Embedded market applications have entered a new era thanks to extensive software support as well as the shrinking of borders between different processor technologies enabling the software ecosystem to expand to additional technology platforms. Consequently, the standard form factors at the board and module level must also be enhanced to fully realize the multiple interface options available with new processor platforms.
This has opened the gates for ARM processor architecture, which has evolved to support a wider range of interfaces and functionality, allowing a true open systems approach. For this reason, there are an increasing number of smart connected solutions that are now ARMbased. Embedded systems designers are realizing ARM is an ideal platform for low profile, high density platforms such as new tablet-based applications, as well as HMI tools, due to this architecture’s performance per watt, low power and interface configuration advantages.
A host of embedded systems hardware suppliers understand that supporting a strong ecosystem can bring in new sources of revenue, and satisfy the market demand for efficient development and scalability from one generation to the next. However, ARM-based solutions have typically required more in-depth development because of their proprietary nature with the software directly tied to the hardware and specific application. This has made it necessary to start virtually from scratch on any new design. Seen as the foundation for growth, suppliers are coming together to develop a vendor-independent standardized ultra low-power Computer-on-Module specification. That is why the new Standardization Group for Embedded Technologies (SGET) has been formed and includes broad support from a variety of companies worldwide.
Setting the Standard
The SGET has taken a dramatic step forward in driving ARM solutions – creating a ‘super group’ with 23 member companies that have the charter to speed development of standardized hardware and software solutions for embedded computing. SGET supports this group by providing the appropriate infrastructure that will facilitate the efficient implementation of standardization ideas. Other companies from the embedded computing industry are invited to join the association to contribute ideas as well. In addition to embedded computer manufacturers at the board and system level, the invitation also extends to chip and connector manufacturers, research and educational institutions, embedded system integrators, OEM solution providers, and industrial users.
Helmed by Kontron and other embedded centric companies,, the SGET’s first target is the definition of the new ULP-COM (ultra low power Computer-on-Module) standard to ensure design security and longevity of ARM- and SoC (system on chip)-based applications. This new specification release candidate for ultra low power COMs is characterized by the extremely flat build of its form factor as well as a newly defined, optimized pinout for SoC processors. Overall, the new proposed ARM standard and products shift the focus to power consumption and performance per watt.
The ULP-COM release candidate uses a 314-pin connector that has a construction height of just 4.3 millimeters (the MXM 3.0) with an optimized ARM/SoC pin-out definition. This connection method allows robust and cost-effective designs that have an extremely thin construction height. Kontron has elected to use the version of this connector that is shock- and vibration-resistant to serve the needs of applications that will require reliability under rough environmental conditions. Furthermore, the standard integrates dedicated interfaces for the latest ARM and SOC processors. This means that not only LVDS, 24-bit RGB and HDMI are supported but embedded DisplayPort for future designs is supported as well.
As another first for the industry, dedicated camera interfaces are being incorporated into the standard. Consequently, users no longer need to compromise or work with inefficient specifications that are stretched between the x86 feature set and lean ARM I/Os. Two different module sizes are specified, in order to offer a high level of flexibility regarding different mechanical requirements: a short module measuring 82mm x 50mm and a full-size module measuring 82mm x 80mm. Additionally, ULP-COM will cover other known requirements analogous to other module standards, so that the release version 1.0 is already completely mature for the market.
Standardizing the Benefits of ARM
Up to now, all existing module specifications have been influenced by x86 technology, with feature sets more closely associated with PC-like operation. As an example, a classical x86 chipset offers a multitude of typical PC interfaces such as PCI, USB and PCI Express graphics ports. But typical ARM SOCs feature more classical embedded ports such as UART, I²C, I²S and several SDIOs, with fewer PC-like interfaces. An application that utilizes PCIe x16 graphics and PCI are not supported as native. ARM-based SOC designs also have differences in video outputs and dedicated camera interfaces. In ARM processors, these are often implemented according to the MIPI® standard, such as Camera Serial Interface (CSI), and are currently not implemented in a module standard. That is why software plays a key role in enabling board compatibility and interchangeability and its impact on system decisions has been increasing for years. Unfortunately, it is not really possible to efficiently combine ARM and x86 technologies. The differences between them must stay intact in order to utilize their individual advantages.
Market and Application Needs
Along with the technology, power, and software needs of smart connected applications, the expectations of today’s embedded tablet and HMI tool applications require rugged, long-term availability for extended lifecycles. These applications are evolving toward lighter and fullysealed fanless portable systems that must be smaller and offer extended usage time.
