Commercial PCs take to the field

Once upon a time, when Mil-Spec ruled, buying a computer was relatively easy. Vendors wrote down exactly what they believed the soldier, sailor, airman or Marine needed, presented those requirements to a contractor, and after some time for testing and refinement, the computer was ready for the field. It cost a pretty penny, of course, but money was not that big of a deal.

Then the Cold War was won, budgets were slashed, and people started to look around for cheaper ways to do things. At the same time, the pace of computer technology was accelerating, and the military was falling behind the curve. A new focus on commercial technology aimed to solve both problems.

Enter the rugged computer. Something less than a full Mil-Spec system but more than a plain vanilla computer, the rugged computer is built around commercial components but has special features that allow it to be thrown into the back of a Humvee, hit by a rifle butt or blasted with salt spray and desert sand yet still boot up on command.

A fully ruggedized computer that can handle just about any environment still costs many thousands of dollars more than a straight commercial system. However, the art of ruggedization is becoming a sophisticated one that can provide for a wide range of needs. The question buyers have to ask is: Just how rugged is rugged enough?

"You might not need much ruggedization if the computers are in a command post being used much as they would in the home: in a static position and with a standard keyboard," said Chris Chance, manager of business development at Computing Devices Canada, a rugged- systems vendor. "But [other users] might be sitting in an armored fighting vehicle where they have to deal with a whole bunch of boxes and controls in a confined environment, where they have to deal with shock and vibration and where a flat-panel display might have to survive being kicked with a boot."

Different Approaches

There are two approaches to ruggedization: Either users put a commercial computer into a shock-proof enclosure and seal it in a box, or they ruggedize the system components themselves. With a hard drive, for example, users

either can take the commercial drive and put it in a rugged package, or they can go inside the drive and ruggedize the various parts of the drive. The latter approach is more expensive than the former. Which approach is best often depends on how much money is budgeted.

"Cost is probably the major driver in all of this," Chance said. "If we can provide 70 percent of the functionality that a customer wants for the costs [budgeted], we will try to work with that."

Another approach is to buy multiple regular computers and dispose of them when they break. If users can make a $2,000 computer last long enough, this "throwaway theory'' goes, then they can buy four times as much over a certain period of time than they would spend on an $8,000 ruggedized system.

That approach gets people ahead price-wise, said Vincent H. Greco, vice president of the Rugged Product Division at Greco Systems Inc., but it doesn't allow for the frustration level of the people in the field as their systems keep failing on them.

"I don't see a real trend of people going with straight commercial computers, particularly for harsh environments," he said. "Instead, we see more demand from people for industrial-grade computers rather than fully rugged, particularly when they see they can get an industrial computer for a third of the cost of a ruggedized system."

Industrial computers, designed for a factory floor or other manufacturing environments, have some of the vibration, shock and temperature protection of a rugged computer. But they don't use the combination of machined metal and aluminum or magnesium chassis and casings that come with a fully rugged computer. Nor do they have all the bells and whistles of the ruggedized systems, such as integrated displays, track balls, PC Card slots and CD-ROM drives. But industrial-grade computers might be sufficient for many military uses.

In fact, Greco said, he has many military buyers who come to him and say they want a rugged system when in fact they don't, and he will try and convince them otherwise.

"I would say it happens in about one in four of the conversations I have," he said. "The problem is that so many of the military buyers are still so set on Mil-Spec. In many cases, the environments into which computers go don't call for Mil-Spec, and many of the demands can be met by industrial computers."

In his experience, Greco said, buyers often are relieved to know they have alternative types of systems available to them. "Our sales [to the military] are now about 50/50 rugged vs. industrial," he said.

Another reason customers choose industrial computers is because they offer a wider range of screen sizes and processor speeds than fully ruggedized configurations, which must adhere to military standards, said Don Fernandez, vice president of marketing for Telos Corp. It's also true, he said, that with budgets declining "people are more willing to take risks than they would in the past, which is why they may be more willing now to go with a less rugged industrial computer."

Mobility Driving Demand

Again, it comes down to what level of ruggedization a buyer can live with.

"Ruggedization is certainly a key element of all of our negotiations with the military," Fernandez said. "The buyers know they can save a lot of money on computers if they can specify very closely what degree of ruggedization they need.

"The problem," he added, "is that there's a temptation for people to stretch the limits on these uses, and that's when we find they come back to us and tell us the computers don't work as we told them they would. And that's when we have to explain the finer points of ruggedization to them."

Commercial computer technology increasingly is being used in ruggedized, rack-mounted systems in the Navy, Air Force and Army as more command and control functions are made mobile. In this case, commercial systems are put into hard-mounted metal (usually aluminum) boxes and further hardened against such things as electromagnetic interference because they tend to be co-located with radio frequency communications systems.

Telos was due in May to begin delivering racks to the Navy as part of the Advanced Tomahawk Weapons Control System program, where the systems will be used to control the launch of Tomahawk cruise missiles.

