Monday, April 30, 2012

Air Force competes in National Collegiate Cyber Defense competition

As an IT student I follow the National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition with some interest. It looks like the military is interested in the competition as well, as the United States Air Force Academy managed to take second place, behind the University of Washington team in their second consecutive win.

The competition features a red team, consisting of professional "white hat" hackers, that attacks each team's network constantly. The teams must defend against the attacks and attempt to keep several different services up while filling out incident reports on the activity of the red team.

While it's a game, the competition uses attacks that serious threats would employ, and the attacks are carried out by some of the best hackers in the business. The Academy's team did incredibly given the level of competition, and it shows that the U.S. Military is interested in evolving to face new threats.

The cyber defense field is dynamic, attacks and defenses change with different hardware and software. Whatever is being taught at the United States Air Force Academy is clearly good material, and the students being skilled enough to place second in such a fierce competition really helps put faith into the military's ability to defend against modern attacks.

Still, maybe next year they can get first :)

Friday, April 27, 2012

Will Intel 3rd Generation Intel Core processor make a big splash in embedded computing applications?

Posted by John Keller

Intel Corp. in Santa Clara, Calif., unveiled its 3rd Generation Intel Core processor this week, which promises performance increases in processing speed, graphics capability, and data throughput over the 2nd Generation Core processor family, which burst on the scene in January 2011 to much fanfare and excitement in the military embedded systems industry.

As Intel announced the 3d Generation Core processors on Monday, which the company previously had called Ivy Bridge, embedded computing companies almost immediately started rolling out products, which include single-board computers and mezzanine-board computers from companies like GE Intelligent Platforms in Charlottesville, Va.; Curtiss-Wright Controls Defense Solutions in Ashburn, Va.; Extreme Engineering Solutions (X-ES) in Middleton, Wis.; Mercury Computer Systems in Chelmsford, Mass.; and Concurrent Technologies in Woburn, Mass.

With this flurry of embedded computing product introductions this week based on the 3rd Generation Core processor, however, the best is yet to come, as Intel officials say they will introduce new versions of the chips in coming months for systems like servers and embedded computing in aerospace and defense, industrial control, medical devices, and similar applications.

One big question is will the 3rd Generation Core processor make as big a splash in the embedded computing industry as the 2nd Generation Core made little more than 15 months ago?

The answer is probably not. The 2nd Generation Core processor introduced not only enhanced on-board graphics processing, but especially important for the aerospace and defense embedded computing industry was the chip's support for floating-point processing.

At the time of the 2nd Generation Core processor's introduction, Intel rival Freescale Semiconductor in Austin, Texas, had discontinued support for floating-point processing on its latest generation of microprocessors, which left defense companies looking for new ways to tackle difficult digital signal processing for applications like radar processing, sonar, electronic warfare, and signals intelligence.

Intel's introduction of the 2nd Generation Core processors took the aerospace and defense embedded computing business by storm. Even through Freescale later re-introduced floating-point processing, but Intel almost overnight grabbed a huge chunk of the aerospace and defense embedded processor market.

The 3rd Generation Core processors from Intel, while introducing formidable enhancements, do not represent the revolutionary change in the embedded computing market that the previous generation of chips did. Nevertheless, the new chip introduction is causing much excitement among embedded computing designers.

The quad-core 3rd Generation Intel Core processor family is touted as delivering visual and performance gains, and are the first chips made using Intel’s 22-nanometer 3-D tri-gate transistor technology, Intel officials say. The new-generation chips are coming in high-end desktop, laptop, and all-in-one (AIO) designs.

The 3-D tri-gate transistor and architectural enhancements can as much as double the 3-D graphics and HD media processing performance over Intel’s 2nd Generation Core processors.

The performance gains in the 3rd Generation Core processors are from the 3D structure of the Intel transistors, company officials say. Adding a third dimension enables Intel to increase transistor density and add capabilities. Intel also reworked the 3rd Generation Core's graphics architecture, and shrunk the size of the underlying transistors.

