Go-to-Market Accelerator

Why industrial device manufacturers eager to integrate the coming NXP iMX8 processor need not linger at the starting gate

The NXP i.MX8 processor, based on Arm Cortex A53/A72, is expected to be available in series in early 2019 (Figure 1). With Computer-on-Modules, however, industrial device manufacturers can deploy first-to-market strategies. Developers of low-power x86 systems will also be evaluating this new processor closely, as x86 roadmaps are increasingly designed to address all personal computing performance needs with a single pin-compatible processor layout, ultimately resulting in larger dimensions than the (ultra-) low-power small form factor range requires. But that’s not the only reason why the new Arm Cortex A53/A72 processor is a very interesting option. The stable roadmap that Arm processors in this class now offer is another good reason, as the core feature set is already standard in consumer smartphones and tablets. Last but not least, the processor’s performance and feature set improvements are also convincing, based on NXP’s pre-production specifications.

Figure 1: The NXP i.MX8 processor, which congatec will support on Qseven and SMARC Computer-on-Modules, offers an extremely attractive feature set for low-power small form factor designs.

Hardware Virtualization and Domain Protection
The NXP i.MX8 processor enables fast deployment of multiple operating systems through advanced hardware virtualization and domain protection, essential for many IoT and Industry 4.0 devices. Such devices can thus separate the IoT gateway from the actual application. Also appealing is the suitably high graphics performance of the i.MX8 processor, which can deploy up to four streams of independent graphics content on four HD screens. This enables, for example, attractive digital menu boards for system catering or individual infotainment in four-seat-across rows on planes, buses, or trains with just one system.

Figure 2: Computer-on-Modules can greatly accelerate the go-to-market strategy of OEMs who are not admitted to early access programs.

A failover-capable display controller with SafeAssure function can ensure that all displays are always available for their dedicated applications. This means a restart in a virtual machine cannot cause the display of another application to switch off. For instance, the display of a credit card reader GUI remains active, while the digital signage player is restarted remotely. This is an important feature in vending machines, as well as in commercial and public transport vehicles for driver assistance, fleet management, and infotainment. The displays can even support 4K resolution to offer individual applications a particularly high image quality.

Computer-on-Module Standards for i.MX8
The NXP i.MX8 is available in two form factor standards for Computer-on-Modules: Qseven and SMARC. Both standards are maintained by the SGET, and both allow slim designs thanks to their direct edge connectors. But what’s the difference? Qseven offers 230 pins and SMARC 314 pins. SMARC primarily targets high-performance multimedia applications, while Qseven offers a wider range of processors required in deeply embedded and industrial applications. The difference in the number of interfaces between Qseven and SMARC 2.0 is also a price indicator for credit card sized designs: Qseven suits less complex designs, while SMARC is designed for high end applications. Deeper insight into the form factors is provided in a congatec whitepaper available at

Increasing Interactivity
In addition, the feature set includes hardware-accelerated image and voice recognition with a powerful vision pipeline and audio processing subsystem for high interactivity—such as augmented reality, gesture control, user authentication, or even collaborative robotics. The scalable feature set comes in pin- and power-compatible single-, dual-, and quad-core packages as well as software-friendly, copy-exact IP blocks, so the processors can be adapted granularly in line with the functional and TDP needs of the respective applications and the environment.

Such adaptability is why such a wide range of operating systems is supported, from Android and Linux to FreeRTOS, QNX, Green Hills, and the DornerWorks Xen hypervisor. To match the requirements of the automotive sector according to AEC-Q100 grade 3 (-40 to +125 °C Tj) and industry (-40 to +105 °C Tj), NXP offers a long-term availability of 10 and 15 years. All this makes the new i.MX8 a very attractive platform for many developers of embedded, IoT, and Industry 4.0 devices that must deliver 24/7 operation in harsh environments.

