ATM Modernization, Business & GA, Commercial, Military

Avionics Systems Design: Gratuitous Technology

By Walter Shawlee 2 | September 1, 2001

These days, technology seems to race along unfettered by either logic or utility–not to mention quality and support–in a ceaseless quest for "new-ness" and market position. This condition expresses itself in weird products and services such as kitchen Internet appliances. Even the more staid operating system market is not immune.

Microsoft has created an avalanche of operating system application software. Many workhorse platforms like DOS, Win95/98, WinCE and NT are headed for the dustbin. Meanwhile, their hastily deployed replacements suffer from code instability, increased memory and hardware requirements, constant patching and updating, fundamental incompatibilities, missing drivers and security holes. Not my definition of "improved."

This year we’ve seen Win2000, Windows ME, and now Windows XP, all from the same vendor, all supposedly THE answer for customers. Information technology (IT) managers are awash in conflicting promises of longevity and support. Companies are struggling to deploy useful technology internally and to keep their must-have applications running. Many are finding support for their hardware is now non-existent. Upgrading machines and networks is proving to be difficult and unpredictable, and productivity and network security are declining as a result.

The volume of updates and patches for "working" and "fully-baked" software is incredible. The fresh copy of Win2000 Professional I just installed to update my trusty NT4 workstation (which was already at the service pack 6A level) required almost 50 megabytes of updates immediately. It still has unsolvable problems and failed services. Thankfully, it works well enough to write this column after two weeks of tweaking.

As a bonus, the upgrade killed many of my previously (under NT) fully functional apps, including Norton AntiVirus, all my CD archiving tools and my CD writer. I’m not clear. Is this a feature or a bug?

No matter, help is on the way: I’m sure that Win2000 is being replaced by XP any week now. I also completed a fresh install on a blank drive and another machine, which produced all kinds of new and different problems, still unsolved.

Like or hate Microsoft, the current software status is a nightmare–especially for those committed to its use in embedded systems and in support equipment that must run compatible software to remain operational.

Microsoft also has adopted the attitude that all Linux/Unix code is "viral" software, and its new language development tools won’t run on a machine or network where this code is detected.

No workable, long-term solution exists for anyone using Windows-based software tools, even from Microsoft. This situation becomes critical as older operating system software becomes unavailable–unless you buy old copies off of eBay.

XP’s Web-based construction is especially troubling in terms of network security, data security, and software reconfiguration and access. Background functions like automatic updating of operating systems and application software present security holes reaching chasm-like proportions and poses headaches to IT professionals.

For those who follow ZD-Net’s Internet news, the trials of editor Dave Coursey have been typical and instructive. While working on a laptop aboard a plane, his Office XP decided he had made too many computer changes. It turned itself off to defeat the "software piracy," never to return. Ironically, this catastrophe came only weeks after Dave was happily extolling the virtues of XP online.

It is noteworthy that consumer demand for Bluetooth wireless networking or its higher-speed, longer-distance relatives seems to be lukewarm. Nevertheless, this technology is being deployed in printers, laptops, handhelds and cell phones. This deployment does not bode well for the aviation community. Many plastic-cased products have been rushed to market with only modest emissions testing and virtually no in-flight testing. Also, the applicable Federal Communications Commission (FCC) limits for this wireless hardware allow significant near-field emissions.

Many of the companies that put these wireless products on the market have vanished, but their legacies live on in unsupported hardware and notions that all electronics now need some level of wireless connectivity.

Still, we see the onslaught of other high-speed wireless technology and a push for video-enabled, high-data-rate cell phones. Meanwhile, uninformed users often don’t understand the importance of turning off these devices while in aircraft. Consequently, we will be forced to harden aircraft against emission threats of an unknown and constantly changing nature.

Other subtle hardware changes also are causing problems for aviation. One is the demise of serial ports on computers, especially laptops, in favor of USB (Universal Serial Bus) ports. USB is handy but not much use for the millions of applications using RS-232 serial bus subsystems. Often in computer hardware, the issue is not one of better or worse, slower or faster, but merely compatibility or incompatibility.

For now, I’m prepared to forego a Web-enabled refrigerator (yes, Samsung makes one) or an all-mode cell phone that plays video games. But I must have stable, functional software to do my work. How about you?

A Request

Interested in designing for space systems? If you have information and techniques to share, especially about thermal and high-stress design, let me know by e-mail (walter2@sphere.bc.ca) for an upcoming column. Also coming soon will be my instruction for making an incredibly cheap but sophisticated RFI (radio frequency interference) emissions testing system for your design work with off-the shelf hardware.

Walter Shawlee 2 may be reached by e-mail at walter2@sphere.bc.ca.

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