The 3rd Generation Intel Core processor also adds security such as Intel Secure Key and Intel OS Guard. Intel Secure Key is a digital random number generator that creates random numbers to strengthen encryption algorithms. Intel OS Guard helps defend against privilege escalation attacks where a hacker remotely takes over another person's system.

Systems with 3rd Generation Intel Core processors also transfer data more quickly than previous versions due to integrated PCI Express 3.0 and USB 3.0, which bring bigger data pipes.

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Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The $114 million mistake

Lockheed Martin was awarded two contract modifications today, each one for changes to the configuration baseline hardware or software resulting from the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) development effort. Sounds pretty innocent, right? A call to Joe DellaVedova, Spokesperson for the F-35 Joint Program Office, revealed the cause for these contract modifications.

Due to the program involving testing the aircraft while building them, twelve aircraft had already been built before a problem was found. In Mr. DellaVedova's words the modifications are to "provide funding for the contractor to correct deficiencies in LRIP (Low Rate Initial Production) II hardware and software." The deficiencies were not disclosed, but what we do know is that those deficiencies are costing the Department of Defense over $100 million to fix it. The United Kingdom is even footing some of the bill, ponying up $10 million to fix these issues. Specifically, the contracts total approximately $114.2 million.

That's a lot of money to spend just because planes were built before we even knew they worked.

The planes that were already produced (and thus are being fixed) are 6 short-take off and vertical-landing (STOVL) and 6 conventional take off and landing (CTOL) variants.

Of course, this could have been easily prevented if everyone wasn't in a such a rush to get the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter into the air. Rather than building these incredibly expensive machines before they were fully tested they could have simply waited. Now there is a wait that, to quote the contracts, "will span multiple years." Couldn't wait to get them out there, and now we have to wait even longer because of problems that are in the software and hardware.

The software or the hardware, otherwise known as absolutely everything in the aircraft. Be happy to know your tax dollars are going towards a mistake that was caused by rushing a product instead of thoroughly testing it before production, and that the mistake is involved in the all-encompassing hardware and software.

Oh well, maybe this mistake will mean the DoD and Lockheed Martin have learned a $114.2 million lesson that everyone who's had to pay for printing at college already learned- "Make sure there are no errors before you print it out." Except this time instead of wasting a dollar to reprint a report, the government is wasting $114.2 million to retrofit 12 aircraft.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Iran under attack once again

After several computer viruses and physical attacks on scientists, Iran once again finds itself being attacked. This time the attack is in the form of a computer virus that targets Iran's oil industry.

While the virus is still being investigated, it has been revealed that it targets the control systems of Kharg Island. This attack, which may just be a technical failure, is preventing the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC) from sending the crude-loading program at terminals. The extent of the damage done by this virus is currently unknown, and will likely remain unknown for a great while. Complex programs are capable of laying dormant in a system and cropping up again later.

This (possible) attack only serves to highlight how vulnerable systems are to cyber attacks. With so many industries relying on computers to get the job done these sorts of attacks are a serious threat.

Of course, these actions, even if nobody knows who is responsible or whether they are acts of aggression or not, aren't helping ease international tension.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

High-performance computing for rugged mobile military applications is becoming a hot design issue

Posted by John Keller

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M., 18 April 2012. High-performance computing for rugged mobile military embedded systems has become a hot topic, with several major players in this market voicing interest, or announcing upcoming products to help satisfy the insatiable appetite for processing power of aerospace and defense systems like vetronics, radar, and electronic warfare.

High-performance computing -- which seems to be the contemporary term for what used to be called supercomputing -- came up in conversation this week during several meetings I had in Arizona and New Mexico to find out some of the latest trends in rugged embedded computing.

Engineers in the Intel Corp. Intelligent Systems group in Chandler, Ariz., are combing their company's high-performance microprocessor technology with embedded computing expertise at Kontron in Poway, Calif., on a high-performance-computing proof-of-concent-program to create supercomputer performance in the size of a shoe box, says Ajit Patel, a marketing manager at Intel.

The plan, which is in its early stages, would place six high-performance computing blades in a high-bandwidth backplane for vetronics, unmanned vehicles, and other aerospace and defense applications that require dense floating point performance in a small package.

