Business barometer

1In the Spring 2012 issue of VITA Technologies, I discussed the top 10 trends in critical embedded systems that I saw impacting our industry. Let's take a look back at those trends to evaluate how they have developed, declaring some over, and looking forward for new emerging trends.

Military programs will take a hit. While this definitely did happen in 2012 and will continue into 2014, upgrades have continued keeping older technology in play. Automation and robotics, especially in unmanned vehicles of all types, has continued with Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) leading the charge. When this trend will reverse is unclear as our politicians struggle with making spending policy decisions that make sense. Resolving issues with the U.S. budget do not look good going into 2014.

VPX revenues are projected by industry analysts to match VME. This didn’t quite happen, as the cuts and uncertainty on military program spending went on longer than expected and is in fact still ongoing. New data from IMS Research shows the crossover more likely to now occur in 2016 (see Table 1).

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Table 1: VME vs VPX forecast.

Small form factor fever rages on. The form factor picture has not come completely into focus but progress has been made. VITA 75 reached “Trial Use” status in mid-2012 but no one has announced any VITA 75 products as of press time, leading me to believe that many of the original supporters have put this on the back burner. VITA 74 is about to enter “Trial Use” status with a couple of companies having already announced VITA 74 intentions. Expect a public unveiling of the standard in January. VITA 73 is still in working group status with a short list of supporters working to bring the specification to “Trial Use” status in the coming months. Rugged COM Express is also racing to “Trial Use” status with a January rollout of the standard expected. The economic slowdown has stalled many programs that would use products based on these specifications, taking the pressure off of many of the suppliers to quickly advance the standards work. The interest in small form factors is still very high and will only continue to increase.

FPGAs are poised to take over the majority of I/O responsibility on single board computers. No significant changes here as the role of FPGAs continues to grow. While there is still progress to be made, I am going to take this off the trend list because it has become common practice to use FPGAs for much of the I/O on high-end Single Board Computers (SBCs).

The role of InfiniBand will strengthen in critical embedded systems. There is more mention of InfiniBand as a solid choice in specific applications. The Mellenox ConnectX-3 Pro adaptor chip is making it easy for board suppliers to support both Ethernet (10/40/56 GbE) and InfiniBand in a single design. The strength of 40 GbE continues to dominate the technology, making it hard for InfiniBand to have a significant impact on system interconnections used with critical embedded system-based applications.

Optical interconnect products to emerge. The first VPX products allowing optics to be passed through the backplane using VITA 66 blind-mate optical interconnects were announced in 2013. More work is needed to address the optical backplane, but the move to optical interconnects is a slow one at best. The discussions on optical backplanes are heating up and there is activity building in the standards arena.

Proposals for smaller mezzanines for blade boards to appear in a working group. In 2012 I speculated that we might see new mezzanine proposals emerge. Nothing happened and nothing appears to be on the horizon. I’m going to declare this trend a non-starter for now. The workhorse mezzanines – PMC, XMC, and FMC continue to satisfy needs for now.

QorIQ with AltiVec makes a return. A substantial wave of Freescale QorIQ-based products from several suppliers were announced in 2013, bringing a resurgence in Power Architecture processors back to the critical embedded markets. Intel launched their 4th generation Intel Core processor family based on the Haswell microarchitecture, keeping their position secure. The battle continues.

ARM shows up as the primary processor in single board computers. Still limited primarily to specialized I/O boards or as FPGA cores, ARM has not yet impacted the SBC market. There are board level supplier roadmaps with ARM showing up on the small form factor products that are targeted at low power applications. The acceptance of ARM is growing in critical and intelligent embedded computing applications.

Suppliers start to use the guidance of VITA 51 to define the reliability levels of their products. The VITA 51 team made several improvements to the specification in 2013. There is growing acceptance but at a slow pace.

What is ahead for the next year?

New trends are developing or, in some cases, re-emerging. Let’s take a quick look at what is showing up on the radar screen.

Manufacturers moving up the supply chain to higher levels of integration. This is an old and ongoing trend that has seen resurgence in the past months. In the VITA technology space, this is driven by the increased complexity of solutions using VPX technology. With the long list of options, a fully integrated system from a single supplier is the fastest way to market with a new application. Even board level only suppliers are searching for more complete products to offer their customer base.

VPX High-Performance Embedded Computing (HPEC) platforms bring power to mobile applications. Serial switch fabric-based architectures like VPX enable the creation of a new and smaller class of high performance computers dedicated to the critical systems market. These VPX-based HPEC platforms are a fraction of the size and orders of magnitude greater in performance than the previous generation of platforms. The small size of VPX fits the needs of fixed and mobile applications alike, leaving it up to the imagination of system designers to craft new uses for these HPEC platforms. HPEC platforms capable of hundreds of GFLOPs can fit in a 3U or 6U rack and can scale much larger as driven by the needs of the application. Stay tuned for some pretty incredible all-around performance claims, with VPX at the core of the platform.

Active cables improve the SWaP equation for critical embedded systems. Bandwidth is the single biggest concern for connector suppliers, followed closely by demand for smaller and lighter connectors for increasingly mobile platforms. All of this while still cognizant of cost sensitivity. Data centers are already embracing active cables to overcome limitations of bandwidth and distance. The critical and intelligent embedded computing platforms are sure to follow as the reliability active cables improve. Active copper-based cables can be used for the lowest cost and lowest power applications while active optical fiber-based cables are ideal for the longest distances.

Solid State Disks (SSDs) overtake Hard Disk Drives (HDDs) as the primary storage for critical systems. The price/GB of SSD will continue to be higher for several years, but the trend is not in favor of HDDs, having difficulties to increase in areal density. Progressively, storage systems are going to use more and more SSD as tier one or primary storage, with HDD being progressively a backup media for tier two.

Cloud storage is not going away. Increasing Internet bandwidth is making cloud storage more attractive each year. The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) recognizes that they have a problem keeping up with technology and, as a result, is embracing a strategy for cloud computing – the DoD Cloud Computing Strategy. Even critical systems will need to learn how to adapt to this environment.

Summary

Everyone can agree that the economic situation going into 2014 is still uncertain at best. It has made great progress and certain segments are doing better than most. Unfortunately, the defense spending is the most uncertain of all until at least the early part of 2014. The good news is that innovation is keeping pace, helping to stimulate new opportunities across the board.