How Computer-on-Modules Can Close the Gap
Yet while developers are understandably eager to get the new processor into their applications as quickly as possible, if they are not among the large-volume OEM customers who receive first development samples before series production, they have little chance of initiating i.MX8-based designs today. Those not among the select few also lack the necessary detailed knowledge of the dedicated features as well as the firmware and middleware such as board support packages (BSPs), drivers, and APIs. That lack prevents them from developing a system and application design that would be ready to hit the market as soon as the processor becomes available in series. It will typically take another nine to 12 months for OEMs without access to NXP’s Early Access Program to bring their own designs to market.

Figure 3: System design example for faster upgrades: Datik’s DCB fleet edge computer is equipped with i.MX6-based Qseven Computer-on-Modules from congatec, which can easily be swapped for the even more powerful new i.MX8 performance class modules.

This time-to-market gap can now be closed with customized system designs based on standardized Computer-on-Modules (Figure 2). They provide a standardized feature set that is processor-independent and therefore reusable across multiple processor families. Computer-on-Modules come complete with bootloader and BSPs covering all relevant interfaces of the module specification. In addition, their very comprehensive documentation even includes instructions on how to lay out the individual carrier boards for the Computer-on-Modules. Developers can design the system as if the processor were already there although it is not yet available. For functional tests, it is possible to use processors from preceding generations. To this end, the ecosystem of small form factor and ultra-low-power Computer-on-Module standards such as Qseven or SMARC provides evaluation carrier boards, for which the layouts can also be obtained in order to use them as templates for the developer’s own solutions. Best practice designs can be used via copy and paste.

Why Both Time and NRE Savings Are Realized
There are also providers who specialize in carrier board designs with Computer-on-Modules, allowing developers to work on new solutions without hardware effort well before the availability of a new processor. By using Computer-on-Modules, developers can save a minimum of 50 percent and up to 90 percent in development time and NRE costs over a full-custom design. And if this minimized development effort occurs before the new processors reach series production, achieving first-to-market in a given industry is almost guaranteed.

One advantage of this module approach is that there is no need to deal with the inevitable teething problems of new processors in the Early Access Program; the Computer-on-Module manufacturer will have already done this. Such a Computer-on-Module approach is therefore particularly suitable for industrial batch sizes. It is no coincidence that most industrial x86 designs are equipped with Computer-on-Modules, as independent studies by IHS Markit show1. So why not also use them for the powerful Arm Cortex performance classes—such as A9 or A53/A72?

Fleet Management Use Case
To see how easy it could be to switch from i.MX6 to i.MX8, let’s look at the example of the Datik DCB edge computer for fleet management (Figure 3). Based on congatec’s Qseven Computer-on-Modules with i.MX6 processor, it is already in use in Southern Europe, France, Spain, and Latin America. With its comprehensive range of features it can control all locally required functions of buses. This includes intensive data exchange with control centers as well as the transmission of surveillance video data with up to 3.9 Gbps via LTE. This system can now be upgraded to a new level of performance simply by swapping the modules. As a rule, it will be ready to use immediately as long as the interface requirements of the carrier board are fully supported by the BSPs of the modules, which is the case with most standard equipment. Accompanying migration support also helps OEMs master design-in challenges as quickly and easily as possible.

Manufacturers such as congatec are offering Computer-on-Modules for the new i.MX8 in the SMARC and Qseven form factor standards (Figure 4). These modules can be scaled across Arm and x86 processors in the low-power small form factor class, which means that the choice of form factor won’t limit the choice of processor technology. Developers of currently change-sensitive x86 designs can capitalize on this freedom of choice to gain experience in previously unknown Arm areas.

Figure 4: Evaluation boards for Computer-on-Modules provide an essential basis for OEMs’ own carrier board designs.

Early Access Program for Small and Large OEMs
To allow developers to concentrate fully on the functional evaluation, congatec also offers numerous other services around its modules, ranging from starter kits to customer-specific Embedded Design and Manufacturing Services for carrier boards. Thanks to congatec’s personal design-in support, OEMs also benefit from the premium service of experts with know-how spanning from requirement engineering to mass production. congatec will present the first modules and matching starter kits at Embedded World 2018 Nuremberg.

Christian Eder is Director of Marketing for EMEA and is one of the founders of congatec. He has 28 years in embedded computing and was draft editor of the PICMG COM Express and SGET SMARC 2.0 specification.

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