For this project, Intel is bringing its latest generations of microprocessor technology to the fore, while Kontron will concentrate on packaging, thermal management, and other embedded computing design issues, Patel says.

This talk of emphasizing high-performance computing for embedded systems applications struck me as more than coincidence, since just last week I was writing about a big project at General Micro Systems in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., called Zeus to create high-performance server-class computing for military vetronics applications.

Still, the talk of high-performance computing didn't stop with Intel, Kontron, and General Micro Systems. Jay Swenson, director of marketing and business development for military and aerospace embedded business at GE Intelligent Platforms in Albuquerque, N.M., says GE is increasing its emphasis on high-performance computing.

Within a months' time, GE Intelligent Platforms will announce a new high performance computing center of excellence to focus research and business development in this area. "There is going to be a need for a lot more high-performance computing," Swenson told me.

The reason primarily is communications bandwidth -- or the fact there's never enough for demanding aerospace and defense applications like radar processing, signals intelligence, and electronic warfare. "We have to move as much signal-processing capability closer to the sensor," Swenson says.

That means putting extremely sophisticated floating-point-intensive signal processing capability on small unmanned vehicles, in military combat vehicles that already are overburdened with onboard equipment, and even on individual infantry soldiers, who themselves rapidly are becoming walking sensor platforms and communications nodes.

Packaging high-performance computing so it can be cooled adequately and withstand the rigors of the battlefield is not without its challenges, but there may be a new design issue that could complicate things further, points out Greg Rose, vice president of marketing and software management at safety-critical software specialist DDC-I in Phoenix.

High-performance embedded computing these days, with few exceptions, relies heavily in the newest generations of multicore microprocessors from companies like Intel and Freescale Semiconductor in Austin, Texas.

One military electronics industry trend that is converging on the recent emphasis on high-performance computing involved safety-critical software that must be certified to industry standards like DO-178B and C. These standards primarily are for the commercial aviation business, but it's only a matter of time -- just a few years, perhaps -- before the military will be compelled to join the safety-critical software bandwagon.

When that happens, embedded systems designers had better find a reliable way for safety-critical software to run on multicore microprocessors. Today, Rose points out, some systems designers have to shut down all microprocessor cores except one to run safety-critical software reliably.

The problem involves sharing one memory among several microprocessor cores. Software designers have yet to find a bullet-proof way to share memory while guaranteeing that no data corruption can happen under any circumstances. Sure, many claim they can, but few would bet the futures of their companies on those claims, and that's essentially what they'll have to do.

So here we go, as high-performance computing and safety-critical computing step into the ring. I think engineers will be able to work out the most difficult issues facing them, but we're all in for a boatload of frustration first.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Is the U.S. getting ready for conflict?

In a recent article I wrote on the Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP) there was a DoD contract that was described as an "enhanced threat response redesign" as part of a "quick reaction capability program." My question is, what are they reacting to?

An enemy who could afford a facility that the MOP can't destroy couldn't be anything less than a country. Could it be that the U.S. is planning on going to war in 2014, when work on the contract is set to be completed? While there hasn't been a real "war" by the U.S. in some time, Congress has been sure not to declare one, could we be gearing up for another conflict like Libya?

There hasn't been much in the way of politics to make me think the U.S. is on the warpath, but the language is clear in the contract. There is a threat to the U.S. and the MOP is being redesigned as a reaction to it. It's not like a company came out with a new MOP-proof structure and we want to show that we can still destroy it What else but an existing nation could possibly be the enhanced threat the contract is talking about?

I could be reading too much into this, but the evidence is right there. What threat could possibly be strong enough to warrant improving what is quite literally an earth-shatteringly powerful weapon?

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Historic obsession about the Titanic sinking 100 years ago wipes Bread and Roses strike from popular memory

The RMS Titanic sank exactly 100 years ago early Sunday morning, taking 1,514 souls to their deaths in the frigid waters of the North Atlantic, but I'm not here today to talk about this maritime disaster that has dominated popular memory for the entirety of a century. Instead, I'd like to point out how the sinking of the Titanic super ocean liner wiped other notable events from the front pages, and from popular memory (I apologize for not writing this week of matters aerospace and defense electronics).

