guaranteed over -40 °C to +85 °C. GMS knows how to build shock- and vibration-tolerant 6U modules, so the 0.3 lb module is likely as reliable as the company boasts.

PCI-Systems, on the other hand, proposes merging a standard 2.5" HDD envelope with a 3U VPX board and repackaging them into an 8- or 11-slot slot chassis measuring 4.5" (W) x 4" (H) x 6" (D) and weighing as little as 3.3 lbs empty. Each 3U-like 10 mm module (11 mm pitch) uses conduction-cooled wedge locks and rear 10 Gbps I/O feeding into a VPX (VITA 46) type connector. Chassis are composed of PSU, SATA, CPU, and peripheral cards. No fans are allowed, as the whole assembly is conduction-cooled or finned. Here too, Alderman told me that this kind of box-level implementation fits the need for “smaller, faster, cheaper … in critical embedded systems.” Though, unlike the GMS SBC, modules would be interoperable.

Lastly, Themis Computer is migrating from server-class VME boards to “tactical and mission payload” applications while relying on credit-card sized nanoETXexpress 55 mm x 85 mm boards compliant with PICMG’s COM.0 Type 1 standard as originally conceived by Kontron. The Themis proposal to VITA bundles a COM or COM and carrier into sealed 12.5 mm or 19 mm modules called Nano-ATR. Like the PCI-Systems proposal, an internal connector (Samtec’s SEARAY vs ERNI) maps “99 percent of VITA’s VPX signals,” says Themis president and CEO Bill Kehret. The point? Capitalize on the growing ecosystem of VPX boards redesigned into tiny, conduction-cooled SFFs that fit within a 10 W/slot budget.

In all three of these cases successful “big iron” board vendors are entering the rugged SFF market with different implementations but fully equipped with R&D funding and high-rel methodologies. So how will PC/104 Consortium and SFF-SIG members respond?

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