Wednesday, May 21, 2008

In life, and COTS supplies, there are no guarantees

In life, and COTS supplies, there are no guarantees

Posted by Courtney E. Howard

Rumors are rampant that Apple Inc. management, having just acquired P.A. Semi of Santa Clara, Calif.,
seeks to end production of various chips used by the military, including the high-performance, low-power PWRficient processor. The PWRficient CPU is employed in programs through most, if not all, branches of the U.S. armed services, say P.A. Semi representatives. In fact, one unnamed defense contractor expects to employ tens of thousands of the chips over the next decade—that is, if the processor is still available.

Defense customers, including primes, subcontractors, and systems integrators, have approached and sought the help of officials at the U.S. Department of Defense out of concern.

P.A. Semi’s PA6T-1682M, released in February 2007 as a lower-power, dual-core, and 64-bit variant of PowerPC CPUs, was rapidly adopted in defense applications—a rarity for new processor releases, which are oft met with the common “wait-and-see” mindset.

When news hit in April that Apple planned to acquire the company, P.A. Semi executives reported that they could no longer guarantee supplies of its chips. The startup did not identify the acquiring company but said that company may be willing to supply the chip on an end-of-life basis, if it could successfully transfer a third-party license to the technology. A single military program can span more than a decade, and yet supply of the chips cannot be guaranteed—not for a week, month, or year.

This news is particularly concerning for defense customers—a growing number of whom, such as Lockheed Martin and Raytheon, reportedly use P.A. Semi processors.

Should the DOD step in, and confront Apple officials with the concerns? Perhaps more importantly, does the DOD and mil-aero market have any clout with big commercial businesses?

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