Technology, Philosophy, and Kitty Litter: An Interview with VITA’s Ray Alderman

By: Chris A. Ciufo, Editor, Embedded Systems Engineering

Chairman of the Board, Ray Alderman, presents a unique view of how embedded companies compete, thrive and die in the COTS market.

One never knows what Ray Alderman is going to say, only that it’s going to be interesting.  As Chairman of the Board of VITA (and former Executive Director), Ray is a colorful character. We caught up with him to discuss a recent white paper he wrote entitled: “RAW – How This Embedded Board and Systems Business Works.” We posed a series of questions to Ray about his musings; edited excerpts follow.

Chris “C2” Ciufo: Ray, you reference the Boston Consulting Group matrix that places companies in four quadrants, arguing that most of the companies in our embedded COTS industry are Low Volume (LV)/High Margin (HM) “Niche” players. The place not to be is the LV/LM “Graveyard”—right where technologies like ISA, S-100, Multibus and PCI Gen 2 are. But…PCI Express?

RayAldermanRay Alderman: I was careful to say “PCI Express Gen 2.” That’s because Gen 3 is on our doorstep, and then there will be Gen 4, and so on. Gen 2 will be EOL [end of life] before too long. The niche players in our market—all embedded boards, not just VME/VPX—rarely take leadership in mainstream technology. That position is reserved for the four companies that control 75% of the commercial embedded market segment, or $1.5 billion. They are ADLINK, Advantech, congatec, and Kontron: these guys get the inside track with technology innovators like Intel and Nvidia; they’ll have PCIe Gen 4 product ready to ship before the niche players even have the advanced specs. Everyone else has to find other ways to compete.

C2: You said that “in the history of this industry, no company has ever reached $1 billion in sales” because as the volumes go up, customers shift to contract manufacturers to lower their prices. Only three companies ever came close to the HV/LM quadrant. Who were they?

Ray: Advantech, Kontron and Motorola Computer Group (MCG). MCG, you’ll recall, was amalgamated with Force when sold by Solectron, and then morphed into Emerson Computer Group. MCG damn near ruled the VME business back then, but as my model points out—it was unsustainable. Advantech and Kontron are still around, although Kontron is going through some—ahem!—realignment right now. My model and predictions still hold true.

C2: What’s causing this growth-to-bust cycle in the embedded market? Not all markets experience this kind of bell curve: many keep rising beyond our event horizon.

Ray: Since about 1989, the companies that had to sell out or went out of business made one of two basic mistakes: (1) they entered into a commodity market and could not drive their costs down fast enough, or (2) they entered a niche market with a commodity strategy and the volumes never materialized.

I’ve been saying this for a while—it’s practically “Alderman’s Law”—but our military embedded board and system merchant market (all form factors) is about $1.2 billion. The cat litter market in the U.S. is about $1.8 billion, and their product is infinitely less complicated.

C2: Wait—are you really comparing kitty litter to embedded technology?

Ray: By contrast. Cat litter margins are low, volumes are high and they use a complex distribution system to get the litter to cats. Our margins are high, our volumes are low, and we deal direct with the users. The top three companies in the military segment—Abaco [formerly GE Intelligent Platforms], Curtiss-Wright Defense Solutions and Mercury—total up to about $750 million. They’re around $200 million each. They add intellectual value and enjoy high GPM [gross profit margin].

On the other hand, the commercial embedded board market for telecom, industrial, commercial and transportation totals to about $2.0 billion. Using kitty logic, the dry cat food market in the U.S. is about $3.8 billion. Their margins are low, volumes are high, and they use a complex distribution system. The players in the commercial board market have low margins, low volumes (compared to other segments), and sell directly to end users. It’s a terrible place to be. Kitty litter or cat food?

C2: What’s your advice?

Ray: I’m advocating for the military market, where margins are higher. About 61% of the military embedded board/system market is controlled by the three vendors, $750 million. The remaining $450 million (39%) is shared by many small niche vendors: nice, profitable niches. Several smaller companies do $30-50 million in this segment.  In contrast, only four companies control 75% of the commercial embedded boards market, or roughly $1.5 billion. That leaves a mere $500 million (25%) for all of the other smaller companies. Thus there are not many fairly large or profitable niches for these smaller guys—and not many of them do more than $10-15 million. Kitty litter, anyone?

