PC/104: Ready solutions

A dozen people sit around a large conference-room table. A few have visitor’s badges. Everyone has a smart device of some sort. Many have engineering notebooks and pens. Business cards have been cordially exchanged, and cups of coffee are still too hot to drink. In the middle of the table sits an assortment of printed circuit board assemblies.

“So, what are they?” asks one engineer, itching to get back to the lab.

“Well … they’re the solution you’d have spent the next six months designing from scratch. But they’re ready now.”

[clearly interested] “OK. Tell me more.”

We spend the next half-hour showcasing the latest in PC/104 to a group representing all levels of design and procurement. The PC/104 form factor is robust. The manufacturers are many, and the ecosystem is strong. PC/104 has been around a long time, and for this group that’s a good thing. It’s established. It’s proven. It has industry support and it continues to innovate.

Some know the form factor’s history, but others are eager to learn that PC/104 has grown into more than its namesake. Now, in addition to the stackable 104-pin ISA bus, the format also supports a stackable 120-pin PCI bus and a stackable 156-pin PCI Express bus (also available in a 52-pin variation).

The 30-minute scheduled meeting turns into an exciting hour-and-a-half discussion about system design, single-board CPU capabilities, signal needs, I/O requirements, environmental ruggedization, thermal management, and lifecycle expectations. By the time our coffee cups have been emptied twice, there are a half-dozen system designers with their sights set on robust, off-the-shelf PC/104 building blocks, along with several confident program managers ready to report back to their directors.

This is how it often goes when PC/104 manufacturers and sales reps visit new potential customers across the globe. Those who have been following PC/104 over the last 25 years are not surprised to see the latest and greatest; they’ve been winning many contracts with 104-based solutions all along. Others, however (those who thought PC/104 innovation had somehow slowed) are thrilled to see the latest technologies incorporated into this small, versatile form factor.

PC/104 has many benefits. If you follow publications that cover PC/104, you’re aware of them: inherent rugged architecture, compact size, stackability and upgradability, interoperability across manufacturers, and utilization of mainstream bus architectures. On top of that, PC/104 has a deep off-the-shelf footprint that enables rapid uptime, and low development costs. Ultimately, PC/104 offers advantages for stakeholders at all points of the embedded supply chain.

This issue of PC/104 and Small Form Factors touches on the topic of “customization.” PC/104 excels here too. There are many times when an off-the-shelf system needs a unique added element; that is, some measure of customization in order to meet a distinctive end-user application requirement. In these instances, PC/104 designers and system integrators are able to create a customized element to fit within the rest of the stackable architecture. The advantage of such a setup is that a custom, compatible peripheral card eliminates the need for a ground-up, one-off, high-cost solution. “COTS (commercial off-the-shelf) plus custom” will likely win out over “custom plus more custom.”

Even with custom peripherals in the mix, one can readily see the wide variety of existing peripheral cards in the PC/104 marketplace. Look through pc104.org and you’ll find a huge selection of add-in cards that meet a diverse range of application needs. Networking, processing, analog, digital, high-speed, low-speed, storage, power … they’re all there. These solutions come from dozens of designers and manufacturers who work continually to bring the latest technologies to the PC/104 architecture, while continuing to support legacy infrastructures.

So whoever you are in that lab or conference room – the hardware engineer, the software engineer, the system integrator, the program manager, the procurement specialist, or the end user – PC/104 has something attractive for you. Learn more about the open specifications and our diverse membership at www.pc104.org. Thinking of spinning your existing technology for compatibility with the PC/104 form factor? We encourage you to do so, and to join the ever-growing PC/104 market.

For more information visit the PC/104 Consortium website at www.pc104.org.