PC/104 always a factor at Embedded World

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Stephen St. Amant, President of the PC/104 Consortium, leads a discussion for visitors to the OpenSystems Media booth at the 2019 Embedded World Conference & Exhibition. In photo (L to R): Stephen St. Amant; Roy Keeler, ADLINK Technology and VP of Branding for the PC/104 Consortium; Jonathan Miller, President of Diamond Systems Corp.; Dr. Paul A.T. Haris, Chairman and CEO of RTD Embedded Technologies; and George Hilliard, WinSystems. Photo courtesy OpenSystems Media.

The Embedded World Conference & Exhibition – by far the largest embedded event in the world – is coming up in February 2020 in Nuremberg, Germany. Last year’s event brought together 1,117 exhibitors from 42 countries, exhibiting to 31,000 visitors from 84 countries. PC/104 technology has been a key part of the growth of the Embedded World show and the growth of embedded technology overall. The roundtable below consists of representatives of PC/104 Consortium members, all of whom will be attending and exhibiting at this year’s event. The panelists discuss why PC/104 suppliers find Embedded World important, growth areas for PC/104 technology, and their take on where the PC/104 standard is headed in the future.

Our panelists are Roy Keeler, Senior Product and Business Development Manager, Aerospace & Defense, ADLINK Technology and Vice President of Branding for the PC/104 Consortium; Flemming Christensen, Managing Director, Sundance Microprocessor Technology; George T. Hilliard, Technical Sales Director, WinSystems; and J.C. Ramirez, Vice President of Engineering and Business Development at ADL Embedded Solutions.

PC/104 & SMALL FORM FACTORS: PC/104 products have always been showcased at Embedded World. Why is this such an important show for the PC/104 community?

KEELER: PC/104 is one of the original embedded computing form factors first standardized by the PC/104 Consortium in 1992, then adding PCI to the specification in 1997 and PCIe in 2008. The staying power of the standard with the ability to incorporate new technologies is one of the reasons that PC/104 is still relevant after 28 years! This year, 15 PC/104 Consortium member companies announced their intent to exhibit at the 2020 Embedded World. I believe it is fair to say that PC/104 was instrumental in fueling the growth of the embedded community as well as of the Embedded World Exposition & Conference. So when you ask why it is important that PC/104 be showcased at Embedded World, the answer is simple: To perform outreach promoting a technology that stands the test of time to the current generation of design engineers.

CHRISTENSEN: Embedded World was elected as the PC/104 Consortium’s location for annual meetings, as it was in the middle of the world, that is in terms of U.S. companies going east and Asian companies going west. It made sense!

RAMIREZ: Probably the biggest reason is the lack of similar embedded shows in the U.S. The Embedded World or-ganizers have been very receptive to the military/industrial embedded computing community by dedicating a hall entirely for PC/104 and competing form factors. That being said, Embedded World doesn’t do much for lead generation in the U.S., but it does provide a good venue for PC/104 competitors to meet, collaborate, and introduce new products. The U.S. could certainly benefit from having a similar show in the states.

HILLIARD: As the general embedded trade shows declined several years ago and became more vertical or supplier-specific in the U.S., Embedded World became the focal point for embedded system design in one location. Subsequently, the PC/104 Consortium moved its annual board meetings to Embedded World and has maintained that, since most of the Executive Board attends each year. It allows the different PC/104 suppliers to discuss specification updates and marketing collaboration as they continue building the ecosystem.

Embedded World also provides a forum to participate with other PC/104 suppliers on discussion panels, meet with clients, and consider new potential partners.

PC/104 & SMALL FORM FACTORS: Is the European market the largest growth area for PC/104? If not, what geographic area is? Asia? The U.S.?

KEELER: The U.S. market is still the largest consumer of PC/104 products worldwide and will probably continue to be so in the near future. The European market is steady, but I would not describe it as being in a growth mode. However, there is plenty of opportunity for PC/104 growth in the Asia-Pacific market where PC/104’s size, relatively low cost, simple interface, and inherent ruggedness are highly desired qualities.