C2: Can you offer some specific advice for board vendors?

Ray: There are only three values you can add to make money in these markets: manufacturing value, service value, and intellectual value. Adding intellectual value is where you add high-level technical skills that other companies do not have. Examples: high speed A-to-D boards where companies like Mercury and Pentek live. You can also add DSPs with unique IP inside. Again, Mercury and Pentek come to mind. In fact, Mercury (then Mercury Computer Systems) proved this model nicely when they invented the RACEway inter-board link and created ASICs to implement it. If you want to raise your GPM, this is how you do it.

In fact, Mercury is still doing it. They bought Echotek some years ago for their I/O boards and just recently bought three divisions of Microsemi. With this latest acquisition, they gain secure storage memories, crypto IP, and a bunch of RF capabilities to add to their existing RF portfolio. Today, RF technology is “magical” and Mercury will be able to charge accordingly for it to maximize their GPM.  Most of the embedded board military suppliers add their value to the market through intellectual value. It makes the most sense.

C2: Is the recipe for success merely targeting niche markets and adding intellectual value?

Ray: I’ll let you in on a little secret. The margin on boards is much higher than the margin on systems. It’s ironic, because every board guy seems to want to get into the systems business, and there have been lots of M&A [mergers and acquisitions] over the past several years. If you’re going to do systems, you’ve got to raise the price, especially if you’re selling air-cooled [convection] systems. Conduction-cooled systems command a higher price, but they’re harder to design.

You also need to choose the niche carefully, but that goes without saying. If you can add intellectual value to your niche—such as high performance GPGPU processing—you can command higher prices, whether at the board- or systems level.

There are only three ways to be successful in the embedded boards and systems business. Be first, be smarter, or cheat. Let me explain.

Being first is usually relegated to the big guys, like Abaco, Curtiss-Wright, or Mercury. They get access to the latest semiconductor technology, which is a fundamental driver in all of our markets. Examples here would be in-advance knowledge of Intel’s Kaby Lake follow-on to the Skylake Core i7 processor, or Nvidia’s plans for their next GPU. The smaller board vendors won’t get access, so they usually can’t be first.

One other thing, the big guys can also adapt a market to them. That is, they have enough influence that they can actually move an entire market. The smaller guys just have to find other ways.

But they can be smarter. Force Computer couldn’t (at the time) beat Motorola’s Computer Group because Motorola was inventing the 68xxx processors back then. So Force switched to the SPARC processor and built a successful business around it.  In effect, Force adapted to a market that was hungry for processing power—it didn’t have to be 68020 or 68040 processing power. [Editor’s note: in fact, the 68040 wasn’t successful because Motorola themselves introduced their PowerPC processor to the market, which was co-developed with IBM. The market moved away from the 68xxx CISC processor to the PPC60x RISC processor; the rest is “history.”]

C2: And lastly, how should companies “cheat” to win?

Ray: It’s hard to cheat in the open market, against big entrenched players. The best way to cheat is to fragment an existing market. Sun Tzu called this the “Divisional” strategy. Companies can create a niche such as by creating an open standard for your version of a board or system architecture. Creating a niche is like being smarter, but is marketing-based instead of being engineering-based.

At VITA/VSO, the policies and procedures allow any company, along with two other sponsors, to write a new standard without interference. There are countless examples of this within VITA, and many of these “fragmented niches” have become successful standards that we use today, including FMC, PMC, and XMC [mezzanine cards]. Older standards like Greenspring [mezzanine modules] were successful but now mostly obsolete. There are other new standards such as the three for rugged small form factors [VITA 73, 74, 75]. And the various OpenVPX profiles are other examples, such as new “Space VPX” and “Space VPX Lite”.

C2: Any last thoughts?

Ray: As Albert Einstein once said, “We cannot solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” My point: look to new architectures beyond von Neumann’s architecture that the semiconductor guys keep forcing on us. Consider fiber interconnects as a way to get off the copper-trace technology curve. Create a niche—“cheat” if you have to. Just don’t end up following a kitty litter business strategy, else you’ll be taken out with the trash.

Design Resources: USB 3.1 and Type-C

By: Chris A. Ciufo, Editor, Embedded Systems Engineering

An up-to-date quick reference list for engineers designing with Type-C.

