BOSTON After more than 20 years as a power in the STD Bus board and system business, Ziatech Corp. is bailing out, choosing to focus all of its efforts on the CompactPCI bus and telecommunications systems. Boasting a 50-plus board vendor list at its peak, the old "blue collar" STD Bus, invented by ProLog Corp. in 1978, is now down to roughly 20 supporters, though remaining vendors said it continues to represent a solid business opportunity.
"We have carefully evaluated the life cycle of our STD32 product line in recent months and have become concerned about our ability to continue to properly support the products," said Ziatech president Robert Tillman in a letter sent to the company's STD32 customers late last month. "We've already seen difficulties in procuring parts as this technology ages and can only expect the problem of obsolescence to increase as suppliers put their resources into new technologies."
The STD32, invented by Ziatech (San Luis Obispo, Calif.) in 1989, is a 32-bit extension to the original 8/16-bit STD Bus. The company also invented CompactPCI. The small 4.5 x 6.5-inch STD Bus form factor has stood it in good stead for over two decades, while small-form-factor 3U Eurocard buses like G64 and STE never caught on in the U.S. and the 3U version of VMEbus took a back seat to 6U.
Arising at the dawn of 32-bit VMEbus and Multibus II, STd32 maintains the same form factor as STD; and, while STD and STD32 CPU boards are incompatible, STD32 systems can make use of STD I/O boards. Some in the STD Bus community rallied behind STD32, while others shied away. Sources put the yearly worldwide revenues for STD Bus boards somewhere between $50 million and $100 million, with STD32 boards adding another $25 million to $30 million.
Some in the STD community expressed amazement that Ziatech is abandoning what they called a lucrative "cash cow" business. Bob Burckle, vice president of WinSystems Inc. (Arlington, Texas), said that parts obsolescence has become a way of life in the board business and a problem that board vendors have overcome. WinSystems focuses on standalone single-board computers, PC/104 boards and STD boards, but not STD32.
"We continue to face the parts obsolescence problem ourselves," Burckle said. "We've gone back in and redesigned video boards, 386SX boards, 486 and 586 boards. You have to do what's necessary to make sure there's an uninterrupted supply of products to your customers."
Some sources suggested that parts obsolescence in STD32 is complicated by the fact that it's based on the EISA bus, which has long since waned in the face of the omnipresent PCI bus. Tom Barnum, general manager of STD32 booster VersaLogic Corp. (Eugene, Ore.), however, lay the blame at the door of more common parts.
"VersaLogic and nearly all others in the industry have experienced the challenge of component availability in the last six months as economic expansion has driven demand for electronic devices to record highs," said Barnum. "The time that we have invested in qualifying parts from multiple sources, with a careful eye toward long-term availability, has enhanced our ability to receive components on a timely basis."
One side of the schism
STD Bus board makers, harking back to the STD/STD32 schism that opened in the late '80s, took the occasion to bad-mouth STD32. "STD32 was a rather poor attempt at increasing the performance of the popular STD Bus," said Michael Campo, STD Bus business manager at the Monterey Design Center of Motorola Computer Group (Monterey, Calif.), which was ProLog before its acquisition by MCG in 1997 and which does not build product for STD32.
"The STD Bus standards group never accepted STD32 as part of the STD Bus IEEE 961 standard," Campo said. "As a result, STD 32 was only offered by a handful of vendors. The mechanical complexity of the STD32 cards and backplanes, along with the narrow product offering, limited the acceptance of STD32," he said. "I am surprised that Ziatech continued offering STD 32 products as long as it did."
One STD board maker, who requested anonymity, called STD32 "a proprietary standard controlled by just one company. Major customers were generally unwilling to commit to it because there have only been a small number of suppliers and no open spec," he said. "One company could change the spec at its whim."
STD32 boosters, of course, countered these claims, with Barnum citing somewhere between 15 and 20 active STD32 board makers and a healthy market. "Our STD32 sales continue at record levels and they are growing," he said.
The power of legacy
Over on the "classic" STD size of the fence, board vendors echoed the comments of the anonymous source, who dubbed the STD business "profitable, even growing slightly. It's become very popular in China and other places in Asia," he said.
"STD is still a very solid business," said Ken Finster, president of Microsys (Montrose, Calif.). "Certainly it isn't the darling of the press anymore, but we are still securing new design-ins this year. It's pretty much users who are familiar with it already, and they've gone to a new company or are doing a new project at the same company. They say 'It's a workhorse, works great, it's multivendor and we're going to continue to use it.'"
WinSystems' Burckle also cited "new design-ins" and "continued growth" for STD. "Even though people have the tendency to pooh-pooh it, STD is very viable and active and we continue to see new design-ins," he said.
Burckle checked his records and reported that "STD revenues for year-to-date 2000 are up 17 percent over the same period in 1999, and we are getting an average of more than one new STD customer per week."
Ziatech's Tillman said the company is committed to a "smooth transition" for its STD32 customers and will be taking orders for boards until January 31, 2001, and delivering boards until January 31, 2002. "In addition, our sales staff will attempt to direct current customers to other companies that are currently producing STD32 products," he said.