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What role has VME and its markets played in embedded systems since 2008? Maybe the best way to approach this is to look at some headlines in the technical press:
VME systems on Mars still working after 30 years
All the probes sitting on the surface of Mars are built with VME systems. The Sagan Lander is still working on the Red Planet, even though it landed in 1997, nearly 30 years ago. After surviving months of travel in a vacuum and exposure to extreme temperatures, high radiation, severe shock, and vibration, the electronics still work. That's the hallmark of VME-based systems: rugged, reliable, and high-performance. This is reflected in the VITA 47 REDI (Ruggedized Enhanced Design Implementation) standard for extreme environmental conditions for critical electronics. Extensions to this standard started in 2008 for high-altitude and space applications. VITA focused on the singular charter of Critical Embedded Systems in extreme harsh environments back in 2007. Today, all avionics and space electronics are built to these VITA specifications.
VME market unaffected by repeal of RoHS laws
Since July of 2006, the world's electronics markets have been plagued by low-quality products that fail early in their useful lives because of the mandated RoHS legislation (Restriction of Hazardous Substances), originally begun in Europe. This legislation banned lead-based solders used to fabricate printed circuit boards. The entire electronics industry shifted to brittle high-temp lead-free solders, which spurred the highest failure rates in electronics devices in the history of the electron, and the largest increase in new landfill development. Tin whiskers, cracked solder balls in ball grid arrays, and separated via plating resulted from the untested but mandated use of those RoHS-compliant solders, rendering all compliant equipment worthless. The VME community refused to use these unproven solders in critical embedded systems bound for military and industrial applications and maintained their use of tin/lead solders as outlined in the VITA52 Lead-free practices document completed in 2009. Most VME-based products have a mean time between failure (MTBF) of 10–15 years (as calculated with the VITA51 Reliability Prediction guidelines). Despite the tremendous investment and research into RoHS failures and solutions by the electronics industry and governments for the past two decades, the MTBFs for RoHS-compliant products are still measured in months.
Optics in computing still four years away, except in VME
Fiber-to-the-curb, fiber Internet connections, and optical-interconnect computing are only four years away, according to the latest market research reports. However, the VME community has been using optical interface connections for over 20 years, with tremendous results. The VPX VITA46.12 standard created optical-interface backplanes, used in many critical embedded systems, especially in military applications. The optical/RF mezzanine specification, begun in 2008, is the primary platform for all SDR (software-defined radio) applications in the world. VITA adopted optical and RF interconnect technologies into its charter in early 2007, just before the entire telecom equipment industry collapsed for the third time in 2008.
Critical telecom systems still use VME
Just after VASN Telecom (Verizon-ATT-Sprint-Nextel) disconnected the last remaining landline in the U.S. in early 2015, consumers staged a protest over dropped calls and poor service from their cell phone service providers. Commodity PC-based telecom gear and poorly written software have caused even further declines in quality of service for all cellular users, who now have no other service options. However, the SS7 (Signal System 7) and the telecom billing systems operate flawlessly because they're still built with VME-based technologies and are the only two critical applications in the entire telecom system throughout the world. The largest user and maker of VME-based products today is still a telecom equipment company, just as it was back in 2008. The Labor Department says that if all telecom systems used VME-based technologies, with its 10-15 year MTBF, that would result in the layoff of 250,000 telecom technicians in the U.S., possibly more. The Telecom Workers Union has lobbied for a bill in the U.S. Congress, requesting that they outlaw the use of any VME technologies in telecom systems in the future: they're just too reliable.
