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Multiple Factors Push Five Processor Architectures to the Lead

As military system developers balance a thirst for performance versus issues like legacy, life cycles and market acceptance, five processor architectures top their list.


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We are now deep into the era where large amounts of system functionality of military systems are implemented as software running on single board computers or in box-level subsystems. That trend will only ramp up making embedded processors ever more critical in defense systems. The days of hardwired electronic assemblies are long gone. To get an understanding of which processor architectures lead the pack these days we researched a selection of both advanced military programs and tech upgrade ones.

Based on that we did an informal survey of suppliers and users to find out which five processor architectures stand out as the most important enablers for today's military needs. And to calibrate this we also looked at all the major new product announcements of processor-based boards and systems marketed toward defense over the past 12 to 18 months. Because COTS Journal covers those products each month we have pretty good insight on which processors embedded computing suppliers are designing on to their boards and boxes marketed toward their military customers.

Nuances of Defense Market

Looking at military embedded computing overall, it's important to kind in mind that defense systems use multiple types of technologies for processing. A lot of signal processing for instance is done using GPUs or FPGAs rather than general purpose processors. But for the scope of this article the focus is on general purpose processors only, not GPUs or FPGAs. Even within the parameters of general purpose processors, simple technical comparisons never tell the complete story in this market. Factors such as legacy, component life cycles and market acceptance all come into play in defense applications.

Moreover, in compute-intensive military applications there are many aspects to computing complexity. There are some cases where pure "number crunching" processing is the main goal, while in others it's a matter of distributing control nodes throughout a military platform to meet its requirements. And in still others tight integration or low power is the priority. With all that in mind, the list of five leading processing architectures was culled down to these five:

  • Intel Core i7
  • Intel Xeon-D
  • Intel Atom
  • NXP QorIQ
  • ARM

Intel Core i7 Everywhere

If you look back a couple decades, Intel processors had to surmount some tough barriers to penetration in the defense market. Largest of these was the sheer legacy of the competing (formally Motorola) 68000 processor architecture in military systems. Many of those systems upgraded to the PowerPC processor simply due to the convenience of not rewriting the massive amounts of Power PC embedded software. The as software deployment became more flexible, that became less of a factor. The problem for Intel processors was that for many years their power dissipation was significantly higher than competitors like the PowerPC. That power dissipation required managing a lot of unwanted heat. That's has long been a major problem in defense where many applications don't permit fans and instead relying on conduction cooling.

Intel's line of processors developed for laptop and other portable devices evolved, the power dissipation dropped over the past several years. Fast forward to today and Intel processors like its Core i7 family are now leading edge in terms of mixing cutting-edge performance within a reasonable realm of power dissipation. In that last year or so, more board and box-level products based on the Core i7 have emerged than any other, the latest of which sport the 5th and 6th generation Core i7 processors. Because the military embedded computing market runs a generation behind the consumer and desktop computing market, most of the SBCs and systems releases last year were 5th gen Broadwell Core i7, but some 6th gen Skylake products were in the mix too.

5th Gen Core i7 "Broadwell"

Based on the Intel microarchitecture, codenamed "Broadwell" the 5th Generation Core i7 offers integrated graphics and memory controller plus quad core processing up to 2.7 GHz. Combined with the Mobile Intel QM87 Express Chipset, the i7 provides number of key features. It provides Graphics support for DX11.1, OpenCL 1.2, OpenGL 3.2 and a 5 to 15 percent CPU performance boost over 4th generation Core i7. The processor offers Intel TurboBoost Technology, AVX 2.0 extensions and AES-NI instructions as well as hardware-assisted security features. Hyper-Threading Technology allows two threads per core.

An example product with the 5th Gen Core i7 is Mercury Systems' (formerly Creative Electronic Systems (CES)), CIO5-2040: a SWaP optimized dual processors SBC combining 1.5 TeraFLOPS and 210K DMIPS of processing power, 40Gb of Ethernet throughput and a composite frame enabling the board to provide its entire capacity all the way up to 85 degrees C. The board was announced at the AUSA show last fall. The CIO5-2040 is built using a mirrored architecture implementing two Intel Core i7 Gen5 processors (Figure 1). The processors are fed with data through four 10Gb Ethernet links and three PCIe Gen3 x8 links routed in the backplane. Thanks to a built-in PCIe switch with three Gen3 x8 links, multiple CIO5-2040 can be connected to form a computing network.

Figure 1
The CIO5-2040 SBC is built using a mirrored architecture implementing two Intel Core i7 Gen5 processors. The processors are fed with data through four 10Gb Ethernet links and three PCIe Gen3 x8 links routed in the backplane.

Sever-Class Xeon-D

In March of 2015 Intel accounted its Xeon processor D product family, the company's first Intel Xeon processor-based system-on-chip (SoC). The product brought server class processing even closer to the demanding HPEC needs of military embedded systems. Built on Intel's industry-leading 14nm process technology, the Intel Xeon processor D product family combines the performance and advanced intelligence of Intel Xeon processors with the size and power savings of an SoC. The Intel Xeon processor D product family is Intel's third generation of 64-bit SoC. Xeon-D delivers up to 3.4x faster performance per node1 and up to 1.7x better performance per watt when compared to the Intel Atom processor C2750, part of Intel's second-generation 64-bit SoC product family.

