PC/104 trends in the small-form-factor realm

Common wisdom is clear: Don’t fix what isn’t broken. For decades, the PC/104 form factor has spanned many generations of processors and interfaces, always with the goal of making computing solutions as compact, modular, and enduring as possible. PC/104 remains the favored small form factor (SFF) for embedded solutions in markets where vibration, fluctuating power, granular debris, and round-the-clock use can’t be allowed to interrupt critical application uptime.

The PC104 Consortium’s vision for PC/104 remains timeless: to support and promote the design, manufacture, and support the world’s most dependable and flexible product family built for demanding, SWaP (size, weight, and power)-sensitive applications.

What is PC/104?

  • Highly integrated single-board computer (SBC)
  • System expansion and customization through stackable application-specific carrier boards
  • Small rugged form factor that will fit where other boards don’t, speaking mechanically, economically, and functionally
  • Based on industry and proprietary standards of mechanical and electrical interface characteristics
  • Ideal solution for a host of industry applications
  • Robust ecosystem of products and manufacturers
  • Performance: The latest processor technology with high speed serial interfaces, including PCI Express Gen 3, 10GbE, USB 3.0, SATA, LVDS, CAN, HDMI, and other high-resolution graphics.
  • Flexibility: Can operate standalone or in conjunction with a user-supplied carrier boards that provides application specific I/O.
  • Technology insertion: When used with a carrier board, performance upgrades can be as simple as plugging in the latest commercially available module with the newest chip sets.
  • Selection: Multiple generations are available that balance cost, features, and performance while maintaining common connectors and mounting holes and common signaling where appropriate.
  • General-purpose embedded computing, including industrial control, transportation, data acquisition, medical, point of sale, human/machine interface, digital signage, multimedia, and communications.
  • Ruggedized and high-temperature-range products are available for demanding applications across industries including military, aerospace, rail, and oil and gas.
  • High-speed and connectivity applications using multiple PCIe Express lanes and as many as four 10 GbE interfaces. These include high-bandwidth applications such as data centers and video surveillance.

Why PC/104?

SFF application areas

Even though SFF systems have been a force in computing for over 30 years, there seems to be no sign of slowing in the SFF market. If anything, the range of opportunities for SFF in government, military, and defense vertical markets is expanding faster than ever.

Edge and fog computing: Key PC/104 areas

Topping today’s embedded computing headlines, edge and fog computing have become key PC/104 deployment areas and a core requirement in most broad Internet of Things (IoT) strategies for data-driven organizations. Fog and edge computing are relatively new terms, and some people are unaware of their differences or how they are distinguished from cloud computing. Essentially, edge applications gather data at the source from environmental sensors, video cameras, and so on, and pre-process them. Edge systems feed collected data up to fog systems, which sit between the edge and the cloud; the systems then aggregate, analyze, and filter data, along with other functions. Fog can then send data upstream into the cloud for further refinement, big data analysis, and storage.

This chain of data collection and processing is bidirectional. Edge applications can pass data to fog nodes as well as receive information back from them, and the same is true between fog nodes and the cloud. Generally speaking, the closer one gets to the network edge, the smaller systems become. In a military setting, field soldiers each might have a dozen data sources streaming off their armor, all of which might be gathered by one squad member toting a battery-powered gateway system – perhaps something like an PC/104-based fanless embedded computer mounted in a Humvee. Several such gateways, in turn, might feed back to a server running at the company/battery/troop headquarters.

Not that long ago, minimal computing power was needed for video capture. A digital video recorder could capture a TV or surveillance camera stream with fairly modest processing resources. The game changes when that one video stream grows into high-def or 4K resolution and then multiplies across multiple cameras, then multiplies again with feeds coming from multiple people – all accompanied by other data sources, such as LiDAR [light detection and ranging] cameras, laser sighting, long-range microphones, GPS, and more. Depending on the circumstances, there may be a need for this data to be processed, analyzed, and visualized in the field, especially if cloud latency and/or connectivity results in too much delay. Even relaying to fog nodes may be infeasible. SFF PC/104 systems can provide the intelligence needed at the edge without significant increase to SWaP parameters.

The rise of in-vehicle computing will clearly benefit from the advantages of SFF PC/104 systems. Of course, although cars have relied on microprocessors for decades, between integrated communication systems, in-car entertainment, in-car sensor analysis (think of the visual recognition needed for backup guidance), real-time navigation, and soon intercar communication for collision avoidance, the need for more powerful processing and graphics in vehicles demands high-performance embedded systems. Other transportation fields including freight, rail, nautical, and military are also seeing an increase in SFF adoption.

Again, don’t fix what isn’t broken. Although new technologies such as COM Express and SMARC are gradually replacing PC/104 in certain applications, the market for PC/104 remains robust with moderate growth through 2023, especially in defense, industrial, and medical applications.

So, when PC/104 celebrates its 30th birthday in 2022 it will be celebrating remarkable longevity with its loyal customer base in every market it serves. PC/104’s versatility, adaptability, and inherent ruggedness make it the ideal platform with which to build the next-generation SFF edge systems.

Roy Keeler is on the Board of Directors and is vice president of branding for the PC104 Consortium; he also works as senior product and business development manager, Aerospace & Defense, ADLINK Technology.