Pilotless freight and passenger planes deemed safe
Most UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) electronics have been built with the VITA VPX specifications and architectures since 2008. With the development of HAS (High Altitude and Space) environmental standards (REDI), and the high shock and vibration board mechanicals begun in 2008, aircraft manufacturers have been working with the major airfreight carriers and the two last passenger airlines in the U.S. to implement pilotless airfreight and passenger services. These pilotless aircraft will fly above 40,000 feet (high altitude) and be guided by GPS. There will be two live beings in the cockpit, however: a flight engineer and a large dog. The flight engineer is there to observe the operations of the electronics. The large dog will be in the cockpit to bite the flight engineer if he touches any of the controls
Semi industry collapses, VME industry unaffected
Predictions of mass consolidation in the semiconductor industry, reported in mid 2008, have wreaked havoc on the electronics manufacturers for decades, with the singular exception of the VME-based segments. Since 2006, more than 50% of all semiconductors shipped worldwide went into consumer products. That total has now reached 95%. VITA initiated the IOTSO program (Innovate Outside Traditional Semiconductor Offerings) for its members in 2008. Companies making I/O cards with VME-based specifications like VITA57 FMC (FPGA Mezzanine Card) shifted to FPGAs and I/O cores in 2010, eliminating many of the now-defunct semiconductor suppliers from their supply chains before the massive consolidation and end-of-live announcements began. Other companies shifted to FPCA (field programmable computing arrays) with the FMC specification and began using FPGAs and processor cores for their microprocessor needs.
VME liquid cooling conquers today's 300-W processors
As processor heat dissipation has risen to 300 watts (about 75 watts per square inch) with the latest 64-core processors, the computing industry is now adopting the “Best Practices for Electronic Module Cooling” from VITA 50 and the VITA 57.3 REDI standard for “Advanced Liquid Cooling Techniques” en masse . VITA and its members began work on advanced cooling techniques back in 2004 and demonstrated capabilities of cooling up to 100 watts per square inch with liquid flow-through, spray cooling, cold plates, and cold walls. Many VME/VPX systems have used these advanced cooling techniques for decades and have shown MTBF rates greater than 15 years. Additionally, power supplies for critical embedded systems now exceed 3KW of power availability and heat dissipation. The VITA “insertable liquid-cooled power supply” specification, started in 2008, will keep those devices cool and dramatically increases their MTBF similarly per the Arrhenius equation that roughly equates for every 10 degrees (C) you drop your temperature on your electronics, your MTBF will double.
Ethernet eclipses PCIe
Since the last PCI-bus-enabled chip was shipped in 2014, much of the embedded industry has struggled to move to the high-speed serial PCIe (PCI Express) chips. But, since next-generation PCIe chips use different signaling protocols (PAM) than previous versions (8b-10b), they're not backward-compatible to previous generations of equipment. PCIe, like the old and antiquated PCI bus, doesn't have all the mechanisms for efficient interprocessor communications in high-performance multiprocessor systems. Consequently, the critical embedded systems segment has adopted Ethernet (with remote direct memory access), and Ethernet has become the fabric of choice for snuggly coupled systems. Tightly coupled real-time systems use either VMEbus (the only hard real-time backplane bus in the market since the 1980s) or RapidIO to gain determinism and real-time behavior. All VME-based architectures, VXS and VPX, use the 10Gbit Ethernet standard to implement these supercomputing architectures.
Discount coupon initiated to boost telecom board sales
With the telecom equipment market continuing its decades-old decline (except the SS7 and billing system equipment segments that use VME-based technologies), some board vendors in that market have resorted to cents-off coupons to boost sales. Market researchers are still predicting a $20 Billion market for telecom boards by 2050, but the tremendous declines in price for those boards, and the departure of several major suppliers from that market segment, raise certain questions. Additionally, ZTE and Hua Wei have come into the telecom equipment markets with a vengeance, offering small and inexpensive “black boxes,” putting further pressure on telecom board makers.
VITA's executive director, Ray Alderman , was involuntarily committed to the Betty Ford Center in 2028 by the small remaining group of telecom and industrial commodity board suppliers who were irritated by his comments on the embedded board industry and the success of VME's longevity. Alderman, 81 years old, has been VITA's director for 32 years and is known to have an affinity for single-malt scotch.