They’re Sproutin’ Up Like Mushrooms!


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It might be difficult to claim that a number like four or five constitutes a “plethora,”but it may constitute a “harbinger.” Of course I’m talking about small form factor modules. Fairly recently we’ve seen some new ones appear; the use of available small form factors is increasing exponentially and there are new ideas appearing in the form of EPIC, COM Express, Nano ITX, Pico ITX and more recently CoreExpress and Qseven. This list is by no means meant to be complete—merely representative.

The obvious first question that comes to mind is, “What’s going on here?” Well, there appears to be a wave of innovation happening, which usually signals that there is technology available to fill as-yet unsatisfied needs. Ideas are a-flyin’ at how best to address those needs, which generally call for increased intelligence in ever smaller devices that are mobile, low power and compact. The enabling technology, of course, is the silicon, which has gotten smaller and able to operate at needed performance levels with much less power consumption and heat dissipation.

This, combined with the advent of high-speed serial interconnects, has moved this new generation of small form factor modules away from a bus architecture. That is being replaced with a paradigm where a very small CPU card consisting of processor, chipset, memory and some peripheral chips uses a single connector to interface with an I/O carrier or subsystem specifically designed for the application. That connector carries a combination of things like PCI Express, SATA, LVDS, USB, Ethernet and more. As long as you get the I/O you need and the processor performance, the actual size and shape of the board is less important as long as it meets the space requirements. And there are different connector types for the different form factors: CoreExpress is different from COM Express while Qseven is different from both, being an edge connector.

So, given all this, are we throwing the idea of standards to the wind? The answer is we’d better not be. It does appear to be somewhat looser than the old world of bus-based architectures. Cards do not have to adhere to a rigid size to fit into a chassis. Connectors can be tailored to the needs of a class of applications and need only supply the required set of signals to the I/O subsystem. The signals (PCIe, USB, etc.) are of course standards in their own right.

But lest this supposed freedom go too far to our heads, let us remember the more mundane considerations of second sourcing and end-of-life issues. If a company is willing to risk going it alone, there isn’t and never was anything to stop it. But if we want to assure continuity and peace of mind we do need standards. At this point, we actually have some in the small form factor arena, and there will be others. That does not mean there will be calm and serenity right away—there are too many creative ideas out there for that. There will be excitement and some uncertainty and then, as always happens, there will be a shakeout. All in all it will be an interesting time.

We will be bringing you all the developments here in RTC both in our regular coverage and in a brand new column that starts with this issue—called the Small Form Factor Forum or sF3, and written by two of the most experienced industry experts in this area: Colin McCracken and Paul Rosenfeld, both of whom hail from the beginnings of PC/104 and whose resumes read like a roadmap of the evolution of small form factors for embedded systems. They will be bringing insight and a unique perspective to a development that is now one of the most dynamic areas of our industry and we welcome them and invite your interest and feedback. Welcome Colin and Paul and SF3!