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SMALL FORM FACTOR FORUM

Million Module Milestone

COLIN MCCRACKEN

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Embedded computing will never be the same again. Small form factor boards now deliver more performance in a fraction of the size, weight and power of what was considered small ten years ago. Moore’s Law gains can be applied to old systems either as a cost and power reduction, or as a major speed-up, along with fast memory and I/O interfaces.

Even quad core 2 GHz processors with RAM and LAN controller fit on a 10 square centimeter module and dissipate only 10-20 watts. Some modules are even one third that size. Some of these Intel and AMD-based modules are rated for the industrial temperature range of -40° ~ +85°C from the chip manufacturer and don’t need the extra step of the board vendor’s screening process.

As computer-on-module (COM) plus carrier board solutions make their way into more and more market segments, legacy small form factor SBCs are retrenching into foxholes—safe proven market segments—but even there they aren’t safe from the module invasion.

What is the secret to rapid COM penetration? Exact I/O match in a small space? Easy CPU upgrades over time? Obsolescence management? Multiple price / performance system configurations using a single carrier board? Quick retrofitting into mechanical housings without expensive re-tooling? Open standards with multiple sources? Aggressive competition among suppliers? Asian manufacturing? It’s hard to pick just one answer, and the benefits vary widely across system OEM users anyway.

There are still a few areas where COMs aren’t common. If the technical and supply requirements are straightforward enough to point to a vanilla motherboard solution, it’s hard for a two-board COM architecture to match the price. But all it takes is one significant COM benefit to tip the scales. Again, this can be purely a business or technology or subsystem management consideration that outweighs the cost disadvantage.

Occasionally time-to-market is touted as a disadvantage to the COM (modular) approach. It’s easy to see why. Designing a carrier board isn’t trivial for those OEMs who are staffed only to spec and buy components rather than design their own boards. Third-party design service companies exist to alleviate the design burden. Module manufacturers provide reference carrier board schematics, usually without fees or NDAs. But a type of newcomer to the COM ecosystem is really starting to accelerate COM adoption by OEMs who couldn’t stomach the lead time or NRE cost of developing with COMs before.

Commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) carrier boards are the new missing link for enabling the wide replacement of legacy SBCs and I/O cards. These carrier boards are ready to use, meaning they are suitable for a device manufacturer to put on the system level bill of materials and buy in volume, whereas reference design carriers are intentionally too bulky and expensive for that purpose. COTS carriers don’t need to have a kitchen sink of I/O expansion options. Each has a simple set of I/O that is meaningful for a certain class of applications. Although this approach has been around for nearly ten years, only recently has the breadth and depth of carrier choices achieved critical mass.

The recent breakthrough came about when a number of long-time I/O card and CPU card vendors realized that COMs have moved from specialty niches into the mainstream. In other words, if you can’t lick ?em, join ?em. A computer-on-module design includes a processor, a companion chip / chipset (if the processor isn’t already a system-on-chip), RAM, a LAN controller, and power supplies and control. This subset of system circuits has proven to be common across so many applications that it’s very useful to carve out and standardize as a building block. Doing this solves the headache of subdividing SBC production into so many small builds due to many connector styles, chip stuff options and BIOS builds. The industry runs more efficiently with a small number of high volume processor core vendors and a large number of low-volume high-mix I/O card producers.

Off-the-shelf COM processor boards are now shipping by the millions per year. A great deal of commoditization has occurred, spurred by aggressive module vendors who sell mainly on price. The supplier base is being pared down a bit by the exit of prominent board vendors from this category of boards who don’t want to weigh down the profit margins of their high-margin large form factor and systems businesses. Nonetheless, each year the customer base continues to benefit through competitive multiple sourcing and much broader x86 and RISC offerings.