Mobile and IoT Drive Embedded Small Form Factor Evolution

Industry experts weigh in on the implications of new SoCs from Intel and ARM, high-speed interconnects, and the Internet of Things—all in the context of small form factor embedded boards.

In some ways, not much changes in the world of small form factor boards. There’s still a remarkably wide range of form factors and standards to choose from, all of them designed to be rugged and long-lived as well as customizable and application-ready. But as always, the devil’s in the details. Our panel of experts talks through what’s new with respect to processors, interconnects and applications—and lots more. Our thanks to Robert A. (Bob) Burckle, vice president of WinSystems; Sandy Chen, product manager at Advantech Co., Ltd.; Dan Demers, director of marketing – Americas for congatec, Inc.; and Dirk Finstel, executive vice president of ADLINK’s Global Module Computer Product Segment for their insights.

EECatalog: The embedded market is abuzz with Intel’s latest processors and ARM’s latest SoCs. How do these new devices impact the roadmaps of small form factor boards?

Bob BurckleBob Burckle, WinSystems: Both these architectures now offer great performance plus low power, which is critical for many embedded environments. Small form factor board manufacturers are moving from an “either/or” to a “both” roadmap with regards to x86 versus ARM processors. This allows them to get the benefits from each respective silicon solution as they tailor their product offerings to customer-driven requirements. These benefits vary depending upon size, cost, performance, operating systems, development tools, compatible I/O devices, drivers, long-term availability of silicon, time-to-market, etc. We have seen that industry hardware and software standards in mobile and consumer markets have migrated into the industrial sector, which makes both Intel and ARM-based processors and SOCs viable for SFF boards.

Also, interchangeable processor modules in popular open standard form factors like COM Express and Qseven ease the incorporation of new x86 and ARM SoCs into embedded systems. Following suit, SBCs offer these SoCs with bus expansion connectors that are more relevant than before. These trends are driving the usage of small form factors

Sandy ChenSandy Chen, Advantech: Most of current our solutions are still based on x86 architecture, but we can see that the customer needs lower power consumption or performance, lower pricing, smaller dimension, more unique I/O design to meet each different vertical solution demand.
In the past, Intel was not easy to approach in the very low end but super big volume market (compared with ARM) because [they had] no suitable platform to fit it. However, I suppose Intel heard not only us, but also a lot of customers’ requests, so that’s why their current and future solutions consider some factors I mentioned before.

As for our impact, we need to make the overall design be simplified and accurate to meet the clear vertical solution demand (because it’s small, not easy to make a standard one with all functions to fit all of them), or preserve flexibility to change the I/O per various requests in an efficient way, and the overall cost and dimension should be reduced as well.

Dan DemersDan Demers, congatec: First and foremost the concept of a system-on-chip (SoC) allows for small form factor board and module developers to consider future standards that further reduce overall size, which is often a desire of the system-level solution designer. The real estate savings that are found with SoCs are pretty considerable when we note that not too many years ago it took many chips to equal the benefits of these SoCs. Another benefit to SoCs is that many also realize a power savings, which in turn helps to fuel further development on more powerful, yet less power-hungry devices. Today’s SoCs are also getting a lot of accolades for their relative high capabilities for image processing, which is opening the door to many new applications. When you step back and look at what the latest Intel and AMD SoCs offer it is quite amazing. We are realizing silicon platforms that are both today- and tomorrow-focused. They contain relative high computational capability and a lot of flexibility for the board/module designer and of course the overall system design engineer. As SoCs continue to develop and evolve, small form factor board and modules designers will look to new ways to utilize the real estate gains on current form factors, as well as create new standards that continue to shrink in size in unison with SoCs.

Dirk Finstel, ADLINK: Intel´s latest SoC releases, Atom and Quark, will be adopted by most embedded vendors on all common form factors, and we will see support of newly introduced features like camera inputs and smaller displays. Intel´s Quark will define a new subset of SFFs in our industry to support Quark’s features.

EECatalog: With the evolution to 1000G Ethernet, PCIe Gen 3, M-PHY, USB 3.0, SA-SCSI, etc., signal integrity is becoming a huge factor in embedded designs. What’s the impact of these faster, multi-gigahertz signals on small form factor standards? Where do you expect to see growth?

Burckle, WinSystems: These high-speed serial busses actually make designs easier. They take wide parallel busses and multiplex the data onto a serial channel. Even though there is a challenge to make sure that the signals are routed correctly on the boards using HDI rules, you only need to worry about placement and electrical issues on one or two pairs rather than a wide bus structure. Also new, low-cost interface connectors deliver excellent signal integrity in a small space. This will allow an engineer to design smaller boards as the market continues to grow for bandwidth-intensive applications such as video, storage and cloud-based networks.

Chen, Advantech: Frankly speaking, not many embedded customers do need this kind of high speed I/O. If they need it, they may consider higher-end performance platforms, and it is also related with which vertical markets they are in; if it’s network communication, medical or some military applications, that may concern them more.

Most of the time, the customer needs high reliability, and these high or new technologies is not so mature or might even consume higher power, or design cost will be higher compared with the legacy I/O or lower speed I/O they’re using now.

