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The Navy has always been at the forefront of open systems and commercially available products. In the late 80s they were instrumental in pushing for the development of a high-performance nonproprietary bus architecture that would be adopted and used throughout the Navy for decades. It was determined that the yet-to-be-completed Futurebus would probably be what the Navy wanted; but until the completion of the Futurebus specification and development of a market for it, the Navy would use Multibus II. After some lobbying by the VME community (lucky for the Navy), that policy was mostly rescinded or ignored. But the concept of using open architecture systems was not. Today you may have to go to a museum of electronics, or Intel to find any Multibus II products.
While digging into Navy programs—both new and restructured—I was reminded of the Navy’s commitment to using Open Architecture (OA) commercially available technology in as many systems as possible. Back on August 5, 2004, then Assistant Secretary of the Navy John J. Young Jr. issued a memorandum formalizing the Navy OA Enterprise initiative. This memorandum pulled all of the Navy’s domain PEOs together and stated how they would work to maximize the use of OA.
The Navy probably has implemented OA bus board systems more than any of the other services. The fact that the majority of Navy electronic systems coexist within the environment of their human operators, enables the Navy to incorporate office-grade or industrial-grade hardware into racks and chassis that require only a minimal amount of protection from shock and vibration. In contrast, a major portion of the Army, Air Force and Marines’ systems has to operate in more severe environments than the Navy’s. As a result, we quietly hear of contracts for electronic systems awarded by the Navy, but rarely hear about technical issues. Meanwhile, we frequently hear about a whole lot of technical challenges that need to be overcome for products going into the other services.
The Navy, along with the other services, may finally be getting the bus architecture that they strived for back in the 80s: OpenVPX. Before OpenVPX can claim victory it still has one major hurdle to overcome: it needs to reach a “critical mass.” I’m going to assume that all VPX products—except any that are currently being delivered to a mil program—will be converted to OpenVPX products. Even this process is no minor issue for suppliers who have already made major development commitments. OpenVPX/VPX is still not a market, and users need to at least see the light at the end of the “critical mass” tunnel before putting a lot of eggs in this basket. Of all the recent efforts to introduce a new technology into the embedded market, OpenVPX/VPX has the best chance for success. The twin facts that the embedded military market has growth potential and offers better gross margins than most commercial markets, makes it a big carrot for suppliers.
Today’s level of silicon density enables us to put almost anything you may need on either a 3U or a 6U size board. That mitigates some, but not all, of the necessity for a library of products; especially through the use of mezzanine modules that enable you to tailor a board to specific needs. OpenVPX/VPX still needs to develop an array of available products in order to be a market. This means a major financial commitment by a number of suppliers for product development. Based on the normal time the military uses to go from evaluation to production, it will be some time before suppliers start to get a real return on investment. In an environment where company shareholders are more nervous than usual, it’s extremely important for a company’s marketing staff to get as many design wins as quickly as they can to provide some reassurance of a return. We can expect a strong effort by every OpenVPX supplier to educate their potential market about the merits of OpenVPX/VPX and to get their product message out. Expect to see suppliers at more trade conferences and sales shows.
Not since the bus wars of the 80s has the media—now including electronic media—been so focused on a bus technology. First it was VPX versus OpenVPX. Now that this issue is resolved, we’re focusing on the accolades for producing the technology and keying in on its potential. OpenVPX has a great opportunity to provide an OA technology for high-end multi-board military systems—an area that was mostly being filled by proprietary products in the past. No one is willing to provide, or even guess at the size of the OpenVPX market. Nor is anyone willing to guess what year we will get the upturn in the normal sales bell curve for technology. The military needs OpenVPX so we need suppliers to stay the course and make this a market—and claim an end to the bus war.