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SMALL FORM FACTOR FORUM

April 2011

When is a Standard not a Standard?

COLIN MCCRACKEN & PAUL ROSENFELD

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As we start our fourth(!) year writing the SF3 column for RTC magazine, our frequent readers should have detected a couple of themes that have come up repeatedly in our columns. One revolves around the evolution of technology that has all but forced the abandonment of mainstream technologies in use for 20+ years that are more than adequate for hundreds of currently deployed embedded applications. The obsolescence of these older technologies, such as the ISA bus, has forced equipment companies to spend hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars to upgrade equipment with new CPU boards sporting a spanking new PCI Express bus interface that is virtually useless in these applications while embracing an obtuse and complex bridging procedure to continue to use proven ISA I/O devices.

Technology evolution for the convenience of component suppliers continues to plague our industry. While there is not one shred of evidence that our beating on this issue has changed anyone’s product roadmap, we hope that we have provided at least some comfort to those of you who deal with this problem every day. You have lots of company.

The second overriding theme for the past three years has been standards. Standards abound. They are everywhere. Every new proprietary SFF board seems to result in a specification being written and a feel-good promo club being formed. All it takes is a specification and a web site. The reasons are clear. A spate of component discontinuances over the past decade has resulted in the (premature) end of life of dozens of small form factor boards. This has driven frightened OEMs to seek only solutions with the perception of a long life, multiple vendors and a rich ecosystem—hence industry standards.  

Under traditional guidelines, industry standards resulted from ideas and concepts being discussed and presented at working groups under the auspices of independent standards organizations such as VITA, PICMG and PC/104. But bringing your idea to this type of organization engenders some risk. First, you are probably telling your competition what you are thinking about fairly early in the game. Secondly, the group may not like your idea. Even worse, they may change it. Finally, as soon as the working group gets going, you lose control.  

So, in the standards “gold rush,” and in an even madder rush to maintain control, SFF suppliers have come up with a new way to create a “standard.” Build a unique new product. As it is finished, write a specification that describes it in generic terms. Register a clever domain name. Contact a few of your suppliers, or weaker competitors and cajole them to join in your standardization effort. Put their logo on your web page. (Note to self: Since you already have a product ready for production, they are not a really competitive threat.) Don’t ask for money—membership in your “club” has to be free. Crank up the marketing machine and bring the world its newest SFF industry standard.  

There are a couple of problems here. Remember those three goals? Long life: Could be. But the life cycle control is in the hands of the company that created the new “standard” (not a multi-member standards organization), and if it doesn’t take off, it’s history. Also it should be noted that they can change the spec any time they please—after all, it’s theirs.  

Multiple vendors: Well, maybe eventually. But a serious second source is going to think twice about joining and investing in a “standard” that is controlled hook, line and sinker by a single company. If other vendors do show up, it’s the low end of the totem pole.  

Rich ecosystem: Same deal. Investment from third parties in the ecosystem is a serious issue. If it is Intel creating the standard, then fine. We believe in Intel’s ability to promote and support for the long haul. But if it’s coming from your local garage, then you have to seriously ask who would make such an investment and take such a risk.

These so-called logo clubs (because member contribution is pretty much limited to putting their logo on the web site) are easy to set up and may be hard to distinguish from the real thing. They have a web site, distinct from their founding company. They may even incorporate a non-profit corporation, which may not be traceable back to their founder. They may have pretty graphics and fancy names. So caveat emptor, as if you didn’t know already.