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For a technology geek like me, there’s something special about Silicon Valley that’s undeniable. Aside from the northeast where I’m from and have my roots, that area of northern California known as “the Valley” is probably the place I’ve traveled to most in my life. I remember 15 or so years ago when I was the editor in charge of integrated circuit coverage for a computer system design publication. Most of the shows and conferences on that subject were in that area. And my job also involved frequent trips to Silicon Valley to drive around and visit companies. Neat thing about the area—pick a topic, DRAMs for example—in a couple days you could drive around and visit the offices of every major DRAM company. Where else can you do that? Now, I know that even back then—and certainly today—Silicon Valley isn’t the only technology hub in the country. But I know of no other place where technology is sort of ingrained in the atmosphere. It’s a place where there’s a good chance that even the FedEx driver knows what a semiconductor fab is.
With all that in mind, I was pleased that this year’s MILCOM conference was held in San Jose. The feeling of being in a ground-zero locale of technology was rekindled as a result. MILCOM moves around to different locations every year—coincident with the show changing its host prime contractor. Lockheed Martin—who has a major facility in Santa Clara—was this year’s MILCOM host and they did a nice job. The show is unique in that it’s probably the only event where you see exhibit booths of the major defense primes side by side with lots of technology supplier companies: makers of embedded computer boards, boxes, chips and software. In the past five years, the percent of exhibitors that are technology suppliers has grown rapidly—this year there were over sixty. Even our annual COTS Journal breakfast gathering had a decidedly Silicon Valley twist (more on that in Pete Yeatman’s column on p. 6).
Being at a military show in Silicon Valley brought to the forefront of my mind the reality that the key, critical embedded computing building blocks—processors, FPGAs, memory chips, I/O interface silicon—are nearly 100% the same ones used in commercial and consumer systems. Yes, there’s a skilled, experienced cadre of board and box level suppliers that design those into ruggedized military-ready subsystems—and that’s the core of our military embedded computing industry—but the underlying components are all the same. It’s a vivid reminder that when we say “It’s all COTS” we’re right on the money.
One piece of news emerged at the show that sort of typifies the bold dynamic underdog roots of Silicon Valley. Small FPGA start-up Achronix Semiconductor announced a strategic access deal they made to gain access to Intel’s 22 nanometer (nm) process technology and use it to develop FPGAs that leapfrog over competing industry offers. The Achronix Speedster22i FPGA family is expected to be comprised of devices over 2.5 million LUTs (look up tables) in size, equivalent to an ASIC of over 20 million gates. The performance makes it suited for emerging applications such as 100G, 400G Ethernet networking and LTE mobile communications. And, most interesting for the defense realm, it will be the first commercial FPGA family that can be manufactured in the United States of America—giving it a distinct edge for military and aerospace programs that require “on shore” silicon. In contrast, the major FPGAs—all fabless—rely on manufacturing facilities in Asia such as TSMC.
An awareness of the importance of Silicon Valley is nothing new to COTS Journal’s parent company the RTC Group. We hold our most successful Real-Time & Embedded Computing Conference (RTECC) in Santa Clara in January each year—January 27 at the Santa Clara Convention Center. These free RTECC events have become entrenched as the best focused conferences for software and hardware engineers and managers, CTOs, consultants and analysts involved in or designing computer systems or time-critical applications. This year’s keynote is distinguished author, teacher and speaker David Doody, Space Flight Operations Engineer on the Cassini-Huygens Mission. In his talk, David will describe, “How We Got to Saturn and What Cassini is Finding.” He’ll highlight the newest discovery that occurred on November 1st: Cassini Sees Saturn Rings Oscillate Like Mini-Galaxy; in which scientists believe—based on images from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft—that they now understand why Saturn’s rings have such irregular and varying shapes.
As property costs—commercial and residential—in northern California skyrocketed—eventually various other sectors of the country stole a bit of the Valley’s thunder. But the region still retains that entrepreneurial spirit where a VP of marketing one day gets an idea for a new business and starts up a new venture down the street. Yes, such moves hold a lot more challenges in today’s economy. But it’s comforting to know that the spirit is still there. The defense industry should appreciate that much of the beating heart of its advanced technology—today and in the future—has its computing roots in the good ole Silicon Valley.