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SMALL FORM FACTOR FORUM

Have no Fear, Embedded World is Here!

COLIN MCCRACKEN & PAUL ROSENFELD

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The arrival of winter reminds us to make our annual pilgrimage to Nuremberg, Germany to witness the latest small form factor product introductions at the Embedded World show during the first week of March. The Atom-ic age began here two years ago with small but mighty, low-power Qseven and CoreExpress modules. Yes, it’s time for SF3 to offer our fearless forecast about what’s hot and what’s not at the upcoming show.

What to Expect? Easy—the usual barrage of announcements from the processor / chipset treadmill. Core this, Atom that, in 31 fun-form-factor flavors. Loyal, cast-of-thousands alliance partners will not dare disappoint their guru, lest they get handed a one-way ticket to the next lower alliance tier. Huddled in their vast shadow will be a lonely but brave all-in-one chip / board supplier with a new proprietary computer-on-module (COM) misnamed as an ITX motherboard. 

Things move fast here as if on the Autobahn. You won’t hear excuses of “there’s no ecosystem” in any language, as a means of justifying a lack of new products. Quite the contrary; it seems at times that any engineer who has not yet invented a proprietary form factor is not worth his or her salt. Along that vein, while it’s tempting to fall for the cutest ultra-small COMs, you probably should stick with mainstream, widely sourced components or risk getting stuck with an EOL flat tire a few kilometers down the road.

Look for anxious North American board vendors walking the show trying to find out what they missed over the past couple of years while innovative new technology came first from Europe. You will recognize them by their jet-lagged expressions of shock and disbelief while inquiring (in English) in which hall the Biergarten is located… and muttering “what’s a COM?” between sips of a stein. You’d think the 15th century castles were located stateside, not the other way around.

Some surprises await discriminating visitors in possession of press passes or armed with knowledge of the code names of unannounced but soon to be available processors and chipsets. Under tables or behind curtains lie valuable working prototypes and preliminary confidential datasheets, hidden since the early access board vendors aren’t allowed to publicly show their new wares until the official processor / chipset launch occurs. 

You may not find the parallel PCI bus proudly displayed anywhere. PCI Express solutions are requisite fare in Germany, and PCI devices (chips) are going EOL as Express replacements come on line. That train has left the Nuremburg station. Look for PCI Express switch chips used to extend the limited resources of the lowest power Atom Z-series platforms. As cost is often favored over low power in this COM-modity age, however, larger SBCs tend to favor the lower-cost Atom N-series designs without the need for bridges but at twice the power dissipation.

As usual, be careful about designing baseboards that need more PCI Express lanes than are available in the chipsets, because not all vendors spring for switches on the modules. Watch for the usual “gotchas” in baseboard design—power sequencing, ACPI, power supply source impedance / current output ratings, and chipset behaviors that differ from one COM to the next, even those from the same vendor! If you believe that COMs built to loose standards are inter-operable, we have some waterfront property in Nevada to sell you. And don’t even think of asking about whether the next upgrade will just drop into the baseboard you’re about to spend 12 months designing. 

If you listen closely, you will hear the faint moans of the ISA vampires, which, as you recall, can’t be killed because they are already dead (and don’t have EOL chips on board). The most fearless forecast offered by SF3 is that the number of boards on display with PC/104 (ISA) connectors will continue to exceed those with PCI-104 (PCI, aka PC/104-Plus) connectors. These seems counterintuitive to desktop motherboard fans out there. But this is the embedded market, and PCI Express and COMs are the hares and PCI is the tortoise. And these hares ain’t sleepin’.

We hold out hope that last month’s lambasting of I/O vendors will move them to heed the outcry for new industry leadership. The standards are written and the older technology is rapidly fading into EOL-land. The I/O and the corresponding software drive the application; CPU cores are commoditized. The time is now...

It’s a bird… it’s a plane… No, it’s just another show week in Germany. Fasten your seat belts, and see you there!