Gates open to COTS vendors: Considering the shifting landscape

1Editor’s note: Many in the mil embedded industry might be walking on egg shells or focused on negatives possibilities in the aftermath of SECDEF Robert Gates’ proposed defense budget. However, Curtiss-Wright Controls Embedded Computing’s (CWCEC’s) Lynn Patterson isn’t one of them. During our long-distance interview, the VP and general manager for modular solutions says the shifts will bring COTS to the forefront and a multitude of fresh opportunities to the rugged deployed market. She also has a thing or two to say about OpenVPX – and how to improve VITA. Edited excerpts follow.

VME: After Mercury opened its once-closed, VSO-external Open VPX Industry Working Group, CWCEC, along with three other vendors, issued a statement: “We recognize the importance of defining an open specification for system-level VPX interoperability, but we also believe that this work is best done within the existing, proven model of the VSO Working Group system.” Does this mean Curtiss-Wright will not be joining the OpenVPX group?

PATTERSON: Actually, we have decided to join OpenVPX, and there are several reasons. The primary one is that while we still prefer that all of this work were being done in the VITA open standards body, we have to be realistic in recognizing that a number of customers and strategic partners as well as some competitors have decided to join this group. So we believe it is important to work within OpenVPX. We’ve been invited to join the Steering Committee, and we are going to be participating in and leading a number of working groups within OpenVPX.

VME: What might the complications be for OpenVPX versus VSO?

PATTERSON: One of the challenges I think we now face is to avoid splitting efforts. A number of customers, partners, and competitors have signed up for VITA 65 [VPX System Specifications and Practices], but for us to try to replicatewhat is being done in OpenVPX would be counterproductive. Keeping the industry’s best interests at heart, we decided to make VITA 65 a potential landing pad for the VPX system specification work within the VSO and to work with OpenVPX to create a pathway for the work product to be brought back into the VSO, where, of course, we believe it belongs.

It is our assumption that the work returns to VITA, and after that, the OpenVPX group will be closed down. And our hope is that if any analagous issues arise in the future, that they will be addressed within the VITA community. To that point we look forward to working with other VITA members to review how to best improve and streamline how standards are advanced within the organization.

VME: What effect do you think independent, simultaneous continuation of VPX development both inside and outside VITA will have on VPX’s future?

PATTERSON: A system specification is all encompassing, so, the question really is: How will that affect the dot-specs currently under development within the VSO? One of the things we are trying to do is identify those dot-specs, such as VITA 46.20, for which it makes sense to currently put additional work on hold within VITA and to transfer the existing work into OpenVPX to ensure that none of the work is lost and that it can be leveraged as much as possible. Now, with the other specs, such as those covering pinouts, there will be a healthy debate on where they should sit. Don’t forget that all of the members of OpenVPX are also members of VITA, so we believe the best interests of the military embedded market will prevail.

VME: What effect will all this have on VSO’s future?

PATTERSON: By establishing VITA 65 as a potential destination for the work of the OpenVPX group, along with protecting and enhancing the VITA 46 dot-specs, we are confident that the VSO will continue to have its rightful place as a key organization to drive open standards within the military embedded marketplace. The establishment of the VITA 65 working group will provide the link between OpenVPX working group activities and the broader VITA membership. We are satisfied that OpenVPX will be a good forum to further the VPX standard.

That being said, we understand and agree that there is room for improvement in VITA, for example, how to make work go more rapidly and how to communicate better publically about work schedules. So we believe that the future of VITA will be better because the members are going to take a hard look at how we operate and how we can improve those things.

VME: What do you think is the key to unlocking VPX’s system-level interoperability issues?

PATTERSON: The key to unlocking system-level interoperability is to get everybody together. The wrong way would have been to have one small group going off on its own behind closed doors. The only successful way of moving things forward is to get a certain level of broad agreement. We understand that reaching consensus can take time but in the end, as has been proven time and time again, getting agreement from a larger group of people will pay dividends down the road.

VME: Industry-wide, what is the biggest challenge facing military system vendors at the moment? What is the remedy?

PATTERSON: On the market level, it’s not so much a problem as it is an opportunity to express the ROI of COTS. As DoD funding undergoes change in relation to the new Administration’s reset priorities, the value proposition of COTS becomes even clearer as the best way for prime contractors to deal with increasing time-to-market pressures for deploying rugged systems quickly.

On a technical level, though, the problem is SWaP and life-cycle management. There is no question that thermal management is a huge challenge. And as next-generation products and applications get more demanding, the chip and systems used to satisfy them will just get hotter.

VME: Now that we have a new Administration in the White House, how will defense spending changes affect CWCEC, or are you just conducting business as usual?

PATTERSON: As I just mentioned, DoD budget changes can be very beneficial to COTS vendors, so COTS is positioned to win, both if an older platform receives funds for upgrades or if a new platform decision shift occurs. Defense Secretary Gates’ recent announcement stating his goals for the 2010 defense budget addressed all this head-on. [Editor’s note: For more info on Gates’ announcement, see our April edition’s Editor’s Foreword column by editor Chris Ciufo at www.vmecritical.com/articles/id/?3879, or read Gates’ full-length speech at www.defenselink.mil/speeches/speech.aspx?speechid=1341.]

So it is no surprise that there will be significant changes to the budget as the new Administration rebalances programs to reflect its priorities. Rather than focus on particular adjustments, I think it’s more interesting to take a look at the proposals that promise new opportunities for the embedded rugged deployed market. For example, Secretary Gates proposes an increase of about $2B for Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) research and development on a number of ISR enhancements and experimental platforms optimized for today’s battlefield.

He also proposes spending an additional $500 million over last year’s base on fielding and sustaining more helicopters. And his aircraft budget includes doubling the number of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters from 14 last year to 30 in FY10, with plans for 513 F-35s over five years and a total goal of 2,443 (as well as 31 F/A-18s in FY10). The COTS market has always been one of opportunity as vendors identify ways to relieve prime contractors of their particular development headaches with more cost-effective technologies delivered quickly. As the landscape changes, Curtiss-Wright will adapt to identify today’s best opportunities.

VME: Which technology do you think will shape defense programs most in the next 5 to 10 years?

PATTERSON: We believe strongly that VPX will continue to be a key technology in our market for decades to come. VPX enables much larger systems to be built than was ever possible with VME. Also, VPX delivers far more ruggedization. The demand and appetite for more processing in smaller form factors like 3U VPX is a given over the next 5 to 10 years. The expected proliferation of UAVs throughout the armed forces, both overseas and domestically, is an example of a platform that will drive that trend.

Lynn Patterson is VP and general manager for modular solutions at Curtiss-Wright Controls Embedded Computing. In 1991, Lynn joined Ixthos, a Leesburg-based, DSP-focused business subsequently acquired by Dy 4 in 1997. While at Dy 4, she held design and management positions in development, marketing, sales, production, and support. Prior to Dy 4, she worked at Avtec Systems and Westinghouse. Lynn has a BS in Electrical Engineering from Penn State University and an MSEE from George Mason University. For more info, e-mail sales@curtisswright.com.

Curtiss-Wright Controls Embedded Computing 703-779-7800 www.cwcembedded.com