Many markets and applications have been underserved by existing processorbased platforms. While OEMs have found a way to make use of the current technology that is available to address their design needs, most of the existing standards and processor architectures are not the best-fit solutions in every case because they are not specifically tuned to support SOC-based sub-systems. Moreover, the overall power consumption and TDP exceed the power budgets of many portable/mobile applications.
There is a sharp contrast to open and closed systems with ARM and other CPU architectures. That is why many designers have turned to ARM processors, which have proven they are powerful enough to drive an easy-to-use graphical user interface (GUI) for new mobile applications such as smartphones and tablets. At less than 1 Watt operating power, ARM processor-based platforms offer extremely low power consumption that can accommodate extended temperature product offerings with dual/quad core CPU performance that is comparable to, and many times exceeds, the latest low-power x86 or RISC-based processors. These processor architectures, of course, have shown their worth with superior graphics and interoperability, but designers are realizing that each has a place in the market that they can capitalize on for their form, fit and function needs. ARM-based embedded computing platforms are not intended to replace x86 or RISC technologies; rather these building blocks are targeted to applications and market segments that are currently underserved.
What Sets ARM-Based Building Blocks Apart?
The difference between ARM and alternative processor solutions is that it provides a much longer product life – anywhere from 7 years up to 15 years. ARM processors are small in size and do not require a supporting chipset to fulfill comprehensive designs. Many of today’s SoC solutions have simplified, passive cooling and thermal management solutions which eliminate points of failure for higher system reliability and provide a platform for higher density systems. At the same time, the overall bill-of-materials (BOM) is reduced for a more costeffective and streamlined hardware design, and native features and a broad range of supported interfaces contribute to shorter time-to-market.
ARM-based platforms dominate lowpower market segments, especially for smartphones, tablets and HMI sub-systems. The fierce competition in these markets demands that OEMs remain keenly focused on differentiating their products. Time spent on finding, installing, programming and troubleshooting drivers or debugging hardware means they have less time to concentrate on their core competencies.
There are many ARM solutions available in the market, but most offer limited interoperability and almost none offer a smooth design migration path. ARMbased solutions have typically required more in-depth development because of their proprietary nature with the software directly tied to the hardware and specific application. Consequently, there is a true need for proven design building blocks for connected devices and subsystems such as those being developed for tablet and HMI-based applications.
Pre-Validated Platforms and Building Blocks
Backed by standardization, a powerful resource of verified, pre-validated ARMbased platforms that satisfy the broad spectrum of design requirements is needed to meet streamlined development and faster time-to-market demands. Open architecture ARM platforms offer a building block solution approach that helps minimize the time from evaluation to deployment, providing value in terms of design flexibility, interoperability, and smooth design migration.
Leveraging the advantages of verified open architecture ARM platforms, OEMs can avoid the delay of validating hardware. Pre-validated platforms are fully configured and tested to deliver the required interoperability and functionality. Application development, operating system integration and adding middleware can be streamlined because the process of hardware validation has been eliminated. With pre-validated building blocks, customers are assured of compatibility, interoperability and high reliability so designers can fully focus on application development rather than dealing with hardware integration. OEMs can readily reuse their existing “library” of application- specific software and install it on a ready framework and flexible hardware.
Fueled by the ULP-COM standard, ARM solutions meet the requirements in many embedded systems to reduce power and the costs of deployment, and provide high-end graphics demanded by a growing list of customers and their users. This new form factor is ideal for low profile systems, and enables flexible display options to meet an extensive range of deployment needs.
The availability of ULP-COM solutions also lets designers achieve required performance/power ratio requirements. This key advantage translates into a more cost-effective design approach that permits portable and fully enclosed systems to have a competitive price. Additionally, lower-powerconsumption, ARM-based solutions support more simplified cooling methods – reducing costs based on a less-complicated mechanical design with less assembly and higher reliability because of its fanless design. All of these requirements are resolvable, however the ULP-COM dramatically improves the process, saving time, resources and design compromises.
SoC-based hardware concentrates on the needs of connected devices, and as such requires a different design approach that addresses a new I/O mix. Leveraging existing standards such as Pico-ITX and mini-ITX, as well as developing new modules to serve as best-fit building blocks for tomorrow’s smart connected devices, makes the most of innovative ARM technology and enables smart connected devices that are service-ready. Overall design risk and hardware integration needs are reduced, reusing known building blocks that allow for leaner development schedules.