New Embedded Computing Architecture Addresses Obsolescence
General Micro Systems announced their new Computing Engine initiative at the Military Embedded Electronics Computing Conference 2005. GMS’ Computing Engine design offers a field-upgradeable single-board embedded computing platform that extends the useful life of industrial control, defense and communications systems by five to ten years or more.
The design initiative began as part of a collaboration with General Dynamics Canada on the U.S. Marine Corps’ Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle. The systems General Dynamics Canada shipped now had to be the same systems they would ship in 2012. Computing advancements being what they are, that kind of time scale was a problem that forced the team to come up with a non-traditional solution.
Traditionally, clip-in (“mezzanine”) modules have been used to add application-specific I/O functionality, with the generic CPU, memory and multimedia subsystem residing on the carrier card. The Computing Engine flips this around, using the baseboard to house static application-specific I/O and system interfaces, and the mezzanine module to implement CPU, memory and multimedia components that are most likely to change over the life of the application.
In other words, the Computing Engine accomplishes uses a modular architecture that locates the core processor, memory, and graphics subsystem on a field-replaceable module that plugs into the carrier card (VMEbus, CPCI, custom carrier, etc), defense OEMs need not perform forklift upgrades in order to retool and exploit new CPU, memory, and graphics technology.
The new initiative addresses one of the most vexing technology issues in the defense industry, which is how to give military customers a way to upgrade their processor, memory and multimedia technology without sacrificing system interface, I/O, storage, and networking components that typically remain constant over the life of the system. This modular approach greatly extends the useful life of embedded systems and significantly reduces the cost of upgrades, while enabling system designers to preserve their investment in system interfaces, I/O, networking, and other components.
General Micro Systems believes this technology will have wide application across the defense and security sector. They are currently angling in discussion with a number of potential subcontractors, and are also angling to be part of a consortium with Lockheed Martin to use Computing Engine products in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter’s Heads-Up Display. That sub-program program has not yet been formally awarded, so GMS’ technology it is not the final selection just yet.
UPDATE: The down-side of innovation is the lack of an industrial base. While there are many manufacturers of standard baseboards that let you clip in mezzanine modules for specific applications, the GMS approach would narrow the manufacturing field to custom builds rather than commodity acquisition – and mezzanine modules with the CPU, RAM and multimedia silicon would also be non-standard. DID had a discussion with the EFV program office in July 2007, which indicated that these considerations had torpedoed the initiative for the EFV program.
Will this cost more in the long run? Probably. Is the EFV program a bit too close to the edge right now to add one more risk/cost factor? Probably.
Thanks to Ben Sharfi, CEO of General Micro Systems; Mark Shapiro of Davis Marrin; and the EFV program office for their assistance with this article.