Military and ISR operations are inundated with vast amounts of data collected from an expanding network of sources, including sensor data from UAS, satellites, and remote monitoring stations. Critical information must be processed quickly and reliably, and delivered in real time to command centers and forces on the battlefield. Processing this plethora of information requires a multitude of computers, many of which are outdated or on proprietary platforms. To remain sustainable, systems used for enterprise computing, field operations, warfighting, and command and control, must be continually upgraded or replaced. Many of these systems need to be integrated, consolidated, and securely linked to multiple networks.
A New Breed of Server
A new breed of ruggedized servers designed to use COTS motherboards offer a versatile platform that can keep up with complex and ever increasing processing demands. These servers use multicore processors to pack more processing power into a smaller footprint. COTS motherboard solutions are an attractive option that gives defense customers access to the latest processor technology and industry standards. They offer benefits of high processor density, a mix of general-purpose I/O and a low entry price. These servers are upgradeable and adhere to a modular open system approach so they can be tailored with mission-specific I/O. Most importantly, they can withstand worst case scenarios in the field. To make these servers rugged, manufacturers use a wide variety of techniques at each stage of the design, manufacturing, and testing. U.S. military standards offer guidelines that help determine whether a particular product is rugged enough for a given application.
Small rugged platforms such as laptops and PDAs have become tremendously popular and are indispensable on the battlefield. Laptops are great when you need to pick up a computer and go, but if the computers are fixed-mounted, a rugged rackmount server is a better choice. In the same amount of rack space as a rugged laptop, a user can install a 1U server and have access to 2-16 CPU cores at 3.33 GHz, 48 gigabytes of RAM, 4 terabytes of storage, a PCI expansion slot, and a high-end graphics card for manipulating digital maps. A rugged server can provide 5-10 times the capability that a rugged laptop can provide, and at the same price and size profile when rack-mounted.
Rackmount servers are replacing rugged laptops in a number of mobile applications. An advantage of using a rugged server is that it can be virtualized to replace up to 16 clients. This means that one server can replace 16 laptops through the use of virtualization software. This approach is less expensive, but more importantly for mobile applications, reduces the size, weight, and complexity of equipment.
Size, weight, power, performance, cost, and cooling constraints are always important in military applications and especially so to the Navy as it upgrades its ships. For this reason, the Navy has embraced multicore servers as a means to consolidate its many applications and various independent computing platforms onto compact rackmount servers. Using highly secure software virtualization technology, it is possible to run multiple applications on the same CPU in separate partitions. This trend will undoubtedly carry over to the Army, Air Force, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard as the benefits become more apparent.
Multicore processors provide new levels of energy-efficient performance, by enabling each core to run at a lower frequency, dividing the power normally given to a single core. For rugged servers this means reduced footprint, lower power, and less thermal burden.
Commercial servers typically reside in clean, temperature controlled environments such as data centers. But what if you have to provide data center computing power on a Navy ship, an aircraft, or a UAS ground station in the middle of a desert? In military applications, shock and vibration are the norm, and extremes in temperature and weather are common.
Airborne computer applications, particularly aboard propeller-driven airplanes and rotorcraft, are characterized by sustained vibration that can shake components loose or break them. Additionally, airborne systems must not emit sparks that may ignite fuel fumes, or emit electromagnetic interference (EMI) that might disturb navigation or communications equipment. Rugged computers aboard aircraft must withstand altitudes up to 40,000 feet, and be able to survive rapid decompression.
Ground-based mobile computers are subject to vibration and shock. They must also contend with sustained temperature extremes in vehicles or shelters. Temperatures can range from -40°F in Greenland to 158°F in Saudi Arabia. Portable or partially exposed mobile computers must stand up to rain, sand, and dust. Furthermore, they are expected to operate from unregulated power with irregular waveforms, changing voltage, and frequent “brown-outs” or “drop-outs.”
Aboard ships, shock and impact resistance are critical as large vessels can be hit in combat, and smaller frigates and patrol boats can be slammed by rough seas. Electronics used on deck and exposed to the elements need protection from corrosive salt fog. Equipment EMI must be contained in order to shield the tightly packed electronics on modern vessels.