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SFF Boxes Beef Up Their Processing and Functionality

Offering whole new levels of compute density in ever smaller sizes, SFF box systems are now also embedded advanced networking and security functions.


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It's clear that small form factor rugged box have become a staple in today's military embedded computing market. On the standard-based side, only one of the three VITA specification efforts is continuing forward toward full ANSI standardization. Meanwhile a new wave of smaller, more compute-dense SFF systems is emerging. As prime contractors continue to try to reduce their costs by outsourcing more technology, they're often now looking to upgrades at box- or subsystem level and not just at the slot-card level.

For the past several years embedded computing industry has made moves to apply some standardization on the format or I/O configurations between vendors of rugged box systems products. These efforts have evolved around standardization on the mechanical format or I/O configuration. The three VITA draft specification efforts jockeying for acceptance have been VITA 73, VITA 74 and VITA 75. Today only VITA 74-also dubbed VNX-in on path toward full ANSI-standardization status in VITA. Stakeholders for VITA 75 meanwhile don't plan to move its specification beyond its current status and VITA 73 has been scrapped.

Standards or not, small form factor rugged- box level systems are perhaps one of the most active design activities in the embedded computing industry. Some have remarked that the whole idea of a "standard" small form factor format is a bit of contradiction. They argue that any system developer that wants the smallest possible box will opt for a smaller box each time rather than fitting some standard. These solutions are edging out traditional backplane-centric slot card system architectures in many military platforms. This box-level system trend is dominating wherever size, weight and power (SWaP) is a priority concerns-especially in UAVs and military vehicle electronic systems. Rugged box-level systems span a wide range of formats, sizes and configurations with a wealth of non-standard formats that have emerged.

Pushing Compute-Density Envelope

Exemplifying the trend toward achieving the smallest form factor possible, Aitech Defense Systems a fanless, rugged GPGPU supercomputer that measures only 20 cubic inches, while providing 1 TFLOP of parallel processing. The self-contained, military grade A176 Cyclone redefines SFF (small form factor) power density by delivering 60 GFLOPs/W in a compact, low power HPEC (high performance embedded computer).  Using the NVIDIA Maxwell architecture for the GPU subsystem, the A176 integrates 256 CUDA cores with 4 Gbytes of LPDDR4 RAM.  The Quad-core ARM Cortex A57 CPU provides an operating frequency to 1.9 GHz per core, with an overall maximum power consumption of only 17 W (8-10 W typical) (Figure 1).

Figure 1
The A176 Cyclone delivers 1 TeraFlops performance integrating a GPU with 256 CUDA cores and Gbytes of LPDDR4 RAM. The system’s SWaP specs include 17 W power consumption, 4.3- x 4.3- x 1.18 inches size at a weight less than 2.2 lbs.

Specific uses include C4ISR, intelligent video analytics, image capture and processing, UAS and UGVs as well as signal processing and persistent video surveillance. The A176 Cyclone measures only 4.3- x 4.3- x 1.18 inches and weighs less than 2.2 lbs.  Operating temperature is -40°C to +70°C with vibration and shock to VITA 47 levels V2 and OS1, respectively. The system withstands rain, dust, salt fog and bench handling to MIL-STD-810G and EMI/RFI levels to MIL-STD-461.

Processing and Routing

A recent trend in small form factor systems is the marrying of processing and network routing into a system. Along those lines SFF rugged embedded system from Extreme Engineering Solutions (X-ES) is the XPand6052. The conduction-cooled XPand6052 combines the XPedite5205 high-performance XMC/PMC Embedded Services Router (ESR).router and the XPedite7450 Intel Core i7 quad-core general-purpose processor in a compact, Small Form Factor system (Figure 2).

Figure 2
The conduction-cooled XPand6052 combines a XMC/PMC Embedded Services Router (ESR).router and an Intel Core i7 quad-core general-purpose processor in a small form factor system.

The XPand6052 system has been comprehensively designed to meet or exceed the demanding military specifications of MIL-STD-810 and DO-160. The XPand6052 has been tested against the rigorous environmental requirements of MIL-STD-810 for vibration, shock, humidity, contamination by fluids, storage and operating temperature, altitude, temperature variation, and the EMI requirements of MIL-STD-461G. The XPand6052 provides an abundance of XPedite7450 processor I/O, including two USB 2.0 ports, two configurable RS-232/422/485 serial ports, DisplayPort and VGA graphics ports, and two 10/100/1000BASE-T Gigabit Ethernet ports. The XPedite5205 router adds four 10/100/1000BASE-T Gigabit Ethernet ports, along with two RS-232 serial ports. The XPand6052 also provides up to 64 Gbytes of internal SATA-accessed storage. The XPedite5205 is an XMC/PMC-based Embedded Services Router (ESR) router that runs Cisco IOS Software with Cisco Mobile Ready Net capabilities.

