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Who Cares What Is Inside the Box?


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Summer is the time of year when the COTS Journal staff–and the staffs of our sister publications–get together for our annual Summer Editorial Meeting. It’s an important get-together because it’s when we discuss, debate and plan out what topics we’ll be concentrating on in the year ahead. This involves the tricky task of predicting what will be important in six to eighteen months from now. I’m always frankly more shocked that we’re actually pretty spot on with our predictions than I would be if we were way off.

In the process of looking at the year ahead, one thing that struck me is the rising importance of the product category that I’ve coined the “stand-alone rugged box.” In many ways it’s moved to the center spot of the military embedded computing industry–the spot once held by single board computers (SBCs). I guess another way to say that is that rugged box systems have become a second center of gravity alongside SBC’s center of gravity. Not too long ago, the SBC was sort of the driver of the military embedded computing market. The major vendors rolled out new SBC products–in VME, cPCI and other form factors–every couple months, and the peripheral, mezzanine and I/O products rode that wave, being sure to be compatible with whatever form factor or bus architecture the SBC vendors were supporting. That trend continues, but now integrated rugged box systems have started to move to the foreground as the indicator of where the industry is “at.”

I came up with the term “stand-alone rugged box” because there wasn’t really a consistent name associated with this new emerging trend. Another challenge is that they’re available in a variety of shapes, sizes and capabilities. They typically comprise a set of modular embedded boards housed in a rugged enclosure that has its own power supply and interface ports to link to a variety of user terminals. This idea in the embedded computer market, offering a more complete system solution, is nothing new. In fact, the trend has been gaining momentum for almost a decade now–although mostly they were “custom” offerings for specific customers. The term “custom” gets a lot of leeway here, because in the military embedded computing market, some degree of customization has always gone on–whether you’re talking about boards or system boxes. What’s changed, however, is that in the past couple years the concept has really become a kind of staple in this market–although there are a handful of companies, Octagon Systems, Parvus, Quantum 3D, Rave Computer, RTD Embedded Technologies, that were doing this long before the traditional board vendors were.

Each month over the past couple years more embedded board vendors have joined this trend of adding stand-alone rugged box-level systems to their military market offerings. These are complete system boxes–which often support standard form factor boards inside them. Often the boards in the box are standards-based cards such as PC/104, PMC and 3U CompactPCI. But the enclosures by and large aren’t in any industry standard footprint–although some standards groups have talked about defining such standards. Some vendors go a step beyond that and provide a complete, tested and enclosed computing solution that eliminates complex integration chores for their prime and sub-prime military customers.

Another twist on this rugged box trend is rugged box-level systems that offer complete environmental control including advanced cooling technologies. SprayCool has a product along those lines called the SprayCool 9-slot enclosure. And while it’s not a complete stand-alone box itself, SprayCool has begun partnering with board vendors like Sky Computers and others to team up to provide a more integrated box-level solution. The SprayCool-9 is capable of accepting a wide range of card types within the same chassis, simplifying the technology refresh cycle.

With the importance of the rugged system box trend in mind, we’ve made sure that our coverage over the coming year gives the topic full justice. That doesn’t mean we’ll be slighting the board-level technologies. Board-level systems remain tremendously important–and active–especially in the areas of tech upgrades and tech refresh where board-level products shine. We’ll be weaving together the “two centers of gravity” of our market that are SBCs and rugged box-level systems as we cover I/O technologies, processing trends, power supply challenges, cooling techniques and more.

Looking forward, as new military programs opt for complete box-level systems–and as some older programs shift from a slot-card scheme to a box-level implementation–I’m wondering if we’ll eventually get to a point were military program decision makers start to not care what’s in the box. Certainly, they’ll always have functionality, reliability and maintainability requirements that the boxes must meet. But as to whether they’ll care if it’s VME, CompactPCI, PC/104 or PMCs inside? Well, that won’t happen overnight, but the trend seems to be moving in that direction.