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Getting ARM’d for Innovation in x86 Modules is a Power Play

An interview with Bob Burckle, Vice President, WinSystems discusses x86, ARM, and low power.

WinSystems is one of those Tortoise and Hare kind of companies, often alternating between the two. The employee-owned Arlington, Texas company is progressive enough to literally rent out its parking lot for Dallas Cowboys tailgate parties on game days. The company focuses on “deeply embedded” x86 standard form factors PC/104 and EBX, at times racing ahead of the industry to initiate standards like the SFF-SIG’s SUMIT-ISM, or slowly moving along revising PC/104+ boards with new x86 clone CPUs from the likes of DM&P just to keep the ISA bus alive.

You might say the company is methodically focused, knows exactly where to aim its design arrows, and isn’t planning on being all things to all people. The company doesn’t have the product breadth of a Kontron, nor the take-no-prisoners-with-design-innovation of a Congatec. They’re kind of somewhere in the middle, which is just fine with co-founder Bob Burckle. But like the whole embedded market, WinSystems is facing the challenges of how to incorporate low-power ARM processors into an x86 ecosystem, when to finally abandon the ISA bus that still sells well in industrial and legacy data acquisition markets, and how to lower overall system power.

I caught up with Bob on a Saturday in late January. Edit excerpts follow.

Chris Ciufo, Embedded Intel Solutions: What’s the latest on embedded small form factor (SFF) standards?

burckle_bob
Bob Burckle,
vice president, Winsystems

Bob Burckle, WinSystems: Within the standards area, I’m most familiar with PC/104 and the SFF-SIG. In PC/104, the big push recently has been for a PCI Express solution. The PC/104 Consortium has come up with their implementation, and now it’s close to a second generation. The difference between this and the SFF-SIG’s SUMIT-ISM standard comes down to a philosophical question: “What do you do with the original PC/104?”

It’s a case of evolutionary versus revolutionary. The SFF-SIG said they’ve seen 80% of the applications use the original PC/104 module and connector using the ISA bus, which was obsoleted maybe 10 years ago. Yet within our particular space we see people continuing to use the bus in both new designs and true legacy designs. The SFF-SIG decided to replace the parallel PCI connector (on PC/104+, PCI-104) with PCI Express, while keeping PC/104.

On the other hand, the PC/104 Consortium philosophy was to replace the PC/104 connector with a PCI Express solution, but they maintained the PCI-104 connector for parallel PCI. You can have PCI and PCI Express on the same card. But you no longer have ISA available, unless you put another bridge card on the stack, which adds some cost. This is a viable solution.

Both organizations realize ISA will eventually go away and in the meantime you’ve got 90 x 96 mm boards available from the SUMIT camp or the PC/104 Consortium. It’s incumbent upon the customer to decide what’s the best design going forward. Obviously for a new design you’re not constrained by either of the two groups. It depends upon whatever I/O is available.


Embedded Intel Solutions: Is one better than the other?

WinSystems: The SUMIT implementation is called SUMIT Industry Standard Module (SUMIT-ISM) so as not to create confusion with the PC/104 version. It will support existing PC/104, but it does have PCI Express and USB and other support capability from the CPU. All the boards introduced have ISA, but they don’t have to. You can plug a PC/104 board with ISA onto a SUMIT-ISM board that has ISA.

Is one better than the other? When you have two people—or organizations—coming from different philosophies you’re going to get a different solution because of a different perception of market, customers, or sensitivities to cost or performance attributes. Neither is better, really. WinSystems is an Executive Member of the PC/104 Consortium, and I’m on the board of directors of the SFF-SIG. I need to keep abreast of both technologies so I can advise our customers on what’s best for their needs.


Embedded Intel Solutions: What are the trends in processor standards?

WinSystems: One of the things that’s interesting is what’s going on in the ARM world. Can any of these existing SFF standards support ARM processors without having to redesign them? If you look at what’s going on in the COM (computer on module) world, every time you need a new pinout you just add a new “Type” number, such as Type 1, Type 2, Type 10 and others. I believe Kontron may have put an ARM processor on one of their COM Express boards; I think Congatec may have done that with one of their Q7 modules. So I have to ask: Why is there not an embedded standard emerging in the ARM world?

