Arm processors, AI solutions pave PC/104 future paths

The defense industry has been the bright spot for PC/104 suppliers during the economic crisis brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, say the participants – PC104 Consortium members – in our annual roundtable. The panelists discuss how artificial intelligence/machine learning applications (AI/ML) will be a growth area for PC/104 technology across multiple markets. They also cover how processing technology like Arm and Intel are key to future adaptations of PC/104 and ask if NVIDIA solutions will ever be found on PC/104 designs. Our panelists are Roy Keeler, Senior Product and Business Development Manager, Aerospace & Defense, ADLINK Technology and Vice President of Branding for the PC104 Consortium; Flemming Christensen, Managing Director, Sundance Microprocessor Technology; George T. Hilliard, Technical Sales Director, WinSystems; and JC Ramirez, Vice-President of ADL Embedded Solutions Engineering (ADLES).

PC104 & SMALL FORM FACTORS: Key PC/104 markets – aerospace, transportation, and industrial – have a had a rough 12 months during the pandemic, while defense remains strong. How has the pandemic impacted your PC/104 customers positively or negatively?

KEELER: I think the impact of the pandemic has yet to be fully felt by the embedded industry as a whole. However, that being said, ADLINK’s PC/104 business remains robust due to ongoing program business and the strength of the defense market.

CHRISTENSEN: The PC/104 sales for Sundance shrunk by 25% to 30% last year. New PC/104 opportunities for Sundance started to decline in 2019, due to lack of innovations by the PC104 Consortium, so we can’t only “blame” the pandemic. The upside is that some legacy customers have returned for upgrades to their old modules as they are running late with their latest developments. We have also had more time to develop new PC/104 form-factor-compatible products, as engineering was not busy with new customers’ support for their “modified COTS” [commercial off-she-shelf] solution. Overall, I am more optimistic about the PC/104 concepts now than at this time last year. We have several new designs in the pipeline for the robotics, defense, and space applications. They are all low-volume, high-reliability, and have healthy margins. Perfect.

HILLIARD: As with most things, it was a mix of positive and negative news from clients. Overall, clients have experienced setbacks over the last 12 months due to the pandemic. The first few months were especially difficult for many, as we all learned to deal with varying levels of shelter-in-place orders and lockdowns. Like WinSystems, many of our clients are essential businesses and supply equipment not only for defense but also for medical, transportation, and infrastructure needs. After about six to eight weeks of transitioning to work-at-home and other protocols, most were actively moving design programs forward again, though at a much slower pace. Several clients had huge years in medical diagnostics, transportation, and energy, but that was not the general rule.

RAMIREZ: Because PC/104-centric system development tends to have a long gestation period…it is both slow to ramp up and to ramp down. The momentum of the PC/104 development and production work going into 2020 sustained ADLES and our customers through most of 2020. Going into 2021 though, the effects of the Covid 19 travel restrictions and various state and federal social distancing guidelines has begun to show in delayed project timelines and forecasts beginning to push out.

PC104 & SMALL FORM FACTORS: What application area – avionics, defense, industrial, transportation, or something else – shows the strongest outlook for growth for PC/104-based products and why?

KEELER: We see the defense market as the application area with the strongest ­outlook for our PC/104 products, mainly due to PC/104’s track record in providing reliable, rugged, low-cost solutions for major defense acquisition programs.

CHRISTENSEN: The integration of semiconductors into “systems-on-chip” [SoC] has reduced the number of PC/104 boards required to construct a working embedded solution. The new norm is a complex board CPU with the majority of I/O integrated into the primary device. A single PC/104 board becomes more a “system-on-module” [SoM]. Expansion is made possible via a single PCIe/104 OneBank connector with its four PCI Express lanes or smaller dedicated I/O modules like M.2, MiniPCI-Express, or FMC.

Ironically, the relatively large form factor of a PC/104 (90 mm x 96 mm) was for years seen as an obstacle to small-form-factor solutions and why smaller “computers-on-module” [CoM] were introduced with great success. These CoMs, like ComExpress, replaced PC/104 as a dominant force for an embedded solution; large OpenVPX systems took the vacant slot for larger systems with many boards. All our new designs are targeted towards a two PC/104 board solution: A host controller (x86, Arm, or RISC-V) CPU module and an I/O module with an FPGA to interface to high-speed I/O. We have moved away from the single-sourced Q2 connector and moved toward the multisourced Searay interboard connector. It has higher performance, smaller footprint, and lower cost. The main advantage, however, is a broader range of spacing options to make lower-profile two-board solutions. Other vendors have adopted similar ideas.

