An Ideal Marriage: Qseven and PC/104 Wed
26 January 2011
The embedded industry has changed significantly over the last decade. A combination of new technological concepts and existing legacy problems are forcing system developers to look at newer, legacy free and cheaper technologies, as Bob Pickles discusses.
The first IBM Personal Computer released in 1981 caused a revolution in the personal computer industry.
IBM in competition with Apple, designed the IBM PC as an open ‘card based’ architecture, allowing third party developers to provide additional hardware functionality through the Industry Standard Architecture or ISA bus standard.
The original IBM PC utilised the Intel 8080 microprocessor with PC-DOS and could accommodate 64K of RAM. By 1983, Microsoft were involved, 640K RAM could be accommodated, there were a plethora of ISA bus interface cards and the race for the modern PC had begun.
The rest is history!
The embedded market wanted to use PC technology within embedded environments found in laboratories, industrial control, automotive, nuclear, transport and aerospace applications, to name a few. In environments that required small form factor designs in restricted areas, the standard IBM PC was typically much too large and was not designed for these harsher environments.
The PC/104 form factor was first conceived in 1987 by Ampro in an attempt to allow existing PC technology to be used for embedded applications requiring specialist real time data acquisition and processing.
However, the specification was not formally published until 1992 by the PC/104 Embedded Consortium which creates, maintains and manages specifications for PC/104, PC/104-Plus, PCI-104, EBX and EPIC technologies. Over the last 20+ years, the PC/104 form factor has implemented ISA, PCI and PCI Express technologies, keeping pace with PC technology for the embedded markets.
The specifications are freely available from the PC/104 Embedded Consortium at www.pc104.org
It is important to note that the complete PC/104 market covering all legacy and new technologies was approximately $262m in 2008, with new PCI Express technologies only just starting to ship at approximately $0.4m for this period. It is estimated that PC/104 Express products will replace many existing legacy PC/104 systems.
However, with VPX technology now also providing Small Form Factor (SFF) performance technology some PC/104 users have migrated to VPX, but it is very expensive to implement.
Commercial, industrial and even some military applications, such as unmanned vehicles, will most likely stay with the PC/104 architecture for future projects. So the market potential for PC/104 remains huge.
Interestingly, the military’s use of unmanned vehicles has created new civilian unmanned vehicle markets, inspiring a wide variety of applications such as deep sea monitoring, meteorological reconnaissance, earth sciences monitoring, crop dusting and many more, limited only by the human imagination and budget!
A time shift of almost three decades since the introduction of PC/104, and the latest Intel Atom E6xx series processor range is available on Computer on Module (COM) technology supporting the latest Microsoft Windows, Linux and other Operating Systems with up to 8 Gigabytes of RAM and embedded processing power never thought of back in the 80s!
COMs offer the latest technology with the benefits of faster time to market, product scalability and smaller form factors, allowing system designers to customise their solutions on carrier boards for application specific requirements, significantly reducing future product build costs and maintainability.
The COM concept, which provides benefits for project numbers ranging from a few hundred to many hundreds of thousands of units, requires a custom carrier board that meets the requirements of the system. A full range of COM boards may be fitted to the same carrier, providing real product scalability.
The key concept is that system builders will no longer have to worry about selecting a motherboard, processor and memory or finding and maintaining drivers for a product that may be a legacy product which is likely to become unavailable after a year or two. Worst scenario may be that the supplier has a number of different baseboards with different suppliers, different software builds and a possible configuration management nightmare to manage!
COM modules come complete with everything on board, and software drivers are supplied. The system builder can spend more resources on application development knowing that the COM modules are all pin compatible between different vendors, allowing second source providers to be incorporated into product ranges and ensuring product support security.
A recent innovation in COM technology has been the introduction of the ultra compact Qseven form factor. Measuring only 70mm x 70mm, it uses an MXM system connector with a standardised pin-out regardless of vendor, which is a very important concept and also applies to COM modules supporting second source policies. This new form factor was founded by a group of European board manufacturers including congatec AG, MSC Vertriebs GmbH and Seco. The specification is freely available from the Qseven Standards Organisation at http://www.qseven-standard.org/.
The best of both worlds
Compared to the PC/104 form factor, which measures 90mm x 96mm, the Qseven module is a complete “PC on Module” in a much more compact format. In an ideal scenario, it would be possible to find a way of combining the Qseven technology with the PC/104 form factor using a custom carrier board.
To this effect, congatec AG has been working with Connect Tech (www.connecttech.com) in North America to develop a Qseven carrier board which meets the specifications and price points of PC1/104-Express. This makes the Qseven COM technology accessible to many PC/104 form factor system developers, providing all the benefits of COMs.
COM technology improves time to market for new and existing designs. System builders have the choice to make their products scalable by using different COM product options, directly based on power, performance and cost. COM is pin compatible, reducing legacy nightmares of the past and allowing smoother mid life updates. With adoption of the new and open Qseven standard starting to build up very quickly, new product developments will be guaranteed near legacy free upgrades for the future.
The technical details of the integration
The first generation Connect Tech Qseven carrier card was based on the Intel Atom Z53xx processor series with an Intel SCH US15W chipset with integrated graphics and memory controller, featuring only legacy free interfaces.
The Intel Atom is a low power processor, typically operating at 5 Watts, making the Qseven module ideal for low power applications requiring notebook type performance, with RAM soldered onto the board for embedded environments and the option to have a 4 Gbyte to 8 Gbyte Solid State Drive (SSD) on board. This solution offers a very compact architecture that can run either Windows, Windows CE, Linux and other embedded OS.
The first generation Connect Tech carrier card was designed to have all input and output connectors available for every function of the congatec Qseven module. However, it is understood that this design is more expensive with regards to carrier design, simply because of the cost of having a complete connector set on the PC/104 carrier card.
Connect Tech are now planning to release a few variants with reduced I/O capabilities in order to drive down the cost of the carrier board. This may be a nice option for system developers, where the first prototype needs all of the I/O, but the final production system may only require Ethernet and serial, for example. COM products are nearly always used in custom designs, so a system designer producing many thousands of units would typically require a custom carrier balanced to the system requirements while keeping a keen eye on product costs. Less connectors, less cost!
It is important to remember that Connect Tech have already designed the carrier and they may be able to provide custom variants for individual customer requirements, using the existing design as a reference point. This might be a much cheaper option than a full custom design.
With the launch of congatec AG’s next generation Qseven module conga-QA6, which features the latest Intel Atom E6xx processor technology with 50% higher graphics performance and added industrial temperature ranges of -40 to +85˚ C, embedded system builders are now able to access the latest low power, industrial PC architecture for use within PC/104 enclosures.
The most significant advancement of the Intel Atom E6xx series processors are that the graphics, high definition audio, memory controller, SM Bus interface and PCI Express interfaces are inside the processor. This is very significant from a software processing capability, as Random Access Memory (RAM) access by software is directly from the processor, which will increase processing performance, even on ultra low power processors. Another significant improvement in the processor I/O hub architecture is the massive increase in bandwidth between the processor and G20 hub by using a PCI Express interface.
The conga-QA6 with Intel Atom E6xx series processor provides a complete low power, high performance PC platform on a very small form factor with PC/104 form and fit when using Connect Tech’s PC/104 carrier system. It provides up to 2Gbyte of RAM soldered on the board, which is very important for PC/104 applications. Other features include optionally up to 32GByte of Solid State Drive soldered on the board, Gbit Ethernet and, more importantly, CAN Bus on the Intel G20 Hub providing a real cost saving if only one CAN bus interface is required in the system.
PC/104 system builders will also benefit from the congatec customisable BIOS, including full support for the latest AMI Optio UEFI BIOS, fully programmable multi stage watchdog support, as well as optional battery management support.
In summary, PC/104 system providers that adopt the COM technology experience will benefit from a range of fully scalable products, much faster time to market, the latest Intel technology ahead of the competition, lower costs on larger projects, importantly increasing margins in real terms and maintainability of system in the field becomes far less complicated.
The author, Bob Pickles, works in Business Development for congatec AG
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