CHRISTENSEN: Sundance has not seen any growth the last 12 months for conventional PC/104 systems. Actually, it’s seen a decline as the integration of more features on SoC [system-on-chip] means that more I/O functions are found on the main CPU board. The simpler and cheaper COM concept is preferred and for easy I/O, then M.2 and MiniPCIe are much cheaper.

The PC/104 Consortium has not released anything new for the past 5-plus years, in terms of higher performance. The “need for speed” will never go away, so Sundance is working on a stackable replacement for the current Samtec Q2 connector to allow systems to be built that can handle Gen 4 and Gen 5 CPUs, to match leading-edge CPU, GPU, and FPGA technology.

HILLIARD: For WinSystems, we feel the largest growth potential is in the U.S.; however, we may not have the best perspective to answer the question. Though we certainly ship PC/104 products throughout the world and continue to build our presence in Europe and beyond, our marketing and sales force are primary focused on the U.S. market. We continue to see a trend for clients that prefer or require U.S.-made products, especially in government and the transportation industry. With that being said, we still view Europe as a growth area for PC/104, though it is not being driven by country-of-origin requirements like our U.S. base.

RAMIREZ: From ADL’s perspective, the U.S. is still the largest growth market for PC/104. We have a large installed base … especially in the military/defense space … that is comfortable with the standard and happy to continue with it. European and Asian embedded engineers are not as form-factor-centric and [U.S.] engineers tend to be … in our opinion.

PC/104 & SMALL FORM FACTORS: Predict the future for PC/104. Where will we see PC/104 products used the most in five, even 10 years from now? Industrial? Military? Other?

KEELER: If I had a crystal ball … I’d see PC/104 usage evenly split between industrial and military applications with common requirements for rugged small-form-factor systems that fit into a specific SWaP [size, weight, and power] envelope that requires a large I/O count and a low-power processor such as an Atom, Rockchip, Jetson, or Arm. These small-form-factor tactical-edge processing subsystems will account for a large number of future PC/104 use cases. With respect to the PC/104 standard, the consortium plans to start the process of soliciting industry input for the next-gen PC/104 standard in 2020, with a targeted 2021 release date. Stand by.

CHRISTENSEN: In terms of longevity, nothing compares to the form factor of PC/104 for embedded solutions. In 10 years, the incumbents will still be selling PC/104 solutions and I am 99.9% sure that Sundance will still build modules with the Q2 connector for the PC/104 OneBank specifications.

In terms of where the new growth will come, then that’s harder to predict. The obvious target is to gain traction in the smaller form factor of embedded military systems that use OpenVPX today. The backplane is such a limited factor in terms of size and cost. The form factor of PC/104 with better and faster (Samtec/Molex Searay has been chosen) connector system will be important for that to happen. Sundance sees potential here with a single SBC CPU as a host and then a number of I/O boards for ultra-high processing and interfacing, either with GPUs and/or FPGAs.

The days of 10-plus PC/104 boards in a single system have [passed], but a solution with a single SBC and a single I/O to start with that can expanded would be an attractive alternative to COM standards with limited to no expansion potential. We are working with a number of suppliers/customers to make an open standard of a “blade” enclosure concept to allow expansion of a stack of boards easier for OEMs.

HILLIARD: The overall size and ruggedness of PC104 will continue to be a viable solution for military COTS [commercial off-the-shelf], heavy transportation, and other critical vertical markets requiring reliable rugged embedded solutions. It is expected that the use of PCIe/104 Type 1 and Type 2 modules will extend in the future as use cases for artificial intelligence and machine learning continue their dominance. Ultimately, this will help drive the next generation of PC/104 specifications.

RAMIREZ: In short … PC/104 has worked ably and reliably in [the military] space for almost 25 years. Military engineers are big advocates of proven technologies and only grudging adopters of new and alternative solutions. As long as PC/104 continues to evolve to meet the processing and I/O needs of military applications, PC/104 will continue to do well in this space.

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