The military’s transition to Network-Centric Warfare (NCW) has created an enormous demand for improved networking and performance capabilities for ground mobile command and control applications. Military success now depends on the ability to communicate actionable information among command centers, troops in the field, UAVs and other military assets. Although new technologies are continually being developed to meet military demands, this transition to NCW has created new uses for existing technologies, a few of which have been used for many years in the commercial realm before making the move into military applications.
Historically, military system engineers were focused on developing in-vehicle subsystems using proprietary designs and form factors, or small standard form factors designed specifically for military systems. These systems were expensive, making it difficult to keep pace with changing technologies. The military is now moving away from powerful, compartmentalized war machines toward interconnected units that can operate cohesively. For these interconnected units, military programs are also looking to reduce development time while saving on total cost of ownership. ATCA (Advanced Telecommunication Computing Architecture) and virtualization are two prime examples of long-standing commercial technologies evolving to meet these military needs.
To meet time and cost challenges, the industry is turning to open standard, commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) components, such as ATCA solutions, allowing developers to take advantage of the latest in networking, performance, and computing capabilities while focusing their resources on designing command and control applications. The industry is also seeing a further shift as manufacturers look to pre-integrated solutions as the new industry building block. This approach further reduces development cycles and gives application developers a greater choice in selecting performance levels to meet their specific application needs.
From Telecom to Mil/Aero Applications
ATCA is a set of standards released by the PCI Industrial Computers Manufacturers Group (PICMG) that defines a high availability open bladed architecture. At its core, the ATCA specification defines all the electrical and mechanical requirements of the ATCA industry standard platform—back-plane properties, blade size (8U), backplane interface specifications, power rating, cooling and so on. ATCA is designed to meet Network Equipment Building Systems (NEBS), which defines requirements for fire suppression, thermal margin testing, vibration resistance (earthquakes), acoustic limits, failover and partial operational requirements, along with many other testing and certification requirements. Because ATCA is an open standard, customers can build platforms that address multiple applications based on products from multiple vendors.
With its start in the telecommunications sector, ATCA rapidly increased in popularity due to cost savings, increased functionality, multi-vendor compatibility and the reduced development time leading to faster time-to-market. ATCA has been widely adopted in wireless communications networks, and billions of telephony consumers rely on ATCA infrastructures. In fact, the ATCA market is well on its way to growing into a several billion dollar industry over the next few years.
ATCA has achieved significant success in commercial markets, but these same benefits can also be leveraged for the mil/aero industry. ATCA deployments can reduce capital acquisition and operational costs, as well as meet the stringent performance requirements of mil/aero applications including interoperability, ruggedness, reliability and longevity.
COTS solutions, which encompass the ATCA standard, are designed to reduce development time without increasing project risk. By focusing on the military’s top priorities of reducing development time and increasing savings on total cost of ownership, ATCA is designed with the user in mind, allowing developers to focus time and resources on developing their value-add instead of solving integration challenges. COTS-based ATCA platforms also provide a consistent architecture that enables a streamlined development process, as well as faster upgrades, servicing, and repairs once the solution is field-deployed.
As the military moves to a network-centric doctrine, the majority of devices and systems also require a much higher level of robustness than their enterprise and business counterparts. Many of these requirements are defined by the United States military standard, MIL-STD-810G. There is significant overlap between the MIL-STD-810 and NEBS requirements, so in many cases, ATCA products can be used without modifications. There are some use cases where MIL-STD has more stringent shock, vibration or humidity requirements. In these cases, minor modifications to the boards can be made, such as conformal coating, mechanical stiffeners, and the use of a rugged chassis. These modifications allow ATCA to handle even the toughest environmental factors.
One example of an ATCA platform specifically designed for the mil/aero industry is the RadiSys Promentum C2 Server. The C2 Server is the industry’s first pre-integrated, portable ATCA platform designed to provide the type of performance and features required for rugged, ground mobile applications. Designed according to ATCA standards, the server allows for simple future upgrades within the same form factor. In the telecom industry, many ATCA users are starting their fourth round of upgrades, using the same enclosure and foot print as their initial deployment. ATCA ensures that what you deploy today will be upgradable in five, 10 or 15 years.
COTS-based platforms are flexible and support customization at multiple levels of integration. This strong ecosystem allows customers to decide where they add value, including integration of the latest mil/aero technologies such as virtualization, another existing commercial technology benefiting the mil/aero space.
Virtualization in the Battlefield
One of the major technology changes happening with military command and control platforms is the adoption of virtualization. Virtualization has its roots in the enterprise data center. In the traditional data center each application had its own dedicated server; therefore, if you needed more capacity for an application or you were adding a new application, servers were added. Over time this model became very inefficient. Data centers had to buy more servers, the average utilization of servers deceased, and capital expenses and operations costs increased.
Virtualization involves a thin layer of software between the physical hardware, the server and the operating system. This thin layer of software “virtualizes” the hardware components and creates “virtual machines.” To the operating system, the virtual machine looks likes its own individual server allowing multiple operating systems and applications to safely share the same physical server. As the technology advanced, vendors added management of virtual machines to their products, which allows quick provisioning of new virtual machines and provides application high availability. This enables enterprise data centers to share server resources between a pool of applications while maintaining service availability.
Again, addressing the key priorities of military developers, the introduction of virtualization to open-standard, COTS military solutions enables further time savings and reduced cost of ownership, while also providing increased reliability. Virtualization applications are easily extended from the commercial realm into the military market, providing benefits valuable to military applications including shared server support for applications, shared server support for operating systems, and fault tolerance offerings at the application layer.
Shared Server Support for Applications
Ground control stations support multiple applications. In a traditional environment, each application would run on its own server, mainly to prevent the failure of one application from impacting other applications. Virtualization allows these applications to safely share the same physical server. If one application fails, the virtualization layer prevents it from impacting the hardware or other applications. This feature significantly reduces the number of servers required for command and control platforms, lowering overall cost, and increases platform reliability, which in turn reduces the time required for application troubleshooting.
Shared Server Support for Operating Systems
Command and control platforms are made up of multiple applications, many of them running on different operating systems. Virtualization software layered within the ATCA system allows multiple operating systems to run on the same hardware, again decreasing the total number of servers required.
Fault Tolerance Offerings at the Application Layer
Traditionally, to effectively leverage fault tolerance on a platform, each application would require its own hardware and some level of middleware would need to be written. A small amount of software would need to be created to link the underlying hardware to the middleware, and the application would need to be modified to call on specific application programming interfaces (APIs) exposed by the middleware. This model allows a high level of fault tolerance; alternatively, if utilizing commercial virtualization offerings, fault tolerance can be offered at the application level. In this setup, the virtualization software provisions active and standby applications running on different virtual machines. In the event that the active application is not performing as expected, the virtualization software can automatically switch to the standby application, efficiently providing application fault tolerance.
In many cases, this switch is instantaneous and does not impact the performance of other applications. By using virtualization, it allows the development of a fault tolerant platform without the additional software development that the traditional middleware requires, all while meeting the level of fault tolerance required by platforms for command and control applications. Although virtualization is a new concept for mil/aero applications, developers can utilize its strong, existing ecosystem to implement this technology today.
ATCA is an established standard, with broad success in the telecommunications industry, and virtualization has been effectively implemented in data centers for years. As the military evolves toward NWC operations, these commercial technologies’ niche in the mil/aero marketplace is becoming significantly larger. Leveraging these technologies already proven in outside markets, mil/aero developers can effectively manage the risk of integrating COTS technologies into complex and mission-critical military networks to support the next generation of mil/aero applications, all while reducing development time and saving on total cost of ownership.