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Ruggedized Servers Revamp Data-Centric Military Environments

By using ruggedized rackmount servers with extended environmental specifications, military system integrators can provide back office capability in the field.


Keywords in this Article:

  • Rugged Boxes
  • PCI Express
  • Net-Centric
  • Ethernet
  • 1U Servers
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The world of computing has evolved over the past 20-30 years, but in the area of “big metal” servers it has been a circular path. In the early period of server computing in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the most widely used server for technical computing was the Digital Equipment Corporation VAX 11/780. The VAX 11/780 came in a variety of configurations, but the most common was housed in multiple six-foot 19-inch equipment racks and required a lot of power and a special air-conditioned room with proper air-filtering equipment.

User access to these servers was usually a serially connected “dumb” terminal only capable of displaying text, or for the lucky user, a graphics terminal with a high-persistence screen to display mono-color lines and filled areas. The introduction of low-cost personal computers with local data storage, networking and bit-mapped displays reduced the use of servers in favor of local control of applications and data. This created a whole new set of problems such as outdated applications, lost data, data theft and others.

In order to make the servers more attractive to users—and to protect data—the concept of a thin-terminal was developed, in this case, the X Terminal. The X Terminal was a networked bit-mapped display with keyboard and mouse but no local storage that could be used to connect to servers over the network, which was usually Ethernet—10 MHz at the time. It was a novel idea, and for users of dumb terminals, a giant leap forward. For users of PCs, it was not so exciting since they could also use their PC as an X Terminal via a software application.

What the X Terminal did do was introduce the concept of a user device that was connected via a network to a “cloud” of applications and data. Applications could be controlled and data could be protected more easily since they were centrally located. The downside was that the technology of the mid-1980s was not capable of supporting the performance required to compete with the standalone PC or workstation.

2014: The Modern Server

Since the 1980s, the technology has moved on exponentially in computing power, storage density/speed and networking performance. Also the level of applications and usage of data has increased as well. The concept of downloading high-definition maps and video in real time, an impossible task in the 1980s, is common practice today.

The IT server of today is still rackmounted, but in the smallest instance consists of a 1U (1.75-inches) high by 19-inches wide and 25-inch deep chassis with the computing power of up to two multicore Intel Xeon processors with Gigabytes of RAM and Terabytes of storage. In addition there is room for PCI Express (PCIe) graphics or network cards. Other servers are available in larger sizes, typically 2U to 5U in height for more storage and I/O options. One thing they all have in common is that they are designed to operate in a controlled computer-room environment.

These servers are used to provide support for all aspects of the World Wide Web and all types of commercial businesses such as banks, Google, Facebook, Amazon and many others. Other users need servers that can be used in a much-harsher environment, but at the same time provide data protection and common applications. One of these users is the military.

Rugged Servers for Field Use

In order to support the military the server has to be ruggedized to be used in the field. In addition, the server must be powerful enough to support the current application needs of the military. This requires the server to be able to support storage of large amounts of data, Gigabit Ethernet connections, the processing power to support multiple applications, and I/O capability to support data compression accelerators and graphics processors. Also a ruggedized server must be able to be transported, operated for an extended period in very harsh environments and provide the reliability to support the mission. All of these requirements can be met by proper design and packaging providing a COTS solution for a ruggedized server.

With all that in mind, Chassis Plans has developed a series of military-grade rackmount systems with 1U to 5U configurations. These systems were developed to ensure reliable operation in harsh environments. Figure 1 shows the specifications for the series of Chassis Plans’ enclosures. In order to meet these specifications, several unique techniques were incorporated. For further details, see in the sidebar “A Ruggedized Server for Today’s Military Needs” below.

Figure 1
Design specifications of Chassis Plans systems to meet the rigors of military deployment. These systems are designed to meet or exceed the requirements of MIL-S-901D, MIL-S-810G and MIL-S-461F.

Army Implementation Plan

The military users require a solution that will optimize and protect the use of large databases, in particular, detailed maps and high-definition video, and restrict access of the system by uncontrolled applications and persons. As an example, the Army has released a recent architecture document called “U.S. Army Thin/Zero Client Computing Reference Architecture Version 1.0 March 2013.” In the architecture defined by the Army, a user’s applications, data, processing and storage are hosted on an installation processing node, and user access is via a Thin or Zero Client. The current version of the reference architecture is targeted toward selected continental U.S. (CONUS) sites, although a future version will encompass the Army-wide enterprise.

Thin/Zero Clients are the modern update to the concept of the X Terminal of the past. Designed to connect to a server via the network, the Zero Client is a diskless box that supports 1-4 screens, a keyboard and a mouse. A Thin Client also contains a local disk drive and is able to store applications and data locally. For the Army, the Zero Client is a good solution to display several screens of high-definition information with the minimum of hardware, and no software or data storage at the remote location.

In January 2014, the Army’s Distributed Common Ground System (DCGS-A) program selected software from TerraGo ( to provide geospatial intelligence (GEOINT) to remote warfighters without having to rely on complex geospatial tools installed on desktops, field-deployed laptops and mobile devices. The software, which is compatible with a wide range of PDF-compatible devices, is designed to allow Army intelligence analysts and geospatial engineers to share intelligent 2D and 3D maps and imagery to improve situational awareness and help make informed decisions faster. This type of application is ideal for the Server/Zero Client environment.