The PC/104 architecture isn’t particularly well suited—from a connector pinout standpoint—for how ARM is pinned out. With COM Express, and COM modules per se, they look like system components. They look like a “fast CPU”, like the former Socket 370. The COM module itself really can’t do anything unless you add on an entire base board. Does it make sense for SBC manufacturers in the embedded space to come up with a standard size for ARM processors that can scale for everything from low cost to streaming video capability? Is there a way to come up with some sort of single board form factor that could envelop that? Would something like that make sense? Or is it just too difficult because so many options make it impossible to encapsulate that such that it could work across several manufacturers’ product lines?


Embedded Intel Solutions: What processors do your products use today?

WinSystems: We use the Intel Atom family. We started out with the early versions…it’s now on Gen 4 or Gen 5; it’s moving along very quickly. We have used that class of processor because they give good processing power, great video, and much, much lower power than Intel’s Core i3, i5, or i7. They also provide the expansion capability of PCI Express and high speed USB.

We are also currently using the AMD LX800 and we may evaluate AMD’s next generation. We also use DM&P which makes the Vortex x86 Pentium-class processor for deeply embedded products (Figure 1).

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Figure 1: DM&P is a clone x86-compatible processor that offers low power and legacy peripherals such as ISA. (Courtesy: DM&P.)

Embedded Intel Solutions: I’m unfamiliar with DM&P.

WinSystems: DM&P took the processor core concept from ZF Microsystems and designed for deeply embedded systems. These guys make some really clever and very good products out of Taiwan. The Vortex x86 is used on our entry level headless systems, and they will soon have some new silicon coming that’s pretty attractive.

This gives us a wide range from Intel, who seems to want to be in the “moderate to upper end processing”, to DM&P who brings in the entry to mid range. And then there’s AMD’s mid-level Geode successor products that line up pretty well against Intel. Note that I’m not referring to AMD’s APU devices with integrated GPUs. This year, we plan on taking a hard look at some of these processor options as a next-generation successor. In fact, if you take a look at Kontron, Congatec, and what others have done, they’ve been using the new AMD processors and the AMD/ATI video is fantastic.


Embedded Intel Solutions: Besides ARM, what’s on your low power roadmap?

In our particular market power is the enemy. You don’t want to use it if you can avoid it, and then you’ve got to get rid of the heat. If you never generate it in the first place then it makes your cooling solution even better, especially if you’re trying to go over extended temperature.

The question then becomes: how can you balance the processing power you need with the electrical power available? If you take a look at those entry level DM&P products, they’re low power. However, to some people even 1 W is high power. We try to maintain 10 W or lower for the whole board because with small boards, power is absolutely critical. We don’t want to put a fan on anything, which is why we don’t use Intel’s Core i3, i5, or i7 processors: they’re too hot. We need to come up with the best, most passive heat solution. We’ve used cold plates and conductive transfer solutions from the processor to the plate to the passive heat sink. In our environment, rotational devices can and will fail, so no fans.

An added benefit is this: when you can reduce power, you can go off-grid. One of the major initiatives we had last year was coming up with new power supplies to operate with solar cells, wind turbines, and a built in battery charger. The PSU has an automatic switchover that decides which is generating more power, wind or solar, and then it trickle charges the standby batteries when not needed or it flips over to the batteries when neither is available (Figure 2). We’re seeing this as a major trend, not just in the SFF world, but within the small non-x86 boards as well.

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Figure 2: WinSystems’ PPM-PS394-533 PC/104+ power supply has a built in battery charger for off-the-grid embedded systems.

We’re also seeing the rise of Power over Ethernet (PoE) because once you generate power, you need to distribute it. We’ve taken a look at those needs and have developed some boards that will allow you to grab sufficient power from Ethernet itself to power the stack. It makes the design and power requirement easier, and there’s an added benefit for extended temperature because the PoE equipment might be in a conditioned area where the environment might be a little more challenging than for pure commercial equipment. This way we can keep the board stack separate from the power source.


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Chris A. Ciufo is senior editor for embedded content at Extension Media, which includes the EECatalog print and digital publications and website, Embedded Intel® Solutions, and other related blogs and embedded channels. He has 29 years of embedded technology experience, and has degrees in electrical engineering, and in materials science, emphasizing solid state physics. He can be reached at cciufo@extensionmedia.com.

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