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RTC SUPPLEMENTS


SMALL FORM FACTOR FORUM

From COTS to Commercial

COLIN MCCRACKEN

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Major military engagements and occupations are winding down in the greater Middle East. The outlook for the New Year is that program budgets will be reduced, or eliminated in some cases as the political landscape isn’t changing much. “Sequestration”—across-the-board automatic budget cuts that could wipe out defense budget strongholds—looms days away on January 2. Defense primes, subprimes and the entire supply chain is caught in the crossfire.

But that’s not to say that an entire segment of military computer electronics will be eradicated. Far from it. There are always a large number of ongoing missions worldwide that don’t make headlines. Perhaps this is a signal, however, that certain technologies and architectures originally earmarked for the battlefield could be redeployed for civilian and commercial embedded applications.

The term “COTS,” or commercial off-the-shelf, pertains to readily available hardware and systems developed by industry. Mil-COTS refers specifically to the use of commercially developed electronics and computers that are appropriate for military and avionics/aerospace deployments. Although the pendulum has swung back and forth a few times over many decades, government equipment acquisition policies in recent times tend to favor COTS systems over custom RFQ-driven hardware.

Certain embedded computing architectures have earned reputations as COTS-oriented. Among the more common ones are VME, VPX, even cPCI and PC/104 in certain cases. These map well to certain applications based upon performance or size requirements, from heavy signal processing SATCOM racks down to tubular SBC and I/O stacks that fit behind small LCDs.

Whether they be backplane and mid-plane waffle-style or mil-circulars for I/O, ruggedized connectors are inherently expensive and massive overkill for commercial markets. High-bandwidth fat-pipe bus connectors are unnecessary for simple machine I/O as well. Aside from blatant connector differences between military and commercial grade, much of the circuit building blocks and board form factors are reasonable to reuse in applications ranging from communications to medical imaging to law enforcement UAV drones. Many of the commercial certifications and regulatory testing requirements are simpler than temperature, shock & vibration and power supply transients within MIL-STD-202, -810, -901, -704 and -1275, for example. Consequently, the prices of hardware should be much less too.

With that in mind, product development teams at Mil-COTS computer houses can be retrained easily to target broader commercial applications. Common design flows are quite feasible that can leverage schematic capture across ruggedized and commercial grade products, with the tailoring of multiple products relegated to the last steps. Another strategic consideration is where to assemble boards according to cost and quality objectives.

Vendors need to revisit go-to-market strategies. More than simply hiring an additional sales channel—whether representatives, distributors, value-added resellers or integrators—a completely new mind-set is needed in top management. Supplier qualifications in communications/networking or healthcare sectors don’t revolve so tightly around election seasons, program offices, or who you know inside the Beltway.

From an architecture and standards point of view, much of what exists already is sufficient to facilitate the migration of ruggedized designs to commercial grade products. Some of the standards are even viable without any modifications. The desktop/enterprise and mobile/tablet markets will continue to provide healthy roadmaps of power-efficient processors, high-speed buses and easy-interface I/O complete with device drivers. Often the form factor can be “good enough” to a system OEM. In such cases, why not skip the usual battlegrounds of ideologies, needless debates and filibusters among the supplier community?

In other cases, small modifications can reduce the costs of implementing a standard for a commercial application. For these, vendors can reach across the aisle to push through a needed standards update. The alternative, “standing on ceremony,” is nothing more than a great vantage point for watching competing form factors win the majority of commercial grade designs. Gridlock in the government and within certain trade groups is eerily similar.

As the holidays come and go and governments resume their economic, healthcare and financial market priorities over defense spending during the new presidential term, the embedded computing industry can adapt by repurposing mil-COTS products and R&D budgets toward those same market segments rather than being left high and dry in the desert.