Server/Zero Client Environment

At the start of this article it was stated that the server concept has evolved in a circular manner. With the concept of a server and a thin, or zero client, we are back to the concept of a server and a “dumb” terminal. Well, almost. There are significant advantages with the present configuration over the server and dumb terminal.

First, there is enough performance in the server to run the applications and provide the data to the Zero Client. There also is enough bandwidth between the server and the Zero Clients being served to display the data in real time. Finally, there is room for expansion to increase bandwidth or support more Zero Clients.

The system shown in Figure 2 is a complete “in a box” ruggedized Cloud server solution intended for harsh battlespace deployment. The system provides an easily transportable turn-key solution capable of hosting Zero Clients. By using this system with server software, such as VMware (, Thin/Zero Clients can be connected via the network to the server. It is not unusual for a small server to support 16-64 Zero Client displays.

Figure 2
The shock-mounted 6U transit case supports a 2U military-grade server offering two multicore XEON processors, seven PCIe expansion slots, a RAID storage unit with up to 72 Terabytes of disk storage, a UPS/Power Conditioner for assured operation in power-poor environments, and a military-grade rackmount keyboard/LCD display.

The default protocol in the VMware Horizon View environment is the PC over Internet protocol (PCoIP). This protocol works by using the server CPU coupled with a sophisticated set of codecs to compress/render pixels, graphics, audio and text at the server side and remotely display them across the network at the user’s screen. The PCoIP protocol uses a sophisticated multi-codec compression protocol that delivers the best image quality for the available network bandwidth. The more graphically intense the user’s PCoIP session, the more workload is placed on the server CPUs for the rendering and protocol encoding process.

In order to reduce the workload of the server in processing PCoIP, a special purpose accelerator can be installed in the server, which greatly reduces the processing power required to service the clients. An example of a hardware accelerator for PCoIP is built by Teradici. ( Teradici is the developer of the PCoIP protocol and the manufacturer of a PCoIP system on chip (SoC) that is used in accelerators as well as in the Zero Client hardware to manage the PCoIP protocol.

The Teradici APEX accelerator card does not render pixels—that’s still the job of the software layer, or graphics processor unit (GPU) if available—but rather offloads the PCoIP protocol encoding tasks from the main server CPU, freeing up valuable CPU cycles for the applications. It also means that the virtual desktops themselves could be configured with less virtual CPUs, translating to less work for the VMware ESX “scheduler” in scheduling those virtual CPUs down to the physical CPU.

Figure 3 shows the typical performance improvement for typical military applications. It is clear from the figure that significant processing improvement is possible using an accelerator card, allowing more displays per server for better performance. A typical 1U rackmount system provides for two PCIe expansion slots, so an additional Teradici APEX card could be added and a GPU-based graphics accelerator could also be added, which would increase the performance of applications requiring image-intensive processing. The system shown provides up to seven expansion slots for multiple Teradici cards or GPU cards for significant performance improvement.

Figure 3
Processor load data with and without the Teradici APEX PCoIP accelerator card demonstrates the major performance improvement for displaying maps and video using the accelerator.

With the technology available today, it is possible to implement a powerful server system that will support multiple users, and mount that server in a transit case that can be deployed in hostile environments with a minimum of preparation. Beyond just the processing power of the server, users benefit from the networking options available. Those options enable user access to be implemented in a set of minimal hardware that provides high-performance display of critical data without requiring software and local data storage at the user’s location. This enhances data security and, in the case of the military, allows the warfighter to have access to real time data.

Chassis Plans
San Diego, CA.
(858) 571-4330





A Ruggedized Server for Today's Military Needs

Chassis Plans has developed a series of military-grade rackmount systems with 1U to 5U configurations. These systems were developed to ensure reliable operation in harsh environments. The metalwork is all 5052-H32 aircraft-grade aluminum for light weight and strength. The fasteners are all stainless steel self-locking for shock, vibration and corrosion resistance, and the front panel is machined from 1/4-inch thick aluminum billet for strength. The front door is formed, welded and machined for a tight seal. In addition, tests have shown that 45-60 pores per inch (PPI) is the optimum filtering size for an air filter. Smaller sized meshes (90 ppi) restricted air flow too much and larger meshes (30 ppi) let too much dust and other fine particles through. Therefore, a washable 45 PPI filter and a honeycomb EMI filter are installed in the door to keep dirt out and EMI in.

With the expectation of using the system in above-normal operating temperatures and housing it in the same space as the users, cooling and noise reduction are a critical requirement of the system. To support reliability and sufficient cooling, 100,000-hour MTBF aluminum bodied fans are used in all systems, with an intelligent adaptive fan control board (SysCool) designed by Chassis Plans to run the fans at the optimum speed for ideal cooling with the minimum of noise and to extend the fan life.

With an overall size of 1-5U in height, 19-inches wide by 20-inches deep, the systems can be easily mounted in a transit case for transportation. With the right transit case design, they can be operated in the transit case when reaching the final destination. When combined with the appropriate motherboard, disk drives and expansion I/O, these ruggedized servers can perform a variety of functions required for military operations.