(Long Beach, Ca.) At the Military Embedded Electronics Computing Conference (MEECC) here today (May 16), General Micro Systems took the wraps off a new "Computing Engine" initiative that CEO Ben Sharfi believes could fundamentally change single board computer (SBC) design.
The new initiative, he said, addresses one of the most vexing technology issues facing the defense industry: how to give system designers a way to upgrade their processor, memory and multimedia technology without sacrificing system interface, I/O, storage, and networking components that typically remain constant over the life of the system, and do so at a much lower cost over the lifetime of the system.
"To solve this problem, the Computing Engine initiative turns the mezzanine concept on its head," said Sharfi. "Traditionally, mezzanine boards and modules have been used to add application-specific I/O functionality, with the generic CPU, memory, and multimedia subsystem residing on the carrier card.
"By flipping things around, the baseboard can be used to house static, application-specific I/O and system interfaces, and the mezzanine module to implement North Bridge CPU, memory and multimedia components that are most likely to change over the life of the application."
This approach provides a field-upgradeable single-board embedded computing platform that extends the useful life of industrial control, defense and communications systems by five to ten years or more.
Currently, most of GMS's efforts are focused on applying this concept to VMEbus and CompactPCI computing platforms, with prototypes deployed at about a dozen military/aerospace contractors, including General Dynamics, and companies such as AOI Industries, Inc., focused on industrial applications. AOI is using the concept on a CompactPCI card which implements image processing algorithms for inspection of Printed Circuit Board (PCB) layers.
"While we are initially implementing the Computing Engine module for use with the CPCI and VMEbus, there is nothing about this concept that could not be just as easily implemented on any SBC or blade, irrespective of architecture," Sharfi said.
Even though GMS is exploring its application on other board and bus architectures, Sharfi said it is not the company's intention to go it alone with a proprietary board specification and is already approaching a number of standards bodies within the VME, CPCI and IEEE communities.
"The Computing Engine concept gives OEMs the best of both worlds," he said. "They can protect their investment in long-life, application specific system interface, I/O, mass storage and networking technology while still taking advantage of the latest CPU, memory, and multimedia enhancements."
If properly specified through the various standards organizations, the Computing Engine concept should dovetail neatly with many of the existing board formats. "Ideally, for best performance, most flexibility and longest shelf life you would want to start out with an application-specific-optimized base board," he said.
"But there is nothing in the concept that would forbid an OEM system designer from migrating gradually to this ideal, keeping the original baseboard and its existing mezzanine modules in place and plugging a Computing Engine module into an existing compatible mezzanine slot to boost performance and stretch out the life of the design. "
While there is little in GMS's current prototype Computing Engine modules to differentiate them from existing mezzanine specs, he said, there would probably have to be some work done in the standards bodies to formalize things and work out any compatibility issues that might arise.
The company has tested out the concept in two bus-less module formats, the IBM Power PC based P50X and the Intel Pentium M based P60X module families. "We chose the bus-less form factor because it was the easiest to implement and test out as a standalone company," he said.
Engineers at the company, said Sharfi, now are at work on a number of VME and CPCI bus-based modules. "But to implement the concept in a format that is non-proprietary will require participation of the standards bodies," he said.
The idea for the upside-down Computing Engine mezzanine board concept grew out of work General Micro Systems did on its recently introduced PMC Workstation I/O module, which was originally designed to solve upgrade problems on a number of major Air Force and Navy programs where designers under the gun to upgrade their capabilities at the lowest possible cost.
"We have been thinking about the constantly morphing nature of the CPU and memory on the North Bridge side of most single board computer systems for about a year and trying out various combinations in the bus-less format," said Sharfi. "But as we looked at our work at the completion of the WIO board project and assessing how we could have done better, everything just fell into place and now we have a clear idea how to proceed in standard bus-based designs."
He said General Micro Systems will begin shipping Computing Engine modules for use with CPCI and VMEbus carrier boards within the next three months.