PC/104: What’s Old Is New Again
Despite all the breathless excitement of the “new” Internet of Things, the PC/104 Consortium has spent its 22 years of existence helping to get the industry to this point: bringing the computer off the desktop and into the field where data is gathered and real-time decisions are made.
PC/104 continues to be a major player in the embedded market. We sat down with Dr. Paul Haris, president of the PC/104 Consortium, for a conversation on how PC/104 fits in with the latest industry trends. In addition to his role at the Consortium, where Paul has held positions of chairman and president for three years, as a board member for six years, and as chair of the Technical Committee for four years, he is also president and CEO of RTD Embedded Technologies, Inc. RTD has been a part of the leadership structure of the PC/104 Consortium since it help found the Consortium in the early ‘90s.
EECatalog: Start out by telling me what’s new with the PC/104 Consortium. What’s the next major challenge you’ll face, and what type of specification is likely to result?
Haris: The computer market as a whole has been evolving and expanding rapidly with the advancements of technology. Since its beginning 22 years ago, the PC/104 Consortium pioneered bringing the computer to where it was needed most: out of the building and into the field where data is gathered and real-time decisions need to be made. Today’s PC/104 specifications support main bus architectures and I/O capabilities. It provides expandability, upgradability and maintainability all in an inherently rugged form factor. Last year, the Consortium expanded the capabilities of the PCIe/104 and PCI/104-Express specifications to include Gen 2 and Gen 3 PCI Express speeds. The Consortium continues to closely monitor potential evolutionary paths of the embedded market and is situated to meet its challenges. As new bus architectures evolve and become industry standards, the PC/104 Consortium is ready to incorporate them in a logical and meaningful way to ensure their continued long term use and supportability.
EECatalog: The overall embedded market is abuzz with Intel’s latest processors and ARM’s latest SoCs. How do these trends affect the PC/104 set of specifications?
Haris: The stackable PC/104 architecture has been supporting both high-speed processors as well as small, embedded ones for the last 22 years. It has never been limited to any particular processor type since the stacking connector incorporates mainstream bus signaling. This is why you have seen them—whether x86, ARM or PowerPC—on PC/104 modules for many years. As processors become smaller and smaller, with ever-increasing computational power, efficiency and full-feature I/O sets, the PC/104 architecture shines by being able to create fully self-contained single board computers with the added benefit of stackable expandability for additional or specialized processor and I/O functionality. All this while keeping the overall system size to a minimum.
EECatalog: There’s big growth occurring in the extended temp and harsh environment markets of automotive, transportation, mining, railway, power plants and more. How is the PC/104 Consortium addressing these rugged applications?
Haris: The PC/104 architecture has always been known as an inherently rugged architecture with its stackable bus. You will find systems in the harshest conditions of land, sea, air and space. The flexibility of having the stackable backplane on each module allows OEMs and end users to create standard and custom systems that address the thermal requirements for their particular applications. For over 20 years the transportation, mining, railway, military and other demanding industries have relied on PC/104 to meet their challenges.
EECatalog: The PC market is dying, according to myriad analyst forecasts and reported numbers by PC vendors. Yet many small form factors directly map to the PC market versus the mobile market, for example. What does this trend mean to PC/104?
Haris: It is important not to confuse the type of processor architecture with the form factor and bus architecture of many standards. What we are seeing is not a dying trend but a separation of trends. As the embedded marketplace explodes, there is an ever-increasing need for point location of computer capabilities and the mobility of tasks and information gathering. To meet these needs, the x86 market has traditionally taken a top-down approach. While this was happening, a bottom-up emergence was occurring. Phones were getting smarter, more powerful and more efficient. But they were also based on a specialized, non-mainstream technology. As the demand for capability increased in the mobile market, so did the need for additional features and expansion capabilities such as PCI Express. In the end, these two competing processor architectures each has its unique markets, but there is much overlap in the middle. With its stackable backplane based on mainstream bus signaling, the PC/104 architecture has the capability to serve all of these architectures and markets giving maximum flexibility to the end user.
EECatalog: What are the most recent obsolescence issues faced (or being faced) by PC/104 vendors?
Haris: The PC/104 Consortium has always looked to the trends of the embedded market and it has guided its specifications accordingly. To ensure longevity, migratory paths to advanced technologies while maintaining mechanical backward compatibility have always been a top priority. This can be seen in the evolutionary progression of its stackable buses and their placements on the Consortium’s 104 form factor. Manufactures and end user are thus given a timely evolution path for their past, present and future designs. This is what has given the PC/104 architecture such a prominent place as one of the longest and versatile industrial standards in the world.
EECatalog: What “play” will small form factors like PC/104 have in the movement known as the Internet of Things?
Haris: The “Internet of Things” terminology has often been thrown around very loosely. Simply, it is the world where devices are hooked through an Internet-like structure. It can span anywhere from the very small, such as discrete sensors and appliances, to the very large, like bulldozers and factory floors. It can include information gathering as well as control. It can allow instantaneous connectivity to your infrastructure wherever you are. But it is also fraught with a myriad of security risks. The PC/104 architecture has always been a part of this movement, before it was even considered a movement. One of the main points of PC/104 is the ability to distribute information gathering and computational capabilities out of the building to where it is needed most: the device. But unless it is to operate autonomously without monitoring, connectivity has been required, often through the Internet. In addition, the versatility of the PC/104 architecture has led to the creation of infrastructure devices such as firewalls, routers and switches. So where will you find PC/104 in the Internet of Things? Everywhere.
Cheryl Berglund Coupé is managing editor of EECatalog.com. 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.