Rugged SFFs nail system designs

There is ample recent evidence that the Small Form Factor (SFF) market is souring on consumer systems like Point-Of-Sale (POS) terminals and photo kiosks. Instead, there's an unmistakable move toward rugged boards and systems targeting industrial PCs, energy platforms, and yes – military equipment and systems.

The latest analyst reports from the traditional SFF markets like PCs, wireless, telecom, and semiconductors are positively grim. The Semiconductor Industry Association reported a 28.6 percent decline in January 2009 IC sales versus 2008, with declines in all segments including automobiles, consumer devices, phones, and "other." Our contributing editor and Forward Concepts' renowned DSP expert Will Strauss reported that DSP shipments were down 31 percent for Q4 in 2008, caused by declines in cellular phones (-36.5 percent), wireless infrastructure (-16.6 percent), and the automotive and telco markets. The PC markets also went into the dumper if you look at year-over-year unit shipments or even just the graphics chip portion of the market (which tends to be a more "honest" way of looking at units). There was a 34.98 percent decrease Q4 over Q3 in GPU shipments, according to Jon Peddie Research. Add all these together, and the markets that have traditionally mattered most to SFFs are suffering.

But not Aerospace and Defense (A&D) and some industrial PC markets like energy equipment and exploration. On the latter side, out-in-the-open solar, wind, and geothermal systems rely on PC-based controls and telemetry systems to make them work, and low-cost, rugged SFF boards and systems are the preferred embedded systems choice.

Either at the March Embedded World show in Germany or timed to coincide with it, myriad SFF companies announced rugged SFF boards and systems. It's not a shock when one or two companies announce industrial temperature boards, but it is positively a landslide when most announce them. Right in their backyard during the first week of March, Germany-based Kontron announced three rugged SFFs, two of which are conduction cooled. The VX3230 (PowerPC) and VX3020 (Core 2 Duo) are both 3U VPX boards designed to fit into the next-generation VME ecosystem. While the 3U form factor fits within our size-wise definition of an SFF, I normally wouldn't consider a VME-type board in a discussion of typical SFFs because older-style VME usually doesn't work stand-alone without a bevy of other cards. But the huge amount of I/O defined on its connector makes VPX different. As well, conduction cooling is becoming a desired SFF characteristic in deployed A&D applications, and power consumption below 25 W makes the VX3020 highly desirable in Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). Kontron also announced the CP308, an Intel Penryn 3U CompactPCI module.

Longtime VME supplier General Micro Systems (GMS) started shipping SFF boards and shoe boxes about three years ago and now claims to ship more rugged SFFs than anyone. President Ben Sharfi – ever controversial – says he goes up against GE Fanuc and Curtiss-Wright Controls Embedded Computing all the time. Increasingly, he is encroaching on market space served by Parvus and ADLINK Technology/Ampro Computers. During Embedded World, GMS unveiled their -40 °C to +85 °C Raider shoe box, weighing in at 2 lbs with a conduction-cooled Core 2 Duo SBC consuming a mere 15 W. The 4.6" x 4.6" x 1.6" system uses GMS' proprietary SFF P70x module because open-standard SFFs such as PC/104, ETX, EPIC, COM, and others have no built-in provisions for card-edge conduction cooling.

For ADLINK/Ampro, their LittleBoard 800 relies on box-level conduction cooling, keeping the EBX/LittleBoard inside an uprated configuration. The 8" x 10" x 3" chassis is MIL-STD-810D rated for shock and vibration, and the Pentium M SBC bolts up to military-style 38999 connectors on the -40 °C to +75 °C tested shoe box. For those who want contemporary Intel performance at lower power than a Pentium M or Core 2 Duo, Intel coincidentally announced a new lineup of industrial temperature Atom processors.

The Atom Z5xx series comprises six choices of ultra-low-power CPUs with seven-year extended life cycles sure to make military systems designers happy1. Of the six, the Z520PT and Z510PT are rated -40 °C to +85 °C (case), and – surprise again! – vendor American Portwell Technology was among the first to launch a rugged ECX SFF with an Atom Z5xx. The company's PEB-2738 specifically targets, wait for it, "industrial and fanless" applications. So too does congatec, with their brand new conga-CAx COM Express module (95 mm x 95 mm), which relies on the Z510PT for -40 °C to +85 °C operation.

I could go on, but you get the gist. With the commercial and civilian markets as frozen as interbank lending, SFF vendors are turning to industrial and A&D applications. With President Obama's defense plans expected to remain stable at least through 2010, rugged is the place to be.

Chris A. Ciufo

[1] Want the early access skinny on the brand new Atom? Check out