Embedded design teams looking to develop a platform or system with long life yet that can still be upgraded with the latest in Intel® Architecture (IA) technologies should consider COM (computer-on-module) Express. We recently discussed how COM Express could allow teams to offer a base platform with different processor options. Design teams working on communication, medical, military, and specialized-portable applications can also turn to COM Express to extend the life of a base design while supporting the latest in both processor and system-level performance. RadiSys* targets precisely those applications with its CEQM57 module.
COM Express differs from other small-form-factor standards in that it is meant as way to add a system-level computer module to a base platform that is application specific. Most system platforms such as EPIC (Embedded Platform for Industrial Computing) take the opposite approach defining a main or mother board to which other functions are added via expansion connectors to support the application at hand.
Design teams working on communication or medical applications can't deal with the fast turn over in technology common to the PC space. The designs take decidedly longer up front and some such as medical designs must go through a lengthy regulatory approval. By definition, the design teams must pursue a system platform that can serve in the application for years.
The fact is that many embedded designs serve applications that don't change much over time. Still the designs could benefit from the performance afforded by a processor upgrade. Such an upgrade might simply boost system performance or might even enable the base platform to handle software for a new more compute-intensive application.
RadiSys supports many such design teams. "They are building really high-performance platforms and systems and they want them to last a few generations," said Jennifer Zickel, Product Line Manager. "They can more easily accomplish that by replacing the COM Express module and increasing the performance."
According to Zickel, COM Express is gaining momentum in the market. She notes that the standard was developed in 2005 and took a couple of tears to gain traction but that it has exhibited steady growth starting in 2008. According to Zickel, various analysts place the compound annual growth rate from Com Express in the 40 to 45\% range.
The power profile of the COM Express standard makes it ideally suited for processors with a mobile heritage. The COM Express standard defines several options in module type and size. The power available to a module depends on the module type, but it starts at 120W.
Companies are able to offer COM Express modules with processors ranging from the low-power Intel® Atom™ to the newest Intel® Core™ i7.
RadiSys, for instance offers the Procelerant CEQM57 module based on the Mobile Intel® QM57 Express chipset. Customers can specify the module with i7 processors operating between 1.06 and 2.53 GHz, or with a 2.4-GHz i5. The modules host as much as 8 Gbytes of memory, Ethernet, and a variety of PCI Express ports.
So how are design teams using the COM Express modules? Zickel said, "We have had multiple ATCA applications use COM Express as well as custom form factors. The custom form factors are typically larger boards."
The ATCA (Advanced Telecommunications Computing Architecture) is a system platform that supports blades – add-in boards – that comprise the system functionality. ATCA is primarily used in the communications industry.
According to Zickel, RadiSys customers have deployed COM Express modules in communications applications for functions such as session border control. A session border controller handles call management in VoIP (voice over IP) applications. Zickel also lists network security and wireless telecommunications as segments using COM Express.
Zickel points out one additional reason that some communication applications adopt COM Express. She said, "Some of them also use the module as an off-load processor." The COM Express flexibility allows the maker of communications equipment to choose a processor that matches the off-load task.
RadiSys also offers embedded teams choices in flavors of COM Express Modules that can be matched to an application. For example, the CEQM57 is available in three flavors. Initially the company announced the standard module along with a second version – the CEQM57/ECC -- that ships with ECC memory. Communication applications often require such memory.
More recently, RadiSys announced the CEQM57XT that is an extended temperature version able to operate over the range of -25ºC to +70ºC. That product can serve in harsh industrial and military environments.
You might be surprised at other places that COM Express is winning in embedded designs. For example, some portable applications use the technology. At first you might think that portable designs require a single compact PCB with everything integrated on the one board. But some portable applications such as medical instruments need the longer life that COM Express offers according to Zickel. RadiSys has a whitepaper on COM Express in portable devices.
At the bottom of the company's COM Express page, you will also find whitepapers on other application scenarios. Zickel relates that a key advantage is the height of COM Express-based products. Form-factors such as PC/104 use stacks of boards and might have a small footprint but stand tall. Many applications prefer the flatter profile of a base board with the COM Express module.
Still according to Zickel, "The driving factor is in long lifetime and the need to increase performance to keep up with the software advancements and evolving feature sets."
How do you approach embedded designs where the application requires long product life? Have you considered combining an application-specific baseboard with a modular computer board? Please share your experience and questions via comments with fellow followers of the Intel® Embedded Community.
Roving Reporter (Intel Contractor)
Intel® Embedded Alliance
* RadiSys is a Premier Member of the Intel® Embedded Alliance