"We isolate these boxes [against shock and vibration] according to the platform on which it is to go," said Chris Mazilli, director of GTE Commercial Hardware Systems, which supplies computer systems for various military programs. "It wouldn't be much [ruggedization] for a Humvee, for example, because that's a fairly soft ride. But for a tracked vehicle, we'd put in much more."

Mazilli said GTE doesn't have to do much to the Sun Microsystems Inc. workstations it supplies in these situations because the commercial components in them have become much more reliable over the past few years. The $40 power unit that comes with the workstations is built to be pretty rugged in the first place, he said, and many of the current generation of disk drives— such as those from Seagate Technology Inc.— "are incredibly rugged bricks right out of the box."

The market for rugged computers in the military is a niche one right now, with only tens of thousands of rugged computers sold compared with the hundreds of thousands of regular computers used throughout the military. But plans for digitization of the battlefield could be a big driver for future ruggedization.

In a speech last year to the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association, Gen. Dennis J. Reimer, the Army's chief of staff, repeatedly emphasized the mobility that will be needed in future engagements. The armed forces, he said, "must be more strategically and tactically mobile to be able to move quickly anywhere around the world. And then, once we're on the battlefield, we must be able to move faster and be more agile than any potential enemy."

That concept has been tried over the past several years in such military exercises as the Advanced Warfighting Experiment's Force XXI and Hunter Warrior. Though the results from those exercises are still being evaluated, they've already shown that rugged, mobile systems can change the way the military services will view battle in the future.

"The most significant change [for us] has been the development of fully rugged handheld computers powerful enough to run Microsoft [Corp.'s] Windows operating systems and...Internet communications applications," said Lt. Col. Keith Lockett, deputy program manager for common computer resources with the Marine Corps Systems Command.

The Marines used Apple Computer Inc.'s Newton palmtop computers with Global Positioning System software in last year's Hunter Warrior exercise to generate information automatically on the positions of forces and to transmit the information wirelessly. Marines carried the current Windows version of the rugged handhelds into the field stowed in the cargo pocket of camouflage utility uniforms, Lockett said.

The standard of mobile computing in most people's eyes, however, is the notebook computer, whose growth over the next few years is expected to far outpace that of desktop PCs. According to market research firm International Data Corp., there will be more than 30 million notebook PCs in use in the United States by 2002, compared with just 5.7 million shipped last year. IDC said notebooks will carry increasingly more of an organization's critical data as they compete with desktop PCs as a user's primary system. Therefore, damage resulting in data loss will be that much less acceptable.

The problem, however, has been that notebook computers have been difficult to ruggedize without adding substantially to their weight and cost. But that situation may be changing as some rugged notebook manufacturers eye a much bigger share of these future markets.

Panasonic Personal Computer Co., for example, has been in the business of supplying rugged and semi-rugged notebook computers to the military, civilian agencies and large corporations since 1993. Several years ago it introduced the CF-25, one of the first rugged notebooks with an Intel Corp. Pentium processor. Unlike the competition, the CF-25 did not use fans for cooling, came with a completely magnesium casing and cost only $2,000 to $4,000.

"Prior to that," said Bob Carr, vice president of marketing for Panasonic, "so-called portable [ruggedized] computers were in the 10- to 12-pound range, had only 486 processors or less and cost between $8,000 and $12,000. They were also pretty inflexible technically and didn't provide for such things as CD-ROMs, color screens, etc."

In a recent white paper sponsored by Panasonic, IDC said as much as one-third or more of the notebook market purchases could benefit from "notebooks with rugged features, creating a significant potential market for notebooks with such features."

Other companies are starting to latch on to the potential for this market. For example, Amrel Systems Inc. recently introduced a 6.4-pound ruggedized

Pentium notebook priced just less than $4,000.

Carr said Panasonic will stretch the limits of this rugged market even further with a fully ruggedized 2.2-pound subnotebook that will sell for less than $2,000, rugged handheld devices that could be either pen-based or touchscreen-based and even a "beautified" rugged notebook aimed at the upper level of military officers.

Future for Ruggedized PCs

It's too early to say what the military's evaluation of rugged computing technology will mean. GTE's Mazilli, for example, claims to have received good report cards for his company's rugged systems from recent Army and Marine exercises. But no final decisions have been made.

"What's obvious is that...a lot of commercial product out there...has failed," he said. "However, it's unclear what the overall attitude is because there are so many factions within the military, and they have been so stovepiped. Some are going rugged all the way because they have been let down by commercial so much, but then some are also going for straight commercial because they are so budget-constrained."

What the current activity means for the buyer of ruggedized systems is that choice is assured. Instead of having to make do with either expensive rugged systems or none at all, there will be a range of ruggedized systems from which to choose. This gives buyers a much better chance of filling their needs and accommodating the budget.

-- Robinson is a free-lance writer based in Portland, Ore. He can be reached at [email protected]


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