The year 1912 was an eventful one, even though the historic milestone of that era -- the First World War -- would not start for more than two years after the Titanic disappeared beneath the ocean. When 1912 began, owners of the textile mills in the booming industrial town of Lawrence, Mass., reduced the work hours and pay of the largely immigrant labor force. When workers realized their pay was being cut, they walked away from their looms and left the mills shouting "short pay, short pay!"

The work stoppage spread through the city's textile mills, and within a week more than 20,000 angry mill workers left their jobs and took to the streets. The result was the so-called Bread and Roses Strike, a popular term for the 1912 Lawrence Textile Strike, which involved street violence, antagonism among competing labor unions, and ultimately the attention of then-First Lady Helen Herron Taft, wife of President William Howard Taft.

The Bread and Roses Strike lasted for three months, and involved mass arrests, callup of the Massachusetts state militia, clubbing in the street of women and children, and other kinds of ugliness that by 12 March 1912 led to the strike's end when the American Woolen Company agreed to most the strikers' demands. Mill workers throughout New England also received many new benefits.

The Bread and Roses Strike is notable in that it signaled what, for its day, was a new era of labor relations and worker-management harmony in the industrialized Northeast.

Another notable historic event in the spring of 1912 -- particularly for New Englanders -- was the scheduled opening of a new baseball field in Boston, Fenway Park, home to the Boston Red Sox, and today the oldest and perhaps most beloved Major League Baseball stadium in existence.

Fenway Park opened on 20 April 1912, and that day the Boston Red Sox defeated the New York Highlanders 7-6 in 11 innings. Think that game was on the front page? Not with the Titanic sinking less than a week before.

The next year the New York Highlanders would be renamed the New York Yankees, and one of the most storied rivalries in baseball history would be born.

So April 1912 saw a new era in labor relations, the opening of one of America's best-known baseball parks, and the beginning of a great baseball rivalry.

So 100 years later what do we hear about most? The Bread and Roses Strike and its influence on American labor history? The beginning of an old and hard-fought baseball rivalry? The opening of America's best-loved baseball park?

No, we hear about that damned ship made with brittle hull plates, breakable rivets, and not enough life boats.

Maybe it won't be like this forever, though. I can't wait for Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in "Bread and Roses: The Movie."

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The future of UAV technology aims high

In spite of the budget cuts that loom over the industry, the future of UAVs is still looking bright.

Boeing in particular is excited about what the technology that may come to be in the next few years. With the A160 Hummingbird having shown that UAVs can have an extended presence and reach impressive heights, the predictions on the show floor push the envelope even more.

Future UAVs may be capable of reaching heights that are over double or triple what the A160 can reach and stay in the air for months at a time. These UAVs would resemble gliders with solar panels to maintain power and sensor arrays. Rather than rely on satellite imagery these UAVs would give warfighters persistent situational awareness.

Of course, UAVs have been trending towards other extremes as well. Tiny UAVs that can be flown through open windows are in the works. These miniscule aircraft will stay airborne in times measured in seconds or minutes while giving valuable information to soldiers on the ground without giving away their position like a thrown ground vehicle might.

In addition to new technical capabilities, the future of UAVs is trending towards automated systems. Rather than having several personnel monitoring a UAV, in the future it is expected that one person can monitor many different UAVs at once. The Hummingbird is an example of a step toward automation, with the ability to fly to land without any assistance with high accuracy or perform a number of similarly complex feats without human guidance. Automation frees up soldiers to perform other tasks and ultimately is a cost-saving measure, as less personnel are needed for UAV flights.

These UAVs aren't just the product of wishful thinking, they have either already been made (in the case of tiny UAVs) or are currently in the Research and Development phase. Between the cutting-edge technology and the tangible optimism at the Army Aviation Association of America Exposition, the budget cuts seem like a non-factor for innovators in the industry.