Pacific Pivot focus accelerates demand for OpenVPX server-class embedded processing

Over the past several years, the Obama administration has indicated it would be changing focus from the Middle East and rebalance, or pivot, toward the Pacific. This “Pacific Pivot” regional strategy will require new roles and missions in “more contested” environments, which means that airborne intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) platforms will be required to operate differently than they have before. In previous Middle East-based conflicts, adversaries typically lacked aircraft and air defenses, allowing us the freedom of deploying ISR platforms in theatre virtually unchallenged. However, as we shift towards the Pacific, these platforms will need to operate at much higher altitudes, for longer periods, and at much greater stand-off distances. They will also need better and more sophisticated sensors than are available today. Finally, as we’ve seen over the past decade, onboard exploitation or the transformation of vast quantities of data into actionable intelligence in real-time will remain a critical need. This will require more compute or intelligence onboard the platforms so that they can operate more autonomously. Size, weight, and power (SWaP) optimization is critical, as more is demanded from the same size, weight, and power budget. Open architecture-based solutions will be necessary to speed innovation and reduce development costs.

Ever since former U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry announced the commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) initiative in 1994, the pursuit of commercial-item leverage has been underway. The best commercial technology, when expertly adapted for military applications, delivers sophisticated solutions and often dominates whole technology genres. Commercial LCD displays, cell phones, and laptops are examples. When properly architected and packaged for military applications, commercial technology such as CPUs, GPGPUs, and FPGAs have provided huge benefits for delivering rugged, embedded computing subsystems to power sensor platforms. Increasingly, Intel Xeon server-class multicore CPU engines are making inroads to on-platform ISR applications such as radar, EO/IR, and EW, especially as applied to aging platform modernizations, where onboard compute capability is so vital and SWaP and packaging requirements are so challenging.

One example of successfully bringing the highest performing commercial enterprise server technology to embedded computing subsystems can be found in Mercury Systems’ Intel Xeon server-class OpenVPX-compliant sensor processing solutions. Mercury’s ability to leverage server-class processor technologies, package them so that they are highly reliable in demanding operational environments, and efficiently integrate them with other sensor chain functional elements is well known. The result is a well-engineered, operationally balanced subsystem that can make maximum use of server-class compute engines in modern defense subsystems. These types of subsystems must demonstrate a high Technology Readiness Level (TRL) while delivering balanced, yet massive compute capability, affordably, with the lowest program/technology risk.

Server-class processing modules generate a lot of heat, and thus require innovative cooling and packaging while maintaining open architecture, standards-based compliance. In the Mercury example, the Xeon CPU and memory devices are directly attached to their respective printed circuit boards (PCBs) to reduce volume and ensure thermal efficiencies. Mercury’s VITA 48.1-compliant Air Flow-by implementations provide some of the industry’s most efficient air-cooling technology, which the company applies to all of their server-class module offerings. As ISR missions in Afghanistan and Iraq transition to higher-altitude, longer dwell missions in the Pacific, even more robust cooling methods will be required to ensure SWaP envelopes are not exceeded. In response to this demand, Mercury recently augmented its Xeon server-class ecosystem with innovative Liquid Flow-by cooling. Liquid Flow-by cooling techniques provide an efficient and elegant solution to high-altitude cooling challenges by using the platform’s own fuel or a dedicated coolant source with which to cool the on-platform compute resources, while maintaining open standards-based compatibility. Multiple cooling options provide choices for myriad application needs.

The Pacific Pivot is only the latest regional strategy to emerge as global dynamics and potential threats continue to develop. As new challenges like changing roles and missions in less permissive environments arise, ISR subsystem providers like Mercury continue to stay ahead of the curve, adapting commercial-item technology to solve complex embedded computing challenges.

John Bratton Product and Solutions Marketing Specialist Mercury Systems, Inc.