USB 3.1 and its new Type-C connector are likely in your design near-future. USB 3.1 and the Type-C connector run at up to 10 Gbps, and Type-C is the USB-IF’s “does everything” connector that can be inserted either way (and never is upside down). The Type-C connector also delivers USB 3.1 speeds plus other gigabit protocols simultaneously, including DisplayPort, HDMI, Thunderbolt, PCI Express and more.

Also new or updated are the Battery Charging (BC) and Power Delivery (PD) specifications that provide up to 100W of charge capability in an effort to eliminate the need for a drawer full of incompatible wall warts.

If you’ve got USB 3.1 “SuperSpeed+” or the Type-C connector in your future, here’s a recent list of design resources, articles and websites that can help get you up to speed.

Start Here: The USB Interface Forum governs all of these specs, with lots of input from industry partners like Intel and Microsoft. USB 3.1 (it’s actually Gen 2), Type-C, and PD information is available via the USB-IF and it’s the best place to go for the actual details (note the hotlinks). Even if you don’t read them now, you know you’re going to need to read them eventually.

“Developer Days” The USB-IF presented this two-day seminar in Taipei last November 2015. I’ve recently discovered the treasure trove of preso’s located here (Figure 1). The “USB Type-C Specification Overview” is the most comprehensive I’ve seen lately.

Figure 1: USB-IF held a “Developer Days” forum in Taipei November 2015. These PPT’s are a great place to start your USB 3.1/Type-C education. (Image courtesy:

Figure 1: USB-IF held a “Developer Days” forum in Taipei November 2015. These PPT’s are a great place to start your USB 3.1/Type-C education. (Image courtesy:

What is Type-C? Another decent 1,000-foot view is my first article on Type-C: “Top 3 Essential Technologies for Ultra-mobile, Portable Embedded Systems.” Although the article covers other technologies, it compares Type-C against the other USB connectors and introduces designers to the USB-IF’s Battery Charging (BC) and Power Delivery (PD) specifications.

What is USB? To go further back to basics, “3 Things You Need to Know about USB Switches” starts at USB 1.1 and brings designers up to USB 3.0 SuperSpeed (5 Gbps). While the article is about switches, it also reminds readers that at USB 3.0 (and 3.1) speeds, signal integrity can’t be ignored.

USB Plus What Else? The article “USB Type-C is Coming…” overlays the aforementioned information with Type-C’s sideband capabilities that can transmit HDMI, DVI, Thunderbolt and more. Here, the emphasis is on pins, lines, and signal integrity considerations.

More Power, Scotty! Type-C’s 100W Power Delivery sources energy in either direction, depending upon the enumeration sequence between host and target. Components are needed to handle this logic, and the best source of info is from the IC and IP companies. A recent Q&A we did with IP provider Synopsys “Power Where It’s Needed…” goes behind the scenes a bit, while TI’s E2E Community has a running commentary on all things PD. The latter is a must-visit stop for embedded designers.

Finally, active cables are the future as Type-C interfaces to all manner of legacy interfaces (including USB 2.0/3.0). At last year’s IDF 2015, Cypress showed off dongles that converted between specs. Since then, the company has taken the lead in this emerging area and they’re the first place to go to learn about conversions and dongles (Figure 2).

Figure 2: In the Cypress booth at IDF 2015, the company and its partners showed off active cables and dongles. Here, Type-C (white) converts to Ethernet, HDMI, VGA, and one more I don’t recognize. (Photo by Chris A. Ciufo, 2015.)

Figure 2: In the Cypress booth at IDF 2015, the company and its partners showed off active cables and dongles. Here, Type-C (white) converts to Ethernet, HDMI, VGA, and one more I don’t recognize. (Photo by Chris A. Ciufo, 2015.)

Evolving Future: Although USB 3.1 and the Type-C connector are solid and not changing much, IC companies are introducing more highly integrated solutions for the BC, PD and USB 3.1 specifications plus sideband logic. For example, Intel’s Thunderbolt 3 uses Type-C and runs up to 40 Gbps, suggesting that Type-C has substantial headroom and more change is coming. My point: expect to keep your USB 3.1 and Type-C education up-to-date.

Intel Changes Course–And What a Change!

