Sunday, March 15, 2009

Troubles dividing the VME board industry could have been avoided

Posted by John Keller

I worried about this, I warned of this, and now it's happening: companies in the VME board industry are choosing up sides in a fight over industry standards to make the VITA 46 VPX high speed serial bus interoperable in commercial and military systems across the board.

Everybody in the single board computer industry knows his community must agree on standards for uniform board sizes, connectors, and other technical aspects of the VPX standard high-speed serial databus. Otherwise this promising new technology will stumble in its bid to gain market momentum and appeal among the big military system integrators like Boeing, Raytheon, and Northrop Grumman.

The stakes couldn't be higher, because VPX is considered to represent the future of this entire industry. The problem is this: the military board community can't settle on how to move forward with setting these open system standards for embedded computing.

On one side of this dispute, we have five companies that want to break away from the established standards group for this industry, the VITA Standards Organization (VSO) in Fountain Hills, Ariz. The break-away group is called the OpenVPX Industry Work Group, and its members include Mercury Computer Systems Inc. of Chelmsford, Mass.; Aitech Defense Systems in Chatsworth, Calif.; GE Fanuc Intelligent Platforms in Charlottesville, Va.; Hybricon in Ayer, Mass.; Tracewell Systems in Westerville, Ohio.

On the other side are four companies that want the industry to work within the VITA Standards Organization so as not to give any perceived advantage in VPX innovations to any company or group of companies. These are Curtiss-Wright Controls Embedded Computing in Leesburg, Va.; Elma Electronic Inc. in Fremont, Calif.; Carlo Gavazzi Computing Solutions in Brockton, Mass.; and Extreme Engineering Solutions Inc. (X-ES) in Middleton, Wis.

So we have the OpenVPX Five against the VSO Four. You're kidding yourself if you think the other companies in this industry are not under intense pressure to chooses sides and declare allegiances.

More importantly, what does this industry discord say to the big systems integrators in the U.S. defense industry that for years have come to depend so heavily on VME technology like VPX? At best, the big defense companies will want to delay design decisions until the controversy dies down. At worst, they'll get disgusted and look elsewhere for the technology they need.

Among these divided forces are some of the biggest and most influential companies in the embedded computing industry. All are fierce competitors, with no love lost between them. There's enough to divide this industry as it is without competing standards organizations.

So how did it come to this?

First, the VITA Standards Organization ignored repeated appeals from its members to move quickly on VPX interoperability standards so they wouldn't miss market opportunities. I understand some of these appeals came directly from VITA Executive Director Ray Alderman, as well as from other influential industry old-hands.

As a result, leaders of the companies that would comprise the OpenVPX Five believed they couldn't wait on the slow-moving VITA Standards Organization any longer. They believed it was crucial, for themselves and for the future of VPX technology, to move on -- with or without the VSO, and so they did. In all honesty, I can't blame them for doing so.

The mistake the OpenVPX Five made was in not initially inviting everyone in the military embedded computing community to join them. Right off the bat, this group alienated others in the industry who thought the OpenVPX group was moving furtively and with only a select group of companies to do an end-run around those not invited to be part of the group.

Since then, the OpenVPX group has put out the word that their organization is open to anyone who wants to join, but unfortunately the damage has been done. Those not initially invited to join are hurt, suspicious, and ready to organize on their own. It will take a long time to rebuild this kind of devastated trust.

For the VSO Four and their supporters, you can't blame them for being mad. They thought they were getting the kind of standards-building mutual support their industry needed by being members of VITA. Formation of the OpenVPX group was a surprise, and it changed all the rules.

Some people involved with the OpenVPX group are honestly surprised at the industry backlash their group has caused. One member told me -- and rightly, I believe -- that the OpenVPX group could do this industry a lot of good, if people would just quit taking shots at it.

So the OpenVPX group could help boost this industry up if its detractors would fall into line. On the other hand, the VITA Standards Organization also could do the industry a lot of good if its members would get off their butts and take VPX interoperability standards seriously.

Something had better happen fast, before it's too late for this industry.

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