Demers, congatec: A trend that has been growing and evolving for years is that of outsourcing the design of the core embedded computer for OEM products. Many companies continue to focus more and more on their core competencies and leave the computer portion to companies in the embedded computer space. In essence it has developed into a practice of leaving those aspects to the experts. Companies that design ultrasound medical devices, for example, understand the computer specifications they need for their systems, but are not always interested in reinventing the wheel, especially when they can buy something that has been vetted by years of users and is supported by a large mature industry. This trend will only continue as it gets harder to design these small form factor boards and modules. It is important to mention here that size continues to be a driving factor in embedded computer design. Sure, there are still a lot of applications that utilize larger mother boards and SBCs, but as we can see through the acceptance of tablet PCs and other handheld devices, smaller is more desirable. We are obviously not yet to nano-technology levels of design, but just think about how much smaller a Qseven module is than an ATX standard mother board. There is not a lot of space to work with, yet you are still working with the same buses and signals that require the same levels of integrity. It is certainly not a trivial scenario and those that master the layout and placement for small form factor boards and modules will likely have even more influence on their shapes and sizes (specifications) in the future.

Finstel, ADLINK: As SI compliance always has been a mandatory requirement in our industry, times are over to play around with any kind of connector pin-outs to differentiate by form factor. We will see a consolidation of existing SFFs and slow innovation of new standards, as SI compliance doesn’t provide much room for variation anymore. COMs and full custom designs are taking over the innovation in our industry. We still see some growth in PCIe-based PC/104 form factors and pico-ITX.

EECatalog: What are the top three really cool and desirable technologies being deployed in the embedded market that are most relevant to small form factor boards and systems?

Burckle, WinSystems: First is the availability of using the ARM SoC. This technology is used extensively in personal and mobile computer applications yet now it is available for use in applications with lower volumes. This is due to the wider availability of software development tools, multiple standard I/O structures for a variety of sensors and peripherals and good support from the semiconductor vendors.

Second is the multiple ways of connecting systems together either through wired or wireless links. Even though standalone systems can function autonomously, it is important to be able to support open standards without being tied to a single company.

Third is power. Every system must have a power source. New technology allows the electrical power requirements to be significantly reduced. IoT devices can be powered by non-fixed power sources like vehicle batteries, solar cells and wind energy as well as from Power Over Ethernet, or smaller more efficient power supplies using the grid. The net effect is more computing power with less electricity. And less energy means less heat that needs to be removed from an enclosure.

Finstel, ADLINK: Integration of LTE/3G and WLAN, security middleware and connectivity stacks—as in ADLINK’s own SEMA Cloud—to enable IoT.

Chen, Advantech: 1. Intel iAMT technology (although it is a pity it’s only supported on high end Core i series). 2. Quad Core platform with only 10 watts power consumption. 3. Independent display (for now may only support some limited display types still, it will be good if there is more flexibility to support multiple necessary display types in the future).

Demers, congatec: SoCs are addressing quite a number of desirable technologies that embedded system designers have been seeking out for years. First and foremost, SoCs enable small form factors to become even smaller. This is leading to system-level solutions that were not possible in the recent past. In addition, mobile applications are seeing gains due to the reduced amount of power needed to power SoCs. Finally, there have been significant advances in multicore technology in SoCs and this is driving some really interesting applications. It would also be a mistake to not mention again the importance of improved graphics and what they do for applications. When you wrap up all of these desires into a specification for the OEM product, SoCs are certainly minimizing the gap like never before.

EECatalog: Where do small form factor boards fit in the overall movement known as the Internet of Things?

Burckle, WinSystems: According to Gartner there will be nearly 26 billion devices on the Internet of Things by 2020. This means that an enormous number of physical objects need to be integrated into the information network. Small form factor boards fit well since they can be embedded in the harsh and remote areas as well as more benign environments. Small size, software compatibility and a variety of hardware and I/O platforms make them quick and easy to design into a variety of applications that continue need to be linked together.

Chen, Advantech: Low power consumption, low maintenance request (passive cooling design), lower pricing, small and compact design so we can meet more environments.

Demers, congatec: The Internet of Things is definitely a hot topic these days. In many cases x86-based and higher end ARM-based SFFs and modules are not truly addressing the farthest edge of the IoT. For example, the consumer handheld devices like smartphones, etc. However, as connectivity becomes ever more important, SFFs and modules are substantial players in the next inner layers of the IoT. One example that comes to mind is today’s industrial automation systems. These used to consist of many more “dumb” terminals and nodes throughout the system. However, now it is a reality that these devices are more connected than ever and can be utilized in much more efficient manners to truly get the most out of them for the application. As silicon providers like Intel and AMD continue to drive down the size, power and cost of their SoCs, there will likely be more proliferation of their platforms into the more outer layers of IoT. That is where the significant growth is happening and it is quite a race we are witnessing.

Finstel, ADLINK: SFF boards fit best in industrial automation, medical and transportation verticals, as high pressure for increased productivity is driving investments in IoT.

cheryl_coupeCheryl Berglund Coupé is managing editor of Her articles have appeared in EE Times, Electronic Business, Microsoft Embedded Review and Windows Developer’s Journal and she has developed presentations for the Embedded Systems Conference and ICSPAT. She has held a variety of production, technical marketing and writing positions within technology companies and agencies in the Northwest.

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