By Chris A. Ciufo, Editor, Embedded Intel Solutions

5 bullets explain Intel’s recent drastic course correction.

Intel CEO Brian Krzanich (Photo by author, IDF 2015.)

Intel CEO Brian Krzanich (Photo by author, IDF 2015.)

I recently opined on the amazing technology gifts Intel has given the embedded industry as the company approaches its 50th anniversary. Yet a few weeks later, the company released downward financials and announced layoffs, restructurings, executive changes and new strategies. Here are five key points from the recent news-storm of (mostly) negative coverage.

1. Layoffs.

Within days of the poor financial news, Intel CEO Brian Krzanich (“BK”) announced that 12,000 loyal employees would have to go. As the event unfolded over a few days, the pain was felt throughout Intel: from the Oregon facility where its IoT Intelligent Gateway strategy resides, to its design facilities in Israel and Ireland, to older fabs in places like New Mexico. Friends of mine at Intel have either been let go or are afraid for their jobs. This is the part about tech—and it’s not limited to Intel, mind you—that I hate the most. Sometimes it feels like a sweatshop where workers are treated poorly. (Check out the recent story concerning BiTMICRO Networks, which really did treat its workers poorly.)

2. Atom family: on its way out. 

This story broke late on the Friday night after the financial news—it was almost as if the company hadn’t planned on talking about it so quickly. But the bottom line is that the Atom never achieved all the goals Intel set out for it: lower price, lower power and a spot in handheld. Of course, much is written about Intel’s failure to wrest more than a token slice out of ARM’s hegemony in mobile. (BTW: that term “hegemony” used to be applied to Intel’s dominance in PCs. Sigh.) Details are still scant, but the current Atom Bay Trail architecture works very nicely, and I love my Atom-based Win8.1 Asus 2:1 with it. But the next Atom iteration (Apollo Lake) looks like the end of the line. Versions of Atom may live on under other names like Celeron and Pentium (though some of these may also be Haswell or Skylake versions).

3. New pillars announced.

Intel used to use the term “pillars” for its technology areas, and BK has gone to great lengths to list the new ones as: Data Center (aka: Xeon); Memory (aka: Flash SSDs and the Optane, 3D XPoint Intel/Micro joint venture); FPGAs (aka: Altera, eventually applied to Xeon co-accelerators); IoT (aka: what Intel used to call embedded); and 5G (a modem technology the company doesn’t really have yet). Mash-ups of these pillars include some of the use cases Intel is showing off today, such as wearables, medical, drones (apparently a personal favorite of BK), RealSense camera, and smart automobiles including self-driving cars. (Disclosure: I contracted to Intel in 2013 pertaining to the automotive market.)

 Intel’s new pillars, according to CEO Brian Krzanich. 5G modems are included in “Connectivity.” Not shown is “Moore’s Law,” which Intel must continue to push to be competitive.

Intel’s new pillars, according to CEO Brian Krzanich. 5G modems are included in “Connectivity.” Not shown is “Moore’s Law,” which Intel must continue to push to be competitive.

4. Tick-tock goodbye.

For many years, Intel has set the benchmark for process technology and made damn sure Moore’s Law was followed. The company’s cadence of new architecture (Tock) followed by process shrink (Tick) predictably streamed products that found their way into PCs, laptops, the data center (now “cloud” and soon “fog”). But as Intel approached 22nm, it got harder and harder to keep up the pace as CMOS channel dimensions approached Angstroms (inter-atomic distances). The company has now officially retired Tick-Tock in favor of a three-step process of Architecture, Process, and Process tuning. This is in fact where the company is today as the Core series evolved from 4th-gen (Haswell) to 5th-gen (Broadwell—a sort-of interim step) to the recent 6th-gen (Skylake). Skylake is officially a “Tock,” but if you work backwards, it’s kind of a fine-tuned process improvement with new features such as really good graphics, although AnandTech and others lauded Broadwell’s graphics. The next product—Kaby Lake (just “leaked” last week, go figure)—looks to be another process tweak. Now-public specs point to even better graphics, if the data can be believed.

Intel is arguably the industry’s largest software developer, and second only to Google when it comes to Android. (Photo by author, IDF 2015.)

Intel is arguably the industry’s largest software developer, and second only to Google when it comes to Android. (Photo by author, IDF 2015.)

