Confused or Liberated? Take Your Pick


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Walking the floor of the recent Embedded World show in Nuremberg, Germany, one was immediately struck by the vast number of small form factor computer modules on display. The advent of the Intel Atom and the VIA Nano families of processors has unleashed a firestorm of innovation and imitation among competing manufacturers. There were scads of established standards such as COM Express modules, newer emerging standards such as Pico-ITX and Qseven along with a large number of proprietary form factors featuring their own connectors and signal definitions.

Once again, this is evidence of profusion before the culling-the eruption of enthusiastic bidding for recognition and acceptance by the market before that market dons its black hood and selects those who will survive and those who will be returned to the humus of the Earth. The enthusiasm is understandable because these new computationally powerful yet extremely low-power processors indicate that highly intelligent control can be embedded in ever smaller, ever more mobile applications, vastly multiplying the number of modules that can be sold, which results in cold cash in the till.

One of the challenges has been to optimize cost by finding the sweet spot for implementing the I/O, especially for applications with highly specialized I/O requirements. That was actually the rationale for the development of COM modules as opposed to single board computers (SBCs)-to separate the processor, which can be frequently upgraded, from the uniquely designed I/O subsystem, which is specific to the application and much less likely to be modified over time. Now the decision to go with a COM or an SBC depends very much on I/O requirements along with cost and volume considerations. That, however, appears about to change.

We are beginning to see the emergence of small form factor modules that can play the role of either COM or SBC, or which can be designed to be either on the same size board. Consider the recently developed Pico-ITX form factor. On a 100 x 70 mm board you find the Atom or VIA processor and memory along with a connection for external power and I/O that includes USB ports, graphics and Ethernet interfaces among others. There are also pin headers for storage, etc. It is to date the smallest x86 SBC form factor.

But now we are seeing the appearance of the Pico-ITXe, which leaves off a number of I/O connectors but preserves the interfaces with pin headers and now incorporates the new SUMIT connectors, which give it the ability to plug into a stackable system with a specialized I/O card. Yet it still retains the properties of an SBC and can also act as a COM.

A similar yet even more legacy-free approach is being taken in the new Industry Standard Module (ISM) specification coming out of the Small Form Factor SIG. This standard specifies basically the size of the board and the location of the mounting screw holes. It can be designed as a COM using the SUMIT connectors. In fact the first incarnation is called SUMIT-ISM. But a board built to the ISM spec is free to use only the SUMIT connectors, in which case it is a pure COM module. Or it can also include pin headers on board for other I/O, such as IDE, Ethernet, GPIO, etc., in which case by including an external power connector it becomes a hybrid SBC/COM. One could also imagine the same form factor supporting a pure SBC design. In the latter case, though, it would be easier to go with a PC/104 approach because the ISM's  90 x 96 mm size is the same as PC/104.

What we no longer find in any of these implementations is a bus-no IDE or PCI. If you want to add modules, the serial interfaces in the SUMIT technology are available. If this seems a bit confusing, it is also very liberating for manufacturer and OEM alike. The same small form factor can fit into a vast array of small, general-purpose applications or into very small systems with special I/O needs. There appears to be a movement for manufacturers to seek partnerships with specialized design houses that can address the customer's specific I/O needs while the vendor concentrates on the COM or SBC design most suited to those needs.

Here's the best part-we're not done, not by a long shot. Intel is expected to roll out its 32nm process technology sometime later in the year, a matter that is shrouded in secrecy. Will that lead to another round of smaller, even lower-power form factors? Time will tell and it will be an exciting time to be sure.