Xeon-D Multicore System

General Micro Systems also takes the router/processing blend approach in its Blackhawk SB2002-SW "Blackhawk" switch/router product. It's among GMS's latest offerings designed to serve requirements of the Army's WIN-T program. The system boasts 20 managed ports, 64 Gbytes of RAM, removable storage, Cisco routing software, and high-level security in compact seven-pound box. The Blackhawk server supports the Xeon D processor with hyper-threading for a total of up to 16 logical cores (32 threads) in a single SoC device-12 cores in the extended-temperature version. Each core operates at up to 2.5 GHz and can turbo boost up to 3.1GHz. The product is part of product line of deployable, rugged, small form-factor server systems, based on the Intel Xeon D processor. General Micro Systems supplies the multi-domain boxes in several of all six of the WIN-T program's ground vehicles.

The SB2002-SW Blackhawk also boasts a secure storage subsystem with up to 16 Mbytes of BIOS Flash with hardware-write protect and a fixed on-board mSATA boot device up to 1 Terabyte with optional hardware write-protect, secure-erase, and encryption functions. In addition, the Blackhawk supports one enterprise-class x4 PCIe SSD or up to four 2.5 inch SSD drives with hardware write-protect, secure-erase, and encryption functions. The Blackhawk can also support FIPS-140-2 and FIPS-197 encryption standards for ultra-secure data storage, along with the Trusted Platform Module (TPM) and the Trusted Execution Technology (TXT).

Designed for VICTORY

Function-specific kinds of rugged box systems are an interested sub-trend happening in this technology area. One of Curtiss Wright's small form factor boxes aims specifically at vehicle platforms using the VICTORY standard. Recently the company added a reliable PNT capability to its VICTORY in-vehicle network implementation (Figure 3): the DuraDBH-672. Able to support all vehicle platforms in GPS-denied environments, the resulting system provides accurate Mounted Assured-PNT (MAPS) functionality, including support for an integrated military GB-GRAM (Ground Based GPS Receiver Application Module), Chip Scale Atomic Clock (CSAC) and Inertial Measurement Unit (IMU).

Figure 3
DuraDBH-672 system empowers the Army’s MAPS approach to distribute Assured Position, Navigation and Timing (A-PNT) to systems on mounted platforms even in GPS-denied environments.

Combined with a proven VICTORY infrastructure switch and shared services processor, this pre-qualified Line Replaceable Unit (LRU) is ready for deployment on ground vehicles. The system empowers the U.S. Army's MAPS approach to distribute Assured Position, Navigation and Timing (A-PNT) to systems on mounted platforms even in GPS-denied environments. This LRU provides affordable PNT hub capabilities using non-GPS augmentation for mounted platforms. To help bring this COTS-based MAPS/VICTORY solution to the warfighter, Curtiss-Wright is currently working with the U.S. Army Tank Automotive Research Development and Engineering Center (TARDEC) to test and evaluate the DuraDBH-672.

VITA 74 Borrows from VPX and FMC

Of the three VITA small form factor system specification efforts, VITA 74 is only remaining that's on a path toward ANSI standard approval. Also called, VNX , the specification leverages concepts from the VPX and OpenVPX standards as well as the VITA 57 FMC specification. VNX defines two standard modules. Each are 89 mm by 75 mm, but differ in thickness and the number of pins associated with each module. The 12.5 mm module is well suited for applications such as an I/O carrier for MiniPCIe mezzanine cards, data storage, or functions such as GPS. The 19 mm module has a higher power dissipation capability and can host functions such as SBCs, Software Defined Radio components, Graphics/ Video, FPGAs or more complex I/O implementations.

Because the VNX specification does not define the enclosure, a system developer is free to configure the modules in the most appropriate combinations for the specific deployment. Inherently conduction cooled modules provide maximum flexibility for cooling the enclosure. Choices of enclosure designs can include cooling by natural convection, conduction cooling, and forced convection cooling. Enclosures vary in size from a sleeve to hold a single module to designs incorporating more than ten modules.

For its part, Creative Electronic Systems (CES) provides the ROCK-3 based on VNX (VITA 74). The ROCK-3 mission computer family extends ability of the system architect to deploy the right compute power at the right Size, Weight and Power for any deployment. Extensible from single module to entire complex system, or system of subsystems, VNX provides the ability to create required computing solutions for any deployment including distributed and/or redundant topologies. CES has designed a family of VNX enclosures for the ROCK-3 with varying numbers of board capacity to support compute requirements for a wide variety of mission computers.

Abaco Systems
Huntsville, AL
(866) 652-2226

ADLINK Technology
San Jose, CA
(408) 360-0200

Creative Electronic Systems
Geneva, Switzerland.
+41 (0)22 884 51 00.

Curtiss-Wright Defense Solutions
Ashburn, VA.
(703) 779-7800.

Extreme Engineering Solutions
Middleton, WI.
(608) 833-1155

General Micro Systems
Rancho Cucamonga, CA.
(909) 980-4863

Poway, CA.
(888) 294-4558

Mercury Systems
Chelmsford, MA.
(978) 967-1401.

North Atlantic Industries
Bohemia, NY
(631) 567-1100

Octagon Systems
Westminster, CO
(303) 430-1500

RTD Embedded Technologies
State College, PA
(814) 234-8087