5. Embedded, MCUs, and Value-Add.

This last bullet is my prediction of how Intel is going to climb back out of the rut. Over the years the company mimicked AMD and nearly singularly focused on selling x86 CPUs and variants (though it worked tirelessly on software like PCIe, WiDi, Android, USB Type-C and much more). It jettisoned value-add MCUs like the then-popular 80196 16-bitter with A/D and 8751EPROM-based MCU—conceding all of these products to companies like Renesas (Hitachi), Microchip (PIC series), and Freescale (ARM and Power-based MCUs, originally for automotive). Yet Intel can combine scads of its technology—including modems, WiFi (think: Centrino), PCIe, and USB)—into intelligent peripherals for IoT end nodes. Moreover, the company’s software arsenal even beats IBM (I’ll wager) and Intel can apply the x86 code base and tool set to dozens of new products. Or, they could just buy Microchip or Renesas or Cypress.

It pains me to see Intel layoff people, retrench, and appear to fumble around. I actually do think it is shot-gunning things just a bit right now, and officially giving up on developing low-power products for smartphones. Yet they’ll need low power for IoT nodes, too, and I don’t know that Quark and Curie are going to cut it. Still: I have faith. BK is hell-fire-brimstone motivated, and the company is anything but stupid. Time to pick a few paths and stay the course.

End of an embedded era: Emerson De-”Mots” Motorola Embedded

As Emerson Network Power gets sold off to Platinum Equity, Motorola Computer Group, Force Computer, Artesyn, and more names may disappear into the history books soon.

8/7/13 UPDATE: Several people have commented that the napkin analysis below neglects to account for the “power” side of Emerson Network Power. ENP was also partly assembled via acquisition including: Astec, Liebert, and others. A comment also was sent to me saying “The embedded power unit has been on the market for a buyer for quite some time…”  Finally, there are some questions raised about the size of the open standard ATCA/xTCA markets, with one person agreeing with my statement that the telcos are successfully using the standards to build their own hardware. This would reduce the TAM for non-captive vendors like Emerson Network Power. Thank you to all who corresponded with me privately.  C2


Emerson today announced plans to sell 51 percent of Emerson Network Power to Platinum Equity for $300 million. It’s a shame, for sure. But what’s equally interesting are the embedded technologies and their creators leaving the Emerson camp, and how we got to this place.

Embedded Consolidation by Acquisition

Emerson Network Power became the $1.4 billion business it is today partly by acquiring Motorola Embedded Communications Computing in 2007 for $350 million, when ECC’s turnover was about $520 million (2006). The sale closed in 2008.

Perhaps a bargain for Emerson at the time, in the interest of buying “embedded computing products and services to equipment manufacturers in telecommunications, medical imaging, defense and aerospace and industrial automation,” wrote the St. Louis Business Journal at the time. Motorola’s $520 million in sales was added to Artesyn’s $100 million embedded computing business, acquired by Emerson Network Power the year prior, adding up to over $600 million in revenue 2007.

Just three years prior, Motorola was then called “Motorola Computer Group” (MCG) and had acquired the then-heavyweight Force Computers from board-stuffer Solectron. The terms of the agreement were not immediately disclosed, but I was able to ferret the price of $121 million from a footnote on page 47 of Moto’s 2004 10K here. Interestingly, it was slightly prior to this when Motorola spun off their semiconductor operations to Freescale Semiconductor, a separate financial entity at the time. The combined MCG and Force division became known as Motorola Embedded Communications Computing and was all about standards-based telecom and military products like VME, AdvancedTCA, and so on. But mostly about the telcom-focused AdvancedTCA (ATCA).

If you’re following the math, the cumulative total of acquisitions for these embedded technologies was about $721 million to this point. As I recall, Force didn’t belong to Solectron for very long; less than two years, I think. MCG + Force = Moto ECC added up to about 1,500 employees in August 2004, said the press release at the time. The division’s corporate vice president, Wendy Vittori (previously of Dell Computer if memory serves), said at the time: “We will be able to provide solutions for a wider range of customer application needs, supported by a broader portfolio of boards, systems, and services.”