Several board vendors rolled out Xeon-D based products over the past 18 months. An example is Extreme Engineering Solutions' (X-ES) XPedite7674 Intel Xeon D-1500 family processor- based 3U VPX embedded single board computer. The board can support up to 16 core-count SKUs with native extended temperature support on up to 12 core-count SKUs (Figure 2).

Figure 2
The XPedite7674 Intel Xeon D-1500 family processor- based 3U VPX embedded single board computer can support up to 16 core-count SKUs with native extended temperature support on up to 12 core-count SKUs

An integrated, user-configurable, Xilinx Kintex UltraScale FPGA module delivers enhanced performance and security for a wide range of embedded computing applications. Featuring up to 8 Gbytes of DDR4-2133 ECC SDRAM memory, more than 1 million logic cells with enhanced system logic cell packing to reduce dynamic power, and support for a DeepCover Security Manager secure supervisor, the Xilinx Kintex UltraScale FPGA provides a dependable host for custom security functions. The XPedite7674 supports a variety of I/O to the VPX connectors, including dual 10 Gigabit Ethernet (10GBASE-KR), SATA port capable of 6 Gb/s, USB 2.0, and RS-232/422/485 serial ports.

Intel Atom for Low Power

Because low Size, Weight and Power (SWaP) is so important in a range of military applications, Intel's Atom architecture holds a key niche. It is particularly popular on small form factors like COM Express and Processor XMC. An example along those lines, is the XMC-120 a low-power quad-core Intel Atom (Bay Trail) E3845-based XMC Processor Mezzanine SBC from Curtiss Wright Defense Solutions. With a typical power consumption of only 15W, the rugged XMC-120 Atom SBC Processor Mezzanine Card speeds and eases the integration of exceptional x86 processing performance into Size, Weight, Power and Cost (SWaP-C) constrained environments. The XMC-120 is also available pre-integrated with the Cisco Systems 5921 Embedded Services Router (ESR) Software, enabling system designers to deploy a single-slot solution that combines both Cisco network routing and Intel multi-core processing.

QorIQ in Path of PowerPC's Legacy

Because of the long development and deployment cycles in the military, PowerPC-based embedded computers continue to play a strong role in defense applications. The majority of these are mundane tech upgrades on VME, simply replacing faster processor boards in the same slot. NXP Semiconductor's acquisition of Freescale makes NXP now the custodian of the latest and greatest processors in its QorIQ family. The QorIQ architecture offers some unique features particularly for throughput and communications-centric applications.

And importantly the QorIQ maintains software compatibility with older PowerPC products such as the PowerQUICC platform. The P2 series within the QorIQ line is designed for a wide variety of applications in the military and industrial markets. It is available in special high-quality parts, with junction tolerances from -40° to 125°C, especially suited for harsh environments. NXP's latest generation T4 series of QorIQ SoC multicore e6500 offers cutting edge performance and support for the all-important Altivec technology.

An example board based on the T4 series of QorIQ is Aitech Defense Systems' rugged 3U VPX-based C912. The board combines NXP's latest generation T4 series of QorIQ SoC multicore e6500 processors with AltiVec along with extensive on-board I/O features (Figure 3). Available with four or eight PowerPC cores, the C912 gives system designers flexibility to implement the optimum high-performance SBC for specific application needs. Each e6500 core supports two hardware threads that appear to the application software as virtual CPUs and features a dedicated AltiVec vector execution accelerator allowing up to 16 complex math operations per clock cycle per core. For improved security and data assurance, the C912 also includes the latest QorIQ Secure Boot and Trust Architecture 2.0 with one-time programmable crypto key storage protection and external tamper detection.

Figure 3
The rugged 3U VPX-based board combines NXP's latest generation T4 series of QorIQ SoC multicore e6500 processors with AltiVec along with extensive on-board I/O features.

Fast Growing Interest for ARM

The ARM processor while hugely successful in the consumer electronics realm is the newest kid on the bloc, in terms of processors used for military systems. Helping to drive that demand are the challenges for military system design with regard to cooling. Demand for extreme low power is on the rise as system designers look for higher performing processors, smaller system footprints and the evolution of extremely rugged environments. As a result, for some the SWaP-C acronym has transitioned into SWaP-C (Size, Weight, Power and Cooling) as a priority focus for packaging engineers solving thermal challenges of these next-generation designs. ARM processors excel in this area.

Recent ARM embedded module products are Diamond Systems' ARM-based Eagle and Eaglet SBC product lines with add-on modules from Toradex. The computer-on-module (COM) Eagle/Eaglet family is a scalable platform in which users can customize a solution based on space, performance, I/O and power requirements. There are two different modules in the family; the full-size, full-featured Eagle and the smaller-size Eaglet. The Eagle and Eaglet measure 4- x 5.75-inches and 4-x 4-inches accordingly. To add ARM and NVIDIA computing power to the Eagle/Eaglet platform, Diamond teamed with Switzerland-based Toradex to provide 3 different plug-in modules (Apalis TK1, T30 and iMX). Toradex manufacturers the Apalis family COM modules based on the ARM Cortex and the NVIDIA Tegra or NXP/Freescale iMX multicore processors.

Abaco Systems
Huntsville, AL
(866) 652-2226

Aitech Defense Systems
Chatsworth, CA.
(888) 248-3248.

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

Diamond Systems
Mountain View, CA.
(650) 810-2500.

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

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

Santa Clara, CA
(408) 765-8080

Mercury Systems
Chelmsford, MA
(978) 967-1401