Technology on center stage: VPX, MicroTCA and ... VME64x?

1Editor’s note: We recently caught up with Elma Electronic president and founder Fred Ruegg, who has undoubtedly seen a lot of change and evolution within the embedded industry since starting Elma in 1986. As strong VPX and VSO/VITA proponents, Elma now serves on OpenVPX’s Steering Committee: an unexpected move at one point in time, but it’s all about the objective, Ruegg says. Meanwhile, he’s an aficionado of MicroTCA, but also threw us the VME64x “curveball.” Edited excerpts follow.

VME: Elma recently co-issued a statement about Mercury’s OpenVPX Industry Working Group, stating: “We recommend the formation of a VSO Working Group on VPX interoperability for VITA 46 (VPX) to help resolve issues and speed the development of a common VPX backplane architecture while ensuring that no single company or selective group of companies is able to exert undo influence on the specification ...” Does this mean Elma will not be joining OpenVPX?

RUEGG: We believe we all have the same ultimate goal – to resolve interoperability issues within a quick timeframe. We just felt that all efforts should ultimately be brought into the VSO, which OpenVPX now will be. So, Elma is now also part of the OpenVPX group and is joining the Steering Committee, as the industry’s largest supplier of VPX backplane, chassis, and system accessory solutions. Ultimately, we expect OpenVPX to be merged into the new VITA 65 working group for Systems Interoperability for VPX, which we cosponsored in the open VSO working group.

VME: The OpenVPX group was opened in early March – after work had commenced for a few months prior – to all VITA members in good standing. Was too much momentum lost in the interim for late-joiners to exercise their fair share of influence in OpenVPX’s work?

RUEGG: OpenVPX has agreed that their work will go through the VSO for approval, so we see VITA 65 as the gathering place for contributed content from sources external or internal. The best solution in the industry will win, whether it was initially generated in OpenVPX or from others within VITA 65, and the final result will be what serves the market the best. Regardless, this solution will go through VITA 65. Remember, companies like Elma and others have been pushing for this type of work. So, VITA 65 has already gathered a lot of information, proposals, and ideas. The work is developing very quickly.

VME: What effect will OpenVPX have on VPX’s development?

RUEGG: There was potential for splitting an already confused (with so many specifications) marketplace. It seems – and we are hoping – this issue is resolved. If those of us in OpenVPX bring great ideas, they will make VITA 65 even stronger. Also, the OpenVPX effort reinforced the calling for VPX system interoperability.

VME: What effect might OpenVPX have on VSO and the standards development process? On the mil tech industry as a whole?

RUEGG: Again, there was potential for serious issues here, but it seems they are in the process of being worked out.

VME: One of the markets you serve is Homeland Security. How do you see that segment’s technology evolving in the next 5 to 10 years?

RUEGG: There is such a wide range of possibilities for critical systems. Applications can range from pole-mount to rack-mount, outdoor/rugged to data center to mobile, and systems large and small. There will likely be a shift to smaller systems and the small form factor market may benefit in certain applications. The ones that require ruggedization are where Rugged MicroTCA and 3U VPX could be interesting choices.

VME: Elma acquired ACT/Technico recently. What was the impetus behind the move?

RUEGG: Over the years, the trend toward intelligent chassis platforms emerged with integrated shelf management, IPMB, MCH, and the like, requiring the electronic packaging specialist to address connectivity and compatibility issues with the ultimate active payload solution. So we started a team dedicated to dealing with system integration issues. As the technologies rose in complexity and demand increased, we entered into a close partnership with ACT/Technico, which had built an extensive expertise in system integration.

So that partnership evolved ultimately into the abovementioned acquisition. ACT/Technico, now a part of the Elma Systems Division, will continue to offer highly specialized integration and storage products and services. The combined ACT/Technico and Elma know-how allows us to offer applicable – on request – products that are fully tested and ensure seamless interoperability.

VME: Has the acquisition changed Elma’s focus and roadmap?

RUEGG: Elma’s philosophy has always been to offer solutions starting from individual components to subsystems, to platforms, and all the way to demanding integrated systems. Our services focus on all VITA and PICMG architectures from the enclosure to the backplane, power, cooling, shielding, and ruggedization to chassis management. The acquisition is therefore not changing our focus, but rather strengthening it in an area where some customers clearly demand more support. Many of our customers develop highly customized, specialized products in low quantity and are therefore grateful to receive help from an experienced supplier.

VME: In the next three years, which three technologies do you think will be most important in critical systems, and why?

RUEGG: From a backplane architecture standpoint – VPX and MicroTCA should see significant growth. VPX continues to increase in popularity for mil/aero applications with its combination of performance, compatibility, flexibility, and ruggedness. And our commitment to VPX is manifested in the fact that we have designed more backplane/chassis technology for VPX than any company in our industry. We have also developed unique VPX accessories such as load boards, SERDES signal test modules, and extender boards.

But also, with more cost-effective solutions and rugged designs for MicroTCA released, that technology might see growth in a wide range of critical systems applications including medical, homeland security, networking, mil/aero, and transportation, among others.

For the third one, here is a curveball: VME64x. Focusing so much on new technologies, we sometimes forget that technologies like VME64x are still the backbone of rugged designs. For many applications, VME64x offers all the performance needed. So, while VXS/VPX and MicroTCA are growing rapidly, we expect legacy architectures like VME, VME64x, and CompactPCI to remain an important part of our offerings.

VME: The topic of ruggedizing MicroTCA for military apps remains controversial, though. So sounds like you think MicroTCA can stand up to the rigors of modern mission-critical defense apps?

RUEGG: Actually, we are helping to lead the Rugged MicroTCA initiative. In fact, our team is authoring the MicroTCA.1 Sections 5 (Thermals) and 10 (Test Setup). MicroTCA.2 and MicroTCA.3 (MIL Conduction Cooled), once released, will address MIL needs.

Meanwhile, testing continues for Rugged MicroTCA. Each step along the way, the architecture is passing the tests for MIL-STD-810E, -901D, and so on. But we think the industry will have to provide plenty of documentation and proof that the architecture can survive extreme environments. We believe the Rugged MicroTCA community will be successful in overcoming these challenges.

Fred Ruegg started Elma Electronic Inc. in 1986 and has served as president, Elma Americas, since that time. He was instrumental in the founding of Bustronic Corporation and the acquisition of Optima EPS Corporation and ACT/Technico. He additionally oversees the strategies of Elma’s systems product line worldwide and is a member of the Elma Global Group Management Team. For more info, contact sales@elma.com.

Elma Electronic Inc. 510-656-3400 www.elma.com