Moto was number one in VME, although they’d ceded the rugged mil/aero market to the likes of Dy4 Systems (later Curtiss-Wright), Radstone, and SBS (both later part of GE Intelligent Platforms) in the late 1990s. Motorola lead the non-mil market with Motorola’s/Freescale’s own PowerPC-based single board computers, whereas Force had leadership in Intel-based SBCs and broader networking products. Wendy was right: it was a pretty decent technology fit, and Motorola was at that time already parlaying their embedded products into the data center and telecom. A year prior, in 2003, Motorola acquired NetPlane Systems, a telecom provider with data and control plane products…and captive customers.

When the Emerson/Motorola deal closed in 2008, an Emerson press release quoted several analysts praising the acquisition. It also said “A significant trend in the embedded computing industry is the adoption of industry standards, including ATCA, MicroTCA and AdvancedMC (AMC/xTCA)…currently more than 40 percent of network equipment providers are shipping ATCA-based systems.”

Present Tense

So far so good. In fact, I’ve followed the industry closely and agree that wired and wireless infrastructure build-outs continue to favor these embedded open standards-based products, and ATCA et al have replaced proprietary telecom equipment. Emerson Network Power’s VME business, I suspect, never recovered since the market for VME (and now the VXS and VPX variants) is almost entirely in defense. (Recall that Motorola walked away from that business ten years ago.) That leaves ATCA, xTCA targeting the telecom markets.

As recently as two months ago (May 2013), the head of the PICMG standards group responsible for ATCA, xTCA and AMC told me how well the telecom markets were growing. You can read my interview with Joe Pavlat here, where Joe estimated the market for ATCA at somewhere between $1.5 billion and 2.5 billion per year.

What happened?

In February 2013 Emerson’s CEO David Farr went on record with Fortune magazine as saying he wants to “double down in businesses that help manufacturers produce their wares” and to focus on cooling products (like air conditioners and chillers for data centers).

This might explain why Emerson would opt to leave this business along with Emerson’s pre-Motorola power business. The press release issued today cites the group’s revenue at $1.4 billion in 2012, probably less than the cumulative total of the price in real dollars of all those acquisitions if you linearize them from 2008. In fact, the group should probably be selling over $2 billion to achieve the correct ROI on all of those acquisitions, but that bumps up against the ATCA TAM cited above by Joe Pavlat of PIGMG. Did Emerson run out of ATCA runway?

That possibly explains the $300 million purchase price for 51 percent, making the overall sale roughly 50 cents on the dollar of last year’s gross sales. That also puts years’ worth of leading-edge VME, control plane, data plane, networking IP, ATCA, xTCA and other embedded technology up for sale by Platinum Equity. Or maybe not.

Sell it, or Keep it?

Who might want this technology? If you assume that no Emerson Network Power customers will be lost in the process (CapEx equipment is not quickly designed out), Emerson’s competitors like Radisys, Kontron, IBM, Dell, and HP already have their own (open-standard) hardware. My bet is that the key value will be any proprietary IP owned by Emerson plus customer relationships (read: backlog). Yet I can not think of a single open-market company that would want to buy this technology that doesn’t already have the core technology. So why buy it?

But Platinum may own a core company that needs Emerson’s technology for themselves: perhaps a telco or wireless provider who wants to produce their own ATCA equipment and not buy it on the open market. This certainly is a viable strategy for a mere $300 million (to start) to buy a multi-billion dollar telecommunications outfit. When asked to comment on this story, PICMG’s Joe Pavlat said: “Platinum Equity is extremely well regarded and has several other significant telecom investments that, at first glance, appear to be very complementary to the Emerson offerings.” Bingo.

So it may be the end of an era–when companies like Motorola, Force, Artesyn, NetPlane–created and implemented open standards-based embedded computers for the telecommunications industry. Hopefully these names and their creations will live on at another recognizable open standards company. But I’m not hopeful; I suspect they’re gone forever and de-Mot’ed  to the history books.

PCI-SIG “nificant” Changes Brewing in Mobile

PCI-SIG Developers Conference, June 25, 2013, Santa Clara, CA

Of five significant PCI Express announcements made at this week’s PCI-SIG Developers Conference, two are aimed at mobile embedded.

