By Tom Geheran | May 11, 2022

Something Bigger Than Ourselves

Those who serve our country through military service live by the creed that we are part of something bigger than ourselves. For them, success means succeeding as a unit. On deployed missions, their survival depends on teamwork and trust. Those of us who design and build rugged computing systems used by the military are also part of the team—albeit safely behind the scenes. The behind-the-scenes team for military procurement is vast and diverse. Program requirements can be complex. The criteria for success aren’t always clear. Still, for us at ZMicro one thing never changes: the guiding principle of every product we build is how can we better serve the needs of the military end-user. How can we design and build products that exceed the expectations of the user in deployed military applications and enable them to do their job better, easier, and more safely? At a minimum, this means meticulous attention to reliability, usability, and serviceability. In practice, it means bringing a deep understanding of the requirements of deployed military missions across an endless range of applications to create the best purpose-built solutions. It also means understanding that we are part of a bigger picture of procurement which includes the entire supply chain and doing our part in ensuring a successful program.


Rugged compute systems for military applications differ from commercial systems in two fundamental ways:

  1. how they are used
  2. how they are built

Because of what we see in action movies and video games, it’s not hard to imagine the harsh environmental conditions and assaults that deployed systems must withstand: shock and vibration; extreme temperatures and weather; radiation and more. Military compute systems are used in an endless variety of environments and must be designed, built and tested to meet application-specific requirements. There is really no such thing as a general-purpose military computer or display. If commercial-off-the-shelf solutions will not suffice, how do purpose-built military computer systems come into being?

The lifecycle of a rugged system typically starts with a government-funded program that fields a team that includes personnel representing the military customer, a prime contractor responsible for sourcing a solution, and sub-contractors responsible for designing, building and testing the solution.

The military participants are responsible for modernizing and maximizing compute capabilities to outpace potential threats. The military is always looking for new tech that can bring a competitive advantage, so innovation is essential.


The prime contractor captures program requirements that address how the new rugged system will fit into the architecture of the complete program solution. The program solution typically includes many other pieces of equipment that need to fit within the constraints of the deployed environment such as an aircraft, vehicle, ship, shelter and so on. Customization is almost always needed to satisfy program requirements. For example, a display may need a unique form factor to fit in a confined space, a mission computer may need a specially designed cooling system, or an aircraft data storage system may require an ultra-light chassis. Program managers are focused on integrating components and system pieces to meet essential capability and feature requirements within constraints including SWaP-C (Size, Weight, Power and Cost) and program longevity.

Military end-users, the people who serve on deployed missions have two basic requirements: that the system does what it is supposed to do, and that it is easy to use within their workflow. There are nuances that affect usability and it is not always possible to capture every detail in a formal specification. This is where it becomes invaluable to have highly experienced, field-proven system providers, like ZMicro onboard.

Rugged systems are typically so-called COTS (commercial-off-the-shelf) systems, which means they are designed to leverage the technological advancement in commercial computing and may include many of the same components, such as the latest processors, memory, interconnect, and peripheral interfaces. But rugged COTS systems are very different from commodity systems. They are designed and tested to withstand harsh conditions and extreme environments that are unique to each application. They are more reliable and have a much longer serviceable lifetime. They are designed for a specific purpose and satisfy the unique usability requirements of deployed missions.

Where we fit in

As a provider of rugged systems for the military, ZMicro brings the highly specialized expertise needed to adapt commercial components and technology for use in highly customized and ruggedized solutions. But there is so much more to the job. Our role is to create a solution that satisfies all the above requirements for innovation, integration, cost, SWaP, ruggedness, reliability, usability, and serviceability. This requires collaborating and cooperating with the larger team from military managers to prime contractors to military end-users. It entails a commitment to listening, learning, problem-solving, creating, and innovating.

We have many stories to share with you in upcoming articles about systems and solutions we’ve developed for the Airforce, Army, Marines, Navy, and Special Ops. Each one is ultimately about a person serving on a mission and how we listened, learned, problem solved, innovated and worked with a diverse behind-the-scenes team to create a solution to help them accomplish their mission more safely and easily.

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