Military Embedded Systems

VPX and OpenVPX: A guide to major players, military applications, and more

Story

August 18, 2022

Dan Taylor

Technology Editor

Military Embedded Systems

The military environment is unique when it comes to computing. You have space constraints, as well as concerns about how the harsh environments military systems typically operate in affect embedded computer systems. And the demands on computer systems are increasing all of the time as military customers seek more and more computing power. That's where the VPX backplane architecture comes in.

This backplane connector system uses a robust switched fabric architecture to drive computing power while also making it suitable for embedded military systems. VPX can handle tremendous computing speeds while also giving military customers the flexibility they need, whether that be in the air, at sea, or on the ground.

 

This guide provides a breakdown of what VPX is, how it is used in military applications, and who the major players in this industry are.

What Is VPX?

The VPX standard (also known as VPX VITA 46) is an open architecture computer standard that better facilitates the flow of data in embedded systems. It is different from commercial computer buses and unique to the military embedded computing market.

 

VPX goes a step further than past computer buses (like VME) by basing the system on switched fabrics rather than a typical computer bus. In the case of other buses, the signals must wait in line, which results in slower processing speeds. But fabrics allow the system to have express lanes. So while VPX isn’t necessarily faster than VMEbus, it offers greater scalability and is therefore valuable in military applications.

 

The VPX form factor uses state-of-the-art fabric architectures such as ethernet, RapidIO, and InfinniBand to keep current with today’s data transfer rates.

 

VPX is preferred in the defense industry because of the immense demands of C4ISR, SIGINT, electronic warfare, and other types of applications when it comes to data speeds. These systems require high-performance computing often in challenging environments, making VPX the preferred choice in this area.

What Is OpenVPX?

The VPX system was built on VITA standards known as VITA 46, the founding architecture for the standards. The OpenVPX standard is built on VITA 65 (which is itself based on VITA 46), and it was developed to create an open architecture that enables compatibility between different products from different vendors.

 

The reason for this development was that by the late 2000s, many VPX connectors and products used a single source for components, so VITA 65 was developed to help open up the market and make it easier to build interoperable computing systems. OpenVPX manages the changing profile dynamics of the industry.

Other VPX Computer Standards

Besides VITA 65, other standards are used that were developed off the foundational VITA 46 standard. There are standards for complementary power (VITA 62), fiber optic (VITA 66), and RF (VITA 67). There is also VITA 78, the space VPX standard, which defines an open standard for creating backplanes and modules to assemble electronic systems for spacecraft. All of these are evolutions of VITA 46 architecture.

3U VPX and 6U Form Factor

The physical difference between 3U VPX chassis and 6U VPX/OpenVPX chassis panels comes down to size: the 3U VPX dimensions are 132 mm in length, whereas the 6U VPX card dimensions are about twice that at 265 mm. However, this does not mean 6U VPX cards are twice as capable as 3U panels.

 

3Us have enjoyed a resurgence due to a need for smaller, more compact components and the development of technology that allowed developers to pack more processing power into a smaller size.

Military Benefits of VPX

VPX has many applications in the aerospace and defense industries for embedded system computing. VPX standards are used throughout the supply chain, from components to subsystems. It has allowed companies to use commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) products, which gives developers a larger field of suppliers to choose from.

 

OpenVPX in particular is a living standard that is constantly in development as the needs of military systems change. The Department of Defense wants systems that use a modular open system architecture approach, and OpenVPX provides that. It also fits in with the standards of the Open Group Sensor Open Systems Architecture (SOSA), the governing standard that uses other open standards.

 

SOSA VPX essentially has the following advantages for defense contractors and the government:

  • Greater computing power to handle increasing demands for C4ISR, SIGINT, electronic warfare, and other defense needs
  • Better suited to the harsh military environment
  • Flexibility to adapt to changing defense industry demands

 

Here are some of the specific elements in embedded computing that use VPX:

  • SBCs (single-board computers)
  • I/O (input/output) boards
  • Graphics
  • Switches
  • Backplanes
  • Chassis
  • Systems
  • Connectors
  • Cables
  • Power supply
  • Disk
  • Software

The VPX Ecosystem: Major Players in the VPX Industry

There are about 200 companies heavily involved in the VPX industry. The biggest names among these are the principal SOSA members:

  • BAE Systems
  • Booz Allen Hamilton
  • Cubic Global Defense
  • Curtiss-Wright
  • ELBIT Systems
  • FLIR Systems, Inc.
  • GE Aviation Systems
  • General Dynamics
  • HUBER+SUHNER Astrolab
  • Intel Corporation
  • L3Harris Technologies, Inc.
  • Leonardo MW Ltd.
  • Mercury Systems, Inc.
  • Northrop Grumman
  • Raytheon Company
  • Sierra Nevada Corporation
  • SRC Inc.
  • VadaTech Inc.

There are also U.S. government agencies involved in the effort. The Army's C5ISR Center in Maryland is a VITA member. Two agencies -- the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center and the Joint Tactical Networking Center -- are SOSA sponsors. The Navy is also involved through a partnership with the Georgia Tech Research Institute, which is a SOSA and VITA member.