Modular standards extend ARM platform scalability for smart, connected devices

November 1, 2012 OpenSystems Media

3The competitive market for smart, connected devices is heating up, which requires OEMs to stay focused on differentiating their products and getting to market quickly. ARM-based building blocks are enabling OEMs to reallocate the resources needed to find, install, program, and troubleshoot drivers or debug hardware and concentrate instead on their core competencies. With prevalidated platforms that are fully configured and tested to deliver the required interoperability, compatibility, and functionality, OEMs can focus on application development and reuse existing application-specific software on a flexible hardware framework.

It is a dynamic time in the embedded market, as processors and software advancements are breaking down the barriers that once limited the implementation of various computing platforms. In conjunction with these advancements, embedded computing board and module suppliers are continually enhancing their platform portfolios to take advantage of the performance, interface, functionality, and power improvements available with next-generation processor architectures.

The ARM architecture is now viewed as one of the enabling processor architectures for embedded systems because of its ability to provide a true open-systems approach in its support of a broad range of interfaces and much-needed features. ARM also offers competitive performance that is comparable to x86 dual-core processors but at sub 5 W power consumption. This is an attractive combination and a contributing factor as to why more and more smartphone, tablet, and Human-Machine Interface (HMI) subsystem applications in low-power market segments are embracing ARM-based platforms.

The inherent benefits of ARM technology deliver the feature set required in an increasing number of small form factor applications. One former limitation of ARM was the availability of scalable platforms from a growing group of providers that could serve as the basis for efficient development from one generation to the next. The key to ARM technology’s long-term viability is a supportive hardware and software ecosystem that can deliver products providing interoperability and a smooth migration path that embedded systems OEMs can depend on.

ARM addresses smart, connected application requirements

The requirements of today’s smart tablet and HMI tool applications extend beyond technology and power specifications to include rugged, extended life-cycle product support. These applications are typically portable systems that challenge embedded designers with space constraints and require fully sealed fanless enclosures that must operate reliably over extended periods. Designers have struggled to make existing standards and higher power consumption processor architectures work in these applications, and thus have anticipated the introduction of more focused products specifically designed to support ARM-based subsystems.

Similar to other popular CPU architectures, the ARM architecture offers an open-systems approach. ARM-based platforms provide excellent performance-per-watt ratios with very low power consumption at less than 1 W operating power, as well as CPU performance that is comparable to or exceeds what is offered in the latest low-power x86 or RISC-based processors. ARM processors deliver the performance needed to power an easy-to-use Graphical User Interface (GUI) for mobile smartphones and tablets and also support extended-temperature operation. When ARM’s up to 15-year platform longevity is added to the list of benefits, it is easy to see that these processors meet most smart, connected embedded application demands. However, in the past, a key element to success was missing – new embedded technology standards needed to be established to help drive continued innovation and swift platform adoption.

Global support for ARM platform standards

A new vendor-independent standards organization called the Standardization Group for Embedded Technologies (SGET) was organized to help speed the development of standardized hardware and software for embedded computing. To keep pace with market demands and the dynamic pace of