A history of service: CompactPCI in the defense market - Interview with Richard Kirk, GE Intelligent Platforms and Michael Slonosky, Curtiss-Wright Controls Defense Solutions

CompactPCI has been reporting for duty since 1995, and the veteran is still going strong.

1Ratified in 1995, CompactPCI (CPCI) was initially intended for industrial settings, but its rugged architecture, low power consumption, and backplane I/O found it a home in the defense industry. Thoughts on almost two decades worth of service and a calibration of CPCI's current and future prospects in the military market are offered by defense technology experts Richard Kirk (bottom) and Michael Slonosky (top) of GE Intelligent Platforms and Curtiss-Wright Controls Defense Solutions, respectively. (UH-60M Black Hawk cockpit photo courtesy of www.army.mil)

CPCI: How long has CompactPCI been used in military applications, and what were the reasons for its original deployment?

KIRK: CompactPCI has been used in the military space since its ratification in 1995, but hasn’t had a huge following compared to VME, particularly at the rugged end of the spectrum. In the military/aerospace market, adoption has been “lumpy,” with some big programs dominating the picture.

It gained a foothold in the market based mainly on its relatively low price. However, its ruggedness and scalability – 32-bit, 64-bit/33 MHz, 66 MHz options – also helped it find a place. The 3U implementation of CompactPCI has always been more popular than the 6U implementation. The lack of a rear I/O capability in 3U VME meant that an alternative solution was required – and CompactPCI provided it.

CPCI: What has kept CompactPCI a viable COTS technology in the defense industry in spite of the dominance of other technologies such as VME and VPX?

SLONOSKY: Its cost and low power. For systems that are cost sensitive, CompactPCI is an ideal solution for applications with low cost, low power, and lower performance requirements. VPX, with its high-speed I/O capability of up to 5 Gbps and beyond, addresses needs in which higher speed I/O and high-speed communication between cards is required. Not all applications require that. CPCI systems address low-speed needs, which generally translate to lower power applications (Editor’s Note: See Sidebar 1 for more on military design considerations using CompactPCI).

KIRK: There is a crossover between commercial needs and military needs that has sustained CompactPCI. Boards designed for commercial applications can be turned out in larger volumes and the ruggedized versions are “subsidized.” As a result of this relationship, ruggedized CompactPCI boards tend to be priced lower than comparable VME boards, and this is part of the attraction for users. Other attractions are the rugged nature of the 2 mm Hard Metric (HM) connectors and the higher bandwidth of these connectors compared to VME.

Compared to VPX, CompactPCI offers lower cost, a much simpler interconnect method (bussed rather than point-to-point) and proven connector reliability – some potential users still harbor suspicions about the VPX connector. However, in any system that needs significant bandwidth between boards, CompactPCI runs out of steam. There are, however, still many systems that don’t require this high-bandwidth capability.

Sidebar 1: Avionics upgrades and further military design considerations using CompactPCI

CPCI: Is CompactPCI seeing more action at the board or system level in defense systems? What are the military applications that CompactPCI technologies are seeing deployment in today?

SLONOSKY: I would say that CompactPCI is seeing more at the system level, as a CPCI system can only use CPCI-based cards. Some of the applications that CompactPCI continues to see deployment in are mission computers with graphics, or systems with low-speed serial interfaces using the MIL-STD-1553 serial data bus and serial ports, as do a number of avionics applications.

KIRK: At GE Intelligent Platforms, we’re still seeing high levels of activity in both boards and systems. GE has a growing COTS Rugged Systems (CRS) range of preconfigured, pre-tested, and pre-validated solutions that are designed to minimize development expense and shorten time to market. These are rapidly finding favor, and many of them are based on CompactPCI.

CompactPCI-based solutions from GE are deployed in just about every type of military application you can think of, including radar, countermeasures, Identification Friend or Foe (IFF), display computers, fire control, and so on, and on every type of platform – land, sea, and air, both manned and unmanned.

CPCI: What is the remaining projected lifespan of CompactPCI in the defense market? Do recent prospects of sequestration have any effect on this?

KIRK: We expect to see design ins occurring for at least the next five years, with production going out ten or more years. As such, GE Intelligent Platforms will continue to invest in CompactPCI, and continue to develop and deliver new CompactPCI-based products.

SLONOSKY: Lifespan is a good question. It really comes down to the demand of the system integrators. CPCI fills the lower performance, lower cost, lower power arena, of which there are a lot of applications still out there. Sequestration may have an impact as system integrators may not get the funding for change outs, but will get funding for tech insertions/replacement, which means CPCI may live longer.

CPCI: Do you see possibilities for the adoption of newer CompactPCI technologies such as CompactPCI Serial in defense?

KIRK: We have certainly had some inquiries, but we’re struggling to calibrate the reasons for interest given that the benefits/advantages of CompactPCI Serial in comparison with VPX aren’t immediately obvious, and given that VPX is unquestionably the architecture of choice in the military/aerospace embedded computing marketplace. On the other hand, other parts of GE Intelligent Platforms – those dealing with the commercial, manufacturing, and telecommunications markets – do believe that future support of CompactPCI Serial is important. Those markets, however, have not embraced VPX in the same way that the military/aerospace market has.

Richard Kirk is Product Manager of SBCs in the Military/Aerospace division of GE Intelligent Platforms.

GE Intelligent Platforms


Michael Slonosky is Product Marketing Manager of Power Architecture SBCs at Curtiss-Wright Controls Defense Solutions.

Curtiss-Wright Controls Defense Solutions