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Paving the way for ruggedised, standardised COMs

Posted: 22 Aug 2013 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:embedded systems? Computer-On-Module? CPU? FPGAs? PICMG COM.0?

In the embedded systems community, there is a persistent drive to improve system performance and design efficiency to make embedded technologies more affordable, and more useful in a greater number of applications.

The road to innovation in embedded computing usually starts with a new technology that promises to save time, money, and development efforts. Next is the rush to bring new products based on these technologies to market.

However, many designers know the sad side of this tale all too well; that these products are brought to market before the industry, as a whole, has been able to grasp the concept and implement it effectively.

While embracing new technologies is paramount to innovation, what are we left when each company tweaks the technology to fit its own specifications C either for convenience or expedience?

This doesn't help the end user, who will probably need to wade through incompatibility issues among different components or will be forced into a single-supplier situation.

And it isn't very beneficial for the manufacturers either, as they are left with frustrated customers who may be reluctant to turn to them when the next technology evolution occurs.

One way around incompatibility in the market is standards organisations that seek to:

???Promote a universal platform on which developers can base systems that talk effectively with one another;
???Ensure components work side-by-side in a system, not against one another; and
???Foster a community of developers and manufacturers that work together for the growth of the industry as a whole.
For the embedded community, VITA has long promoted open system architectures of real-time, modular critical embedded computing systems. One of the standards on track for ratification in 2013 is VITA 59 Rugged System-On-Module Express (RSE), which holds many answers embedded designers are seeking in terms of a compact format, an industry standard platform, and rugged performance.

Based upon the PICMG COM.0 standard, VITA 59 not only capitalizes on the small form factor and interchangeable concepts behind this original standard, but adds ruggedisation and modern serial interfaces while defining pin-out for compatibility among different modules, regardless of manufacturer.

COMs
A Computer-On-Module (COM) is a complete computer on a plug-on module that offers many benefits. Because the I/O is configured on an individual carrier board, the system designer can tailor the functionality to the application, save development costs, and shorten time-to-market, all primary goals for an embedded designer.

Since CPU functions can easily be standardised for many fields of use, COMs-based systems can use a more or less standard plug-on CPU module. Even complex CPUs, including those with multi-core technology, can be realised on a compact, highly-integrated COM.

Special I/O interfaces, memory devices, connectors or form factors may be added to the carrier board. Also, FPGA-based functions can be added to a carrier board or to the CPU module, if desired.

All this makes the electronics 100% tailored to the application, and future-safe. The implementation is far less complex and less expensive than reengineering a system from scratch, especially in applications where a special I/O platform is needed. The CPU module, which provides a standard interface to the carrier, remains scalable and can be used in a design application much like an integrated circuit component.

Two major downsides that have hindered the wide-spread use of COMs, however, are the lack of ruggedisation and the disparity among the structure of the modules.

The soon-to-be-ratified VITA 59 RSE is based upon the concepts presented in the ESMexpress architecture. VITA 59 formalizes ESMexpress into a standard that ensures component compatibility, easier upgrade paths, and faster time to market.

ESMexpress utilises the same 125 mm x 95 mm board size as the previous COM Express form factor. Both ESMexpress and COM Express provide the advantages of the original COMs that implement CPU functionality on a standardised module and let unique application requirements C such as I/O interfaces, extra memory devices, and connectors C be handled by the carrier card.

While both executions of the COM approach adhere to a formal industry standard for true interchangeability among components, only the VITA 59 standard governing ESMexpress addresses the benefits of rugged performance in multiple areas such as connectors, operating temperatures, shock resistance, and EMC protection.

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