Diving into the new X9 Spider architecture.

Next-generation military platforms such as aircraft, vehicles, unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) and sensor systems require data-driven capabilities to maximize computing resources in lean, flexible, and cost-effective ways. Unfortunately, today’s military applications typically rely on centralized computing architectures such as COM Express, PC104/PCIe-104, and VPX/OpenVPX (also known as VITA 46/65). With these systems, all comprised of bus-based boards gathered in a single chassis, there is no simple process to swap units from different suppliers. As a result, they are inflexible and expensive to upgrade and maintain. Even worse, every few years, military customers must discard the entire systems and start anew as needs change and the supply chain (or technology) evolves.

US military entities have been quite clear in recent directives, demanding computing systems that are smaller and lighter with more artificial intelligence (AI) at the node so information can be gathered, analyzed, and sent back in near real time. They also want all new military systems to be interoperable and common across key hardware and software. In 2017, the Sensor Open Systems Architecture (SOSA) consortium was formed under the Open Group to define an open sensor environment for Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Cyber, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (C5ISR) systems. In 2019, the US Department of Defense (DoD) called for a Modular Open Systems Approach (MOSA) for future weapons systems.

The OpenVPX standard is one approach being pushed by customers. However, OpenVPX systems have fewer functions per slot and need more boards in the chassis, requiring complex wiring between the slots as functions “spill over,” and generally use more power, generate more heat, and cost more due to backplanes, complex chassis, and mechanical “overhead.” 

A better alternative

Fortunately, there are better, faster, and less expensive options that still meet the demands of the US military while future-proofing systems for years to come. A new decentralized computer system, based on Apple/Intel Thunderbolt technology offers promise with design headroom. With Thunderbolt technology, small connected distributed compute modules break the outdated and needlessly expensive, centralized ATR-style board-and-chassis paradigm and allows customers to upgrade any portion of their systems as needed.

Called X9 Spider, this modular, scalable, distributed architecture empowers designers to decentralize, distribute, and rapidly upgrade computing, networking, storage, AI, and video resources wherever and however the program demands. It gives designers ruggedized, as-needed capabilities to solve any compute problem in any environment—from the smallest enclosure to the largest C5ISR system. Rugged X9 Spider modules are small (around the size of a cell phone) and modular, plug-and-play, and emphasize flexibility over ATR chassis’ physical and electrical constraints.

Unlike traditional ATR-style boxes using VME or OpenVPX cards, where the box can’t be opened or modified without a requalification, this new interoperable architecture lowers costs and decentralizes computing, power distribution, and heat dissipation while improving fault tolerance through redundancy or merely by physically separating critical functions. In addition, its high-speed 100Gb Ethernet and 40Gbits/s Thunderbolt interfaces are open standards, allowing other vendors to create their own modules, a definite plus for the military applications that must adhere to SOSA and MOSA mandates.

As a result, the X9 Spider architecture provides what the industry demands: smaller, lighter, cheaper and more flexible technology that enables applications to collect data and make decisions in real time at the site so solders and vehicles can win the modern battlefield.