Design Pattern: The PC/104 Industry Standard



Industry standards establish a set of design specifications and business rules, but not all standards are truly open.

During the past two decades, the rapidly expanding technology market created an environment that motivated and fueled efforts to establish numerous industry standards, such as BACnet, Bluetooth, CAN, DeviceNET, DLNA, Ethernet, HDMI, HomePlug, HTML5, Insteon, ISA-Bus, LonWorks, Modbus, MT-Connect, PC/104, PCI, PCMCIA, PICMIG, Profibus, RS-232, SATA, STD-Bus, USB, VGA, X.25, X-10, ZigBee and Z-wave – just to name a few.

While many industry standards are generally created as open standards, establishing a set of design specifications and business rules for key technology providers to work together constructively, not all of the standards are truly open. Some industry standards are established with a dependency on proprietary technology, by companies attempting to leverage standards to expand their business and influence in the market place.

Although not perfect, open industry standards are generally good for both the technology providers and the end users adopting the standard, and can be an important key factor driving the growth for the markets they serve.

Why Adopt Industry Standards?

Adopting and embracing an industry standard requires investments and resources to support the additional effort needed to develop new products based on the standard, to modify existing products to adhere to the standard and to support the ongoing efforts needed to maintain the product.

The considerations for an organization to decide whether to adopt an industry standard vary greatly, depending on the individual company’s business interests, practices and whether the standard is applicable to the company’s core business value.

By reviewing the major historic computing technology trends during the last three decades, we can find factual information showing how the market was impacted by the industry standards, such as the personal computer (PC) industry. Almost every aspect of the PC industry is impacted by industry standards, which include standards for both hardware and software components.

Historical trends also show that an established industry standard that is open and based on good design practices is able to sustain and thrive in the marketplace. Let’s take a look at the ISA-Bus standard as an example, which the PC/104 standard is based on. The ISA-Bus standard was initially introduced to the market as an open standard during the mid-1980s by IBM. At the time, the standard provided a common platform for key technology providers to work together constructively and is one of the key building blocks that helped kick start the PC industry. After the ISA-Bus standard gained broad adoption, IBM made an unsuccessful attempt to introduce an alternative proprietary standard to replace the ISA-Bus standard. In the late 1990s, the PC99 initiative was introduced and adopted by key companies in the computing industry, which eliminated the ISA-Bus standard from the new PC design. The ISA-Bus standard has proven to be a resilient standard, surviving its own creator’s attempt to replace it with an alternative standard during the 1980s and the PC99 initiative. While the ISA-Bus is no longer part of the current PC industry’s core design, it still has a strong impact in the industrial and embedded computing field, serving many vertical markets.

As the computing industry evolves, the consumer became better educated about computing technology. While not directly engaging in or fully understanding industry standards, many consumers recognize that there is a set of mainstream computing product specifications and understand that it’s important to purchase products that meet and are compatible with the mainstream specifications.

Although the computing industry is highly competitive, the key technology providers in this field understand the necessity to maintain compatible industry standards to meet consumer demands, and are willing to collaborate with competitors to build products that adhere to a set of well-recognized standards. The adhering-to-industry-standard practice created the environment for technology providers to compete based on service, quality, product features and pricing, which benefited the consumer.

Similar to the PC industry, each of the major industries in today’s market is driven by a set of industry standards relevant to the market each serves. In today’s business climate, it’s very challenging for a company attempting to develop and grow its business without considering industry standards relevant to its core business.

The PC/104 Future

Because the PC/104 standard is based on the ISA-Bus standard, which the PC99 initiative removed from the PC specification, many industry observers have speculated the doom of the PC/104 standard since the late 1990s and caused others to raise questions about its future.

However, the PC/104 Consortium, established in February 1992, just celebrated its 20th anniversary and is still thriving. Released as an open industry standard and built on a strong foundation, the PC/104 standard is resilient and able to sustain and serve the industrial and embedded computing markets.

Since its inception, the PC/104 standard has been through numerous improvements and maintains strong support from key technology providers in the industrial and embedded computing industries, serving multiple vertical markets. In addition to adopting and building products based on the complete PC/104 specifications, many technology providers also incorporated the PC/104 expansion bus into other designs, to take advantage of the large pool of off-the-shelf products built to the PC/104 specifications that are readily available in the market.

Leveraging the PC/104 recognition and adoption in the market, the PC/104 Consortium extended additional design specifications and established additional technical paths to help companies grow their business around the PC/104 standard. In addition to the core PC/104 design specification, the PC/104 consortium also adopted, or is in the process of reviewing, the following design specifications:

  • PC/104-Plus
  • PC/104-Express
  • PCI-104
  • PCI/104-Express
  • PCIe/104
  • EBX
  • EBX-Express
  • EPIC
  • EPIC-Express

Technology is expected to change, and will do so more rapidly with each new generation of computing technology compared to the previous generation. While change is inevitable, the general computing industry also provided evidence that shows an open industry standard based on practical design patterns is able to sustain and adapt to the new market.

If you are new to the PC/104 standard and would like to better understand this environment and its future potential, review the following sources of information to see the scope of products available in the PC/104 market and the technology providers behind these products:

  • The PC/104 consortium website: http://www.pc104.org
  • Search the Internet with different PC/104 keywords, such as PC/104, PC/104-Plus, PC/104 module, PC/104 single board computer

While countless companies came and went as part of the Internet boom during the past 10 years, you will find that most of the PC/104 technology providers have been in business for more than 10 years. Some of these providers have been around for more than a quarter of a century, serving the aerospace, consumer, industrial, manufacturing, medical and military industries.

An industry standard takes many years to establish and gain recognition and takes many more to motivate key technology providers to adopt the standard. In the current market, there isn’t another known industry standard that is directly competing with the PC/104 standard, or able to replace the standard.

Summary

The PC/104 standard was created to serve the industrial and embedded market, and not the general consumer market. As a result, the PC/104 standard was not part of the flamboyant news and tech-talk associated with the explosive growth in the consumer computing market during the past decade.

While the Internet information highway helped push the computing technology market into fast gear and motivated consumer product providers to rapidly change and upgrade their designs, it does not have the same level of effect on the industrial and embedded computing markets.

Although the pace in which technology evolves is increasingly faster across all markets, compared to the general consumer market, the industries served by the PC/104 standards are not moving at the same extreme fast pace. In addition, most PC/104 development projects have different design principles and practices. Many PC/104 product development projects include design mandates that are not part of the design requirement for the PC industry, such as:

  • Able to function in harsh environments subject to extreme temperature, vibration and other hazardous conditions.
  • Able to supply the same product for 5 to 10 years or longer, based on the tested and approved design.

The PC/104 standard is open and based on good design practices, will continue to evolve and is expected to be around and serve its intended market for years to come.

 


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Currently working for ICOP Technology, a PC/104 hardware technology provider, Samuel Phung has worked in the computing technology field for more than 20 years. While working in the sales and marketing side of the business, Samuel likes to tinker with technology and is continuing to learn and keep up with new technology. He published two books, the “Professional Windows Embedded CE 6.0” book in 2008, and the “Professional Windows Embedded Compact 7” in 2011. As part of his personal interest, you can find Samuel engaging in academic and hobbyist projects, tinkering with robots, quad-copters and automation projects. His blog can be found at: http://www.embedded101.com/Samuelp101/

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