Everything's coming up 'small form factors'

SFF-SIG: New logo, new start, and a SUMIT to ascend. Meanwhile, the PC/104 Consortium rolls out PCIe, and ESC needs a new name.

Before last month's Embedded Systems Conference (ESC) even got rolling in San Jose, the SFF-SIG held a private dinner to brief the media on what I believe is a new idea that stands a snowball's chance at success. In a packed room at the San Jose Marriott, international journalists and companies began charting a course for the creation of several new Small Form Factors (SFFs) while capitalizing on the trends of Size, Weight, and Power (SWaP), PCI Express (PCIe), low cost, and processor independence.

The SFF-SIG was an idea I personally championed behind the scenes and in print. With more than 80 SFFs in the market, it’s high time to rein it all in and foster the type of "co-opetition" (cooperation/competition) that births open standards and creates sustainable markets with multiple vendors. PC/104 is one such successful SFF, and at ESC the PC/104 Embedded Consortium also announced its own new flavor, called PCI/104-Express.

I described the SFF-SIG’s mission in the PC/104 and Small Form Factors 2008 Resource Guide (www.smallformfactors.com/departments/insight/2008/03/01/a_new_sig_in_town/). Now the group has taken the wraps off its SUMIT interface. Based on a low-bux Samtec connector set that they say sells for a mere $16 in quantity 1, the Stackable Unified Module Interconnect Technology (SUMIT) is intended to decouple the board size and interconnect from the processor bus du jour. Moreover, the size and interconnect are designed to balance the best of legacy interfaces and current- and future-generation connectivity options. And because PC/104 has enjoyed such a long run of success partially because of a well-managed life cycle (read: anti-obsolescence), SUMIT is building "long term" in at the start.

Here are the technical whizzies: SUMIT includes two PCIe x1 and one PCIe x4 lanes. On an SFF, the routing (and cost!) required to accommodate anything fatter than x4 approaches diminishing returns. There are three USB 2.0 ports, an LPC "bus" to bridge back to legacy modules (such as PC/104 running ISA), SPI, MicroWire, SMBus, and I2C. These pins and traces can be configured to support an Express card, the add-in I/O choice of today’s high-volume laptops and notebook computers. SUMIT’s Samtec Q2 52-pin connector has a relatively clean eye diagram for 5 GHz signals with boards stacked three high and is supposedly rugged enough to deal with standoffs. At these speeds, even PCIe 2.0 and USB 3.0 are doable. Samtec claims insertion cycles of 1,000 times, well beyond what any board stack would ever see in the real world.

The SFF-SIG also announced its Express104 standard, which is PC/104-like at 90 mm x 96 mm, with 14 square inches (8,600 square mm) per side. Clearly, the SFF-SIG wanted to get the basics right first and let the SIG’s members propose the definition for the physical card size. Member company VIA Technologies did just that, showing a proof-of-concept Pico-ITX processor board modified with SUMIT-based Pico-I/O add-in cards. (Note: VIA even had Robert Kuo, inventor of the Mini-, Nano-, and Pico-ITX modules present at this kickoff. That says they’re serious about this, folks.)

Later that evening, various SFF-SIG member companies and (presumably) a few "lurkers" milled about after the crème brûlée had congealed. European companies congatec AG and SECO – founders of the Qseven SFF consortium – announced that MSC Vertriebs GmbH and Hectronic of Sweden will support the Qseven platform. I also noticed some ex-Kontron people in attendance. The on-the-record attendees or supporters include VIA, Ampro Computers, congatec, General Standards Corporation, Octagon Systems, American Portwell Technology, Samtec, SiliconSystems, Tri-M Systems, VersaLogic, and WinSystems.

Not to be outdone, the next day the PC/104 Consortium unveiled two years’ worth of work and a few lost member companies. Their briefing made it crystal clear that the PC/104 ecosystem intends to stay wedded to the successful ISA/PCI legacy desktop world. Several audience members provided impromptu assertion testimonials to this fact: I’d just witnessed the genesis of the market split between the visions of the PC/104 Consortium and the SFF-SIG. Ironically, many companies belong to both camps, leading to possible future multiple personalities not seen since Sybil. PCI/104-Express also uses a Samtec connector, but this one has a better eye diagram and can support faster and wider signals.

In other SFF news, congatec’s Qseven and XTX form factors might soon become SFF-SIG standards, LiPPERT Embedded Computers announced CoreExpress, which is arguably the smallest Intel-based SFF SBC on the market, and XtremeData showcased the XD2000 Altera Stratix II-based FPGA coprocessor SFF compatible with AMD’s and Intel’s coprocessor initiatives. Also at ESC, the general manager of ADLINK briefed me on the company’s post-acquisition plans for PC/104 inventor Ampro (hint: U.S. manufacturing and design, leading to military sales), and EMAC beefed up its almost Gumstix-sized SODIMM SoM SFF modules with a ColdFire MCF5282 32-bit CPU.

ESC showcased so many SFFs that it should be renamed SFF ESC. Really. Embedded hardware seems to only come in SFF sizes, and we are ramping up our coverage of SFF trends in this very magazine1. Stay tuned.

Chris A. Ciufo, cciufo@opensystems-publishing.com

[1] Two other SFFs recently appeared in an unlikely place: under the umbrella of VITA, owner of the sacred VME flame. VITA 57 pertains to a smaller-than-PMC FPGA mezzanine card designed to make FPGA I/O swaps easier than a full basecard re-layout. As well, the new VITA 59 Rugged System-On-Module is COM-sized but includes a full billet alloy frame for extremely rugged shock and vibration, plus it offers nifty conduction cooling for up to about 40 W over a wide temperature range.