Redefining 'standard' for technology's next-generation modules

Compact, single-board solutions will be the new standard for small form factor requirements.

2As market demand for small size and big performance explodes, designers are challenged to engineer a whole new kind of computing system. A team of designers in California found a way to realize a single-board solution while cutting system-level costs in half.

The latest advancements in silicon technology have created major opportunities, not only for the suppliers of small form factor processing systems, but also for the industry as a whole. We now have the ability to provide extremely high-performance systems on very small platforms. Although the driving factor for this silicon revolution is the consumer market, many of these advancements are finding their way into the embedded market space, most notably in the military, medical, transportation, and portable markets.

One of the common drivers for these applications is Size, Weight, and Power (SWaP), and the other is the demand for ever-increasing performance. The ability for an individual or system to carry a high-performance processing tool that will operate autonomously for many hours or as a remote terminal has become an industry focus resulting from the personal communication revolution. Unfortunately, the embedded industry doesn’t work with the same rules as the consumer industry; we don’t have an 18-month-operation-then-throw-it-away system lifespan. On the contrary, the embedded market requires long-term and reliable performance for years and sometimes even decades.

Intelligent, tightly integrated design

Success, as a company or a product, demands tested and proven ingenuity and innovation. Manufacturers must think out of the box when designing to make a single module that is highly efficient in power, cost, and performance per watt, per cubic inch. The whole idea of the small form factor, especially in the military market, is to reduce the system-level cost and make the package as small as possible so it can be deployed in heavily embedded applications like Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs).

Bus architectures like CompactPCI and VME have developed standards and specifications that focus on military requirements such as interconnections, cooling, shock, and vibration. The majority of the COM Express and PC/104 market is low-cost commercial-grade, and most design efforts target this market. Adapting these designs for multi-board military applications is not easily accomplished. Without accepted standards by the entire community, each small form factor supplier attempts to offer his own unique military multi-board solution, which may not have gone through an industry vetting process and acceptance by the military.

Most small form factor suppliers and others in the embedded industry were thrilled at the introduction of the Intel Atom, a highly efficient processor ideally designed for small form factors. The Atom is being integrated into modules designed for power-guzzling systems. But what’s the benefit of taking a $50 processor chip with $45 I/O, putting it into a system that costs $3,000 to $4,000, and reducing the overall system power consumption by less than a mere 5 percent?

The most intelligent way to use the Atom is to design a small SBC – with processor, I/O, power supply, and everything else needed – on one board in one very small package. This can be accomplished by embedding the interconnect on the board and using reliable, secure, high-speed connectors like those used in SODIMM and DIMM technology. If you’re shooting for a small form factor, why stack on a second board for I/O, like what’s done in PC/104 designs? Instead, why not take advantage of Express Mini for GPS, solid-state disks, Wi-Fi, 1553 – whatever I/O you want to add? By tightly integrating I/O function, power supply, and other required components on the same board, designers will produce superior function at 1/20th the size and a fraction of the cost.

Putting all these system elements together to optimize packaging while providing high performance and low power consumption took General Micro Systems three years to accomplish. The company recently introduced Nano SBC technology and the Nano XP40x (Figure 1), which offers full Pentium performance in a module reduced to the size of an iPhone.

Figure 1: GMS’s new rugged SBC, available as a standard temperature (Nano XP40x) or conduction-cooled (Nano XPC40x) unit, delivers high performance and ultra-low power consumption in a single small form factor board.
(Click graphic to zoom)

Modules like this are ultra-small, weighing 7 oz. instead of 3 lbs., and provide overall system cost reductions as well as interoperability with five generations of processors in the same platform, creating a new, more accurate adherence to the definition of a “standard” module. Instead of $2,000 or more, the XP40x system-level cost is less than $1,000 in quantity. While COM Express boards are being offered for as little as $500, it’s important to note that these offerings still require a power supply, I/O card, interconnects, and packaging to operate, resulting in higher cost and all the inherent pitfalls of multi-unit systems.

Developing a product like this doesn’t come about without design challenges, however. One of the biggest challenges is miniaturization of the components. To achieve this, the printed circuit board must be “blind and buried,” a buildup approach to connection that avoids the layers of standard through-hole technology while the power supply, regulators, and all other parts are micro-miniaturized in much the same way as the components in cell phones.

Cooling has to be accomplished without adding the weight of aluminum or other metals to the module. To attain the kind of thermal resistance needed for the Nano XP40x, design engineers rejected gap pads, which transfer heat from the module’s interior dye to the outer packaging. Gap pads operate with a thermal resistance of 18 °C to 19 °C, so designers knew that this method was not an option. Instead, they developed a patented cooling system that guarantees the module will run at 85 °C and shut off at 90 °C, offering a thermal resistance of only 5 °C. This cooling system, along with the SBC’s small size and light weight, makes modules packaged like this a natural fit for small, severe environment applications.

Moving from multi- to single-board solutions

The embedded industry has traditionally relied on standard architectures and modules to allow for multi-board systems, upgrades, multiple vendors, and, most importantly, preservation of existing software. With current silicon technology and trends, the need for multi-board systems has all but been eliminated, along with the need for multiple vendors.

The key for users is to develop a plan that enables the highest possible software preservation. Users’ systems tend to evolve either in performance or additional function, where the base operating system and application software evolve and are not complete replacements or rewrites. Seeking out suppliers that can provide the most practical and value-driven system to meet their needs and a product introduction plan that offers a future path for the greatest preservation of existing software is critical to their future success.

Because other small form factors like PC/104 and COM Express look to accommodate a large variety of applications, they lack focus and thus, when designing a system for a specific application (like ruggedized systems), the result is less than optimal. Compact, single-board solutions will be the new standard for small form factor requirements. Future discussions regarding small form factors and standard design will focus more on the design intelligence used on a single board rather than the issues associated with multiple boards, such as their interconnection and interoperability.

Ryan Steely is the vice president of marketing at General Micro Systems. With more than 15 years of marketing experience and 8 years in the embedded sector, Ryan has brought an outside perspective to GMS’s product development. After working with GMS since 2001, Ryan joined the GMS team in 2009.

General Micro Systems 909-980-4863