The advantages of a SOM platform for IoT devices

March 20, 2017 Mike Rohrmoser, Digi International

There has been an increase in the number of commercially available development platforms offered to embedded designers seeking to cut development times for Internet of Things (IoT) devices to bring these new connected devices to market much more efficiently and cost-effectively. With advances in chip design, the availability of highly efficient, advanced processors is no longer an issue. Gone too are concerns about memory limitations, given the increasing availability of memory interfaces on these compact platforms that can accommodate increasing chip densities. With these improvements, embedded designers facing space and resource limitations should consider the new breed of system on module (SOM) development platforms for rapid development and prototyping of high-performance, reliable IoT devices. The combination of an advanced processor with multiple integration options, complete with software support and device security-relevant features on one module, means that embedded designers can spend more time focusing on their core competencies while accelerating time-to-market.

At the heart of every SOM is the underlying application processor platform. Traditionally, most SOMs have been based on x86 platforms and were somewhat derived from the typical desktop PC motherboard form factor, which is still evident in some of the form factor variants that are being utilized (Pico-ITX, Mini-ITX, microATX, EmbATX, and others). They range from standalone models to stackable solutions, like PC/104, to specialized blades for use in rack systems.

Increasingly, IoT devices and applications are being designed for workloads that demand higher power, which is inherently problematic since the environments they operate in are power-constrained. Specialty processors such as the i.MX6UltraLite (i.MX6UL) have been developed to offer high performance and extreme efficiency in one package. The i.MX6UL is capable of operating at core speeds up to 696 MHz, and includes enhancements that simplify power sequencing and reduce the complexity of external power supplies.

ARM-based SOMs such as those based on the i.MX6UL processor are becoming increasingly more successful and capable as they have extended their reach into the x86 performance and capabilities bracket via the combination of low power consumption, broad operating system support, and cost effectiveness. These SOMs are now an extremely viable option for a host of new applications as well as potential replacement for existing x86 based solutions.

Rapid prototyping platform for connected devices

Typically united with a combination of flash memory and RAM on development boards that offer host/device connections, these SOMs also offer microSD storage and embedded expansion connectors for development and prototyping purposes. In addition, they include standardized connectors allowing embedded developers to quickly connect and integrate a wide range of compatible off-the-shelf sensors and peripherals.

The best modules for those seeking a development environment that fosters rapid prototyping are designed as intelligent embedded platforms and are available in extremely small footprints, allowing for the development of highly cost-effective and dependable connected devices.

These SOMs are available in a wide variety of available standard form factors and continue to shrink, giving designers much greater latitude in how they create innovative devices and applications that can leverage a much higher level of computing power. For instance, there are  SOMs on the market featuring form factors slightly larger than a postage stamp that also provide cost-optimized integration options such as fully featured LGA, and simplified castellated edge vias (for easy soldering), while integrating ultra-low power operation using seamlessly integrated Microcontroller Assist (MCA) capabilities.

SOMs offer excellent flexibility

SOMs must be connected to a port on an external host board for power and I/O, and most SOMs are offered with generic development host boards; however, higher quality SOMs come with more fully featured boards that allow for the development of customized host boards so that peripherals and connectors external to the module are part of the final design. These advanced SOMs also provide flexibility in future processor upgrades. In this area, SOMs shine, since they allow for customizations without having to redesign/rework an entire printed circuit board typically found in more advanced product development kits.

When these efficient, compact SOMs are integrated with tested, pre-certified 802.11a/b/g/n/ac and Bluetooth 4.2 connectivity, HDMI ports, highly-reliable flash memory, and connectors that allow for the quick integration of system sensors, SD card storage, and even on-board stamped metal antennas, rapid prototypes and proof-of-concepts can be developed absent of traditional hardware or software design risk.

Conclusion

The development model for embedded devices has traditionally been viewed as extremely complex with the need for highly specialized design expertise and deep knowledge of a target’s intricate software and hardware design aspects. With all that, of course, come prolonged design cycles and competing project timelines resulting in high development cost and delayed time-to-market.

Times have changed. With the availability of advanced SOMs featuring ARM-based processors, in small form factors, developers now have platforms that can address all development needs including a reference design for module integration, a prototyping platform for quickly creating proof-of-concepts, and a complete development environment to prepare module-based designs for mass production. With these SOMs, it is now possible to bring smart and secure connected devices to market at a fraction of the traditional time and effort, allowing embedded developers to focus on their core competencies without compromising design flexibility.

Mike Rohrmoser is Director of Product Management for Embedded Systems at Digi International, where he is responsible for the definition and delivery of Digi’s current embedded product solutions offerings and future direction.

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