From PCI to PCI Express to Gen3 speeds, the PCI-SIG is one industry consortium that lets no grass grow for long. As the embedded, enterprise and server industries roll out PCIe Gen3 and 40G/100G Ethernet, the PCI-SIG and its key constituents like Cadence, Synopsis, LeCroy and others are readying for another speed doubling to 16 GT/s (giga transfers/second) by 2015. The PCIe 4.0 next step evolves bandwidth to 16Gb/s or a whopping 64 GB/s (big “B”) total lane bandwidth in x16 width. PCIe 4.0 Rev 0.5 will be available Q1 2014 with Rev 0.9 targeted for Q1 2015.

Table of major PCI-SIG announcements at Developers Conference 2013

Table of major PCI-SIG announcements at Developers Conference 2013

Yet as “SIG-nificant” as this announcement is, PCI-SIG president Al Yanes said it’s only one of five major news items. The others include: a PCIe 3.1 specification that consolidates a series of ECNs in the areas of power, performance and functionality; PCIe Outside the Box which uses a 1-3 meter “really cheap” copper cable called PCIe OCuLink with an 8G bit rate; plus two embedded and mobile announcements that I’m particularly enthused about. Refer to the table for a snapshot.

New M.2 Specification

The new M.2 specification is a small, mobile embedded form factor designed to replace the previous “Mini PCI” in Mini Card and Half Mini Card sizes. The newer, as-yet-publicly-unreleased M.2 card will be smaller in size and volume but is intended to provide scalable PCIe performance to allow designers to tune SWaP and I/O requirements. PCI-SIG marketing workgroup chair Ramin Neshati told me that M.2 is part of the PCI-SIG’s increased focus on mobile.

The scalable M.2 card is designed as an I/O plug in for Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, WAN/cellular, SSD and other connectivity in platforms including ultrabook, tablet, and “maybe even smartphone,” said Neshati. At Rev 0.7 now, Rev 0.9 will be released soon and the final (Rev 1.0?) spec will become public by Q4 2013.

PCI-SIG M.2 card form factor

The PCI-SIG’s impending M.2 form factor is designed for mobile embedded ultrabooks, tablets, and possibly smartphones. The card will have a scalable PCIe interface and is designed for Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, cellular, SSD and more. (Courtesy: PCI-SIG.)

Mobile PCIe (M-PCIe)

Seeing the momentum in mobile and the interest in a PCIe on-board interconnect lead the PCI-SIG to work with the MIPI Alliance and create Mobile PCI Express: M-PCIe. The specification is now available to PCI-SIG members and creates an “adapted PCIe architecture” bridge between regular PCIe and MIPI M-PHY.

The Mobile PCI Express (M-PCIe) specification targets mobile embedded devices like smartphones to provide high-speed, on-board PCIe connectivity. (Courtesy: PCI-SIG.)

The Mobile PCI Express (M-PCIe) specification targets mobile embedded devices like smartphones to provide high-speed, on-board PCIe connectivity. (Courtesy: PCI-SIG.)

Using the MIPI M-PHY physical layer allows smartphone and mobile designers to stick with one consistent user interface across multiple platforms, including already-existing OS drivers. PCIe support is “baked into Windows, iOS, Android,” and others, says PCI-SIG’s Neshati.  PCI Express also has a major advantage when it comes to interoperability testing, which runs from the protocol stack all the way down to the electrical interfaces. Taken collectively, PCIe brings huge functionality and compliance benefits to the mobile space.

M-PCIe supports MIPI’s Gear 1 (1.25-1.45 Gbps), Gear 2 (2.5-2.9 Gbps) and Gear 3 (5.0-5.8 Gbps) speeds. As well, the M-PCIe spec provides power optimization for short channel mobile platforms, primarily aimed at WWAN front end radios, modem IP blocks, and possibly replacing MIPI’s own universal file storage UFS mass storage interface (administered by JEDEC).

M-PCIe by the PCI-SIG can be used in multiple high speed paths in a smartphone mobile device. (Courtesy: PCI-SIG and MIPI Alliance.)

M-PCIe by the PCI-SIG can be used in multiple high speed paths in a smartphone mobile device. (Courtesy: PCI-SIG and MIPI Alliance.)

PCI Express Ready for More

More information on these five announcements will be rolling out soon. But it’s clear that the PCI-SIG sees mobile and embedded as the next target areas for PCI Express in the post-PC era, while still not abandoning the standard’s bread and butter in PCs and high-end/high-performance servers.