Redefining 'anywhere'

No matter what small form factor you're using or considering, everyone needs to step back and think about several overriding trends in this market.

It's been quite an interesting year as small form factor boards and systems have continued to show up everywhere and anywhere, redefining what's possible with the genre. Notable trends in 2008 included the completion of the PCI/104-Express specification, emergence of the SUMIT specification, continued growth in COM Express choices, and VITA's and other organizations' interest in developing new small form factors. But as usual, there's more going on behind the headlines.

Extending the PC/104 family with a standard way to interface with PCI Express was a long-awaited and important development. We brought you the details on this interface in the article entitled "An inside look at PCI/104-Express" published in the Summer 2008 issue of PC/104 and Small Form Factors.

In this issue starting on page 8, we explore the SFF-SIG's SUMIT specification. SUMIT takes a different approach to PCI Express with some unique twists for other I/O interfaces like Low Pin Count (LPC) and Serial Peripheral Interface (SPI). The SFF-SIG is also working on other efforts including Express104, an enhanced Pico-ITX, and the MiniBlade storage module.

COM Express and its close relatives continue to proliferate, with more and more modules appearing. Especially prominent this year are COM Express modules based on new processors like the Intel Atom chipset or the VIA Nano with native PCI Express and other integrated interfaces.

VITA is reaching into the small form factor space with ideas including the FPGA Mezzanine Card (FMC) and Rugged System-on-Module Express (RSE), both early in their development.

In the midst of these small form factor developments, we've continued to present new and different concepts in our Focus on Form Factors feature - concepts like CompactRIO, Qseven, and StackableUSB, among many others. We've also looked closely at the low-power processors that are creating new opportunities for designers and module users.

No matter what small form factor you're using or considering, everyone needs to step back and think about several overriding trends in this market.

Who's got time to recreate wheels? If you're doing something that someone has already done, like designing an SBC, you're wasting precious time, and who can afford that? More low- and mid-volume customers should contemplate buying a compute module or system off the shelf because it's all you'll have time to do in order to meet deadlines. Wasting months in the development process to save $4.37 on an SBC design for moderate volumes won't lead to a win.

The last inch is the hardest. What you should be spending time on is the I/O. Ethernet, USB, PCI Express, and similar connectivity options have not only improved performance and ease, but also made shape much less important than function. Although there are some important differences among these connectors, many small form factors now provide similar interface capabilities. The compute modules and primary I/O pipes are standard, but the last inch of I/O needs to be incredibly flexible and often custom. Winning means embracing and supporting that flexibility.

Solutions step forward. Designers need to consider what software goes with the board. There's a lot to be said for a module with a Real-Time Operating System (RTOS) or Linux board support package already ported to it, ready to work now. SBC and OS vendors have been teaming up and doing this for a while by including drivers for many I/O boards. Semiconductor firms and distributors have also gotten the idea, putting out more and more reference kits with software already ported. If such a solution works now and can shave months off a project, it can make the difference in winning.

If it's really rugged, it's unlikely to be standard. I've looked at several rugged systems lately, and they all seem to have one thing in common: They're radically different. Ruggedization is often designed and tested into a solution customized for the problem at hand. Again, the standards won't necessarily be inside the board or box, but rather around the edge in things like Ethernet, USB, and PCI Express. Working with a vendor who understands the problem and how to solve it is critical to win.

The boundaries of small form factors are hard to delineate. I use the smaller-than-my-toaster criteria to state it in lay terms. Despite the ambiguity surrounding the term "small", one thing in this market remains clear: The "anywhere" where small form factors show up is being redefined daily, and the wins are increasing rapidly.

Don Dingee