Atom stars in inaugural SFF conference

The first Small Form Factor Boards conference (SFFBcon, was held on July 23 in Munich, Germany. About 250 visitors came to see what 30 vendors had to offer in terms of products, services, and know-how. The focus was on embedded industrial boards using Intel Atom chips, with a blend of more traditional (mostly European) rugged and harsh applications mixed with Internet, telecom, and infotainment applications (mostly American).

At the beginning of the conference, I presented the “Overview and Technical Trends” keynote. SFF boards are getting more popular with the introduction of smaller chips that use significantly less power. My count is currently at more than 150 SFF types. These SFF boards are typically functional variants of PCs using Intel architecture. The definition of “small” depends on the market segment (motherboards, modular computers, and Computers-On-Modules or COMs) and what the popular size is at a given time.

Board shapes can be rectangular, square, octagonal, or irregular. Related form factors use the same connector(s) along the same card edge on different-sized boards (for example, ETX) or use different connectors on identically sized boards (for example, PC/104). SFFs or COMs are typically SBCs on two slightly different-sized boards. One board has the CPU, graphics, and memory, while the other has the peripheral interfaces and connectors. Boards are stacked in sandwiches with a carrier or baseboard and a mezzanine module.

PC-based systems are only a fraction of the SFF market, as there are about 290 million PCs (mostly Intel architecture) versus 10 billion MCUs and 1.2 billion mobile phones (mostly other architectures). These devices use SFFs but are typically based on other form factors or proprietary board sizes.

Notable trends in SFF markets are:

  • Multicore: Software problems
  • Flexibility: Size, features, condition monitoring
  • Scalability: Board/chip sizes, features
  • Usability: GUI, ruggedness, ergonomics, graphics
  • Low power: <45 nm, sleep modes, power management

The Intel Atom chip with 2 to 5 W Thermal Design Power (TDP) is a significant step in power reduction for Intel architecture processors. The N Series of Atom chips for netbooks is typically combined with the GSE945 and ICH7 chips for a low-cost, medium-power (about 10 W) solution. The industrial Z Series chips are combined with the US15W chip for lower power (about 5 W). This difference is important when comparing Atom-based solutions.

Intel gave a “Technology and Technical Trends Outlook” presentation with examples of extended technologies like the Atom processor and how they are used in embedded applications. One theme during the presentation was developing 15 billion Internet-connected devices by 2015, which Intel sees as an important goal for the embedded market.

In the afternoon, I moderated a session divided into two panels: “normal” COMs and “ultra” COMs, with four panel members discussing COM types and their relevance in the European market and industrial applications.

The “normal” panel highlighted several points about standard COM form factors. COM Express (Advantech) is designed to merge high-performance computing and state-of-the-art interfaces with the features of modern PC technology. ETX (Kontron) is the de facto standard for PCI- and ISA-based COMs with broad industry support for embedded applications that require legacy interfaces. Meanwhile, congatec offers XTX, an enhanced version of ETX with connectors, geometry, mechanics, heat dissipation via the thermal interface, and pinouts that remain unchanged from the ETX standard except for the additions of PCI Express, SATA, HD Audio, and other features. ESMexpress (MEN Micro), which is being standardized as ANSI-VITA 59 (Rugged System-On-Module Express or RSE), is designed for harsh environmental conditions in safety-critical applications.

After this, the “ultra” panel discussed other emerging COM ideas. The Qseven (congatec) 7 mm x 7 mm standard defines a card with a typical power consumption of <5 W, integrated battery management, and ACPI 3.0 power management functions for mobile applications. The nanoETXexpress (Kontron) standard for ultra-small computers (55 mm x 84 mm) is compatible with the COM Express basic form factor (95 mm x 125 mm). CoreExpress (LiPPERT Embedded Computers) is touted as the smallest processor-independent COM with the lowest power consumption and a pure digital high-speed interface for long-term availability. ESMini  (MEN Micro) employs the same conductive cooling as ESMexpress, but is considerably smaller (95 mm x 55 mm) and supports signals from the onboard FPGA.

SFF board families/standards exist for many different reasons. Compared to the home or office PC market, there are orders of magnitude more embedded applications and environmental segments with particular needs that SFFs can meet. The trend of SFF standard development will keep moving technology forward as these needs continue to evolve and expand.

For more information, contact Hermann at