HILLIARD: Defense looks like it will continue to be strong for PC/104. We see many design programs that experienced delays in 2020 moving toward completion in 2021. The strongest sectors appear to be in the industrial automation and transportation areas. We have seen demand for more processing at the edge for detection and safety controls in rail, where the ruggedness of PC/104 is a great fit. Edge AI for industrial sectors is also going through a change, especially as we come out of the pandemic. Clients are looking for more robust solutions for processing in remote areas for industrial monitoring, control, and security alerts.

RAMIREZ: For ADLES, by far the biggest market for PC/104 continues to be military and defense ground vehicles and avionics. This is not surprising given PC/104’s long history in these verticals. Most of ADL’s work in this space is now focused on migrating legacy systems onto new generation processors to support next generation features and security requirements. Although there is a strong appetite for rugged industrial solutions as a result of the growth in IIoT applications, most of these embedded solutions require much smaller form factors than PC/104 can provide.

PC104 & SMALL FORM FACTORS: What commercial processing technology will enable PC/104 in these markets? Arm? NVIDIA? Other? And why?

KEELER: Interesting question. ADLINK is one of the few providers of GPU technology in the PC/104 form factor and we are seeing an increase in requirements for GPUs, not necessarily for graphics engines, but as a processing node able to run AI/ML applications at the edge.

CHRISTENSEN: I do not have statistical support for this statement, so take it with a pinch of salt: I believe that NVIDIA’s entry into being a developer and sole-source manufacture of SoMs, with the Jetson range, has established the Arm CPU as the leading choice of processing, running Linux and the GPU for the high-performance acceleration of algorithms in an embedded system. Why has nobody added a Jetson to a PC/104 form factor is a mystery to me, as it’s perfect with its four lanes of PCI Express expansion for I/O expansion. Why has Sundance not done this? We are dedicated to the path of Xilinx Zynq with Arm CPUs and the FPGA [field-programmable gate array] fabric for low-latency I/O and acceleration, using high-level synthesis tools to accelerate “C” algorithms.

HILLIARD: Though we have seen the defense industry demanding more hardware-enabled security for several years now, we believe this will finally start moving into more IIoT [Industrial Internet of Things] designs with high-value data, such as utilities, transportation, and energy. The IoT Cybersecurity Improvement Act of 2020 will dictate basic security on all government IoT devices and we believe that move will proliferate into the infrastructure soon. AI and edge computing will continue to be growth areas, plus we believe there will be significant growth in inference engines running on PC/104 platforms with Google TPU or visual processing units such as Intel’s Movidius to offload CPUs.

RAMIREZ: At ADLES, the most frequent request from customers is GPGPU technology for advanced processing applications. And invariably, the most commonly requested GPU technology is from NVIDIA. That said, there is a distinct lack of options for PC/104, wide-temperature Nvidia GPU solutions. More wide-temperature Nvidia chipsets and corresponding board/module solutions from vendors are needed to help fill this void.

PC104 & SMALL FORM FACTORS: How does artificial intelligence/machine learning (AI/ML) fit into your strategies?

KEELER: As a leader in connectivity and digitalization technology our strategy is to continue to promote the use of open architecture/open source solutions to design and develop systems optimized for AI applications through the use of heterogeneous processing elements. This approach accelerates the user communities’ ability to scale systems that deliver operational-ready AI/ML edge solutions.

CHRISTENSEN: Crucial!

HILLIARD: We believe AI/ML will continue to be a growth area for the foreseeable future. WinSystems is seeing a broadening of the availability and use of inference offload engines, even seeing AI/ML algorithms running on native CPUs like the Intel E3900 series for smoke detection and other low-bandwidth applications. We are actively working with third parties to add TPU [tensor] and VPU [vision] capabilities to our PC/104 products, along with software partners to enable these solutions.

RAMIREZ: We are not currently seeing many requests for AI/ML but know it is on the horizon. ADLES is ready to implement these new technologies into our designs as customers require them in the future. The most rewarding aspect of our work is creating a new solution that addresses our customer’s recently developed applications and features.

PC104 & SMALL FORM FACTORS: What geographic area – North America, Europe, Asia, etc. – represents the strongest growth for PC/104 and why?

KEELER: We see North America and Asia/Pacific as the strongest growth areas for PC/104 due to the increased demand for edge analytics.

CHRISTENSEN: The majority of new growth will come from random geographic areas and customers who do not care about the PC/104 form factor, but rather the solution.

HILLIARD: From our perspective, we are seeing the most growth in North America and Europe for PC/104. This is partly due to a large installed base that is already familiar with the rugged PC/104 form factor, while it continues to expand with PCIe/104 ­modules for FPGA, video, and AI/ML processing.

RAMIREZ: As a result of ADLES’ close work with military and defense primes, all of which are located in North America, the U.S. market continues to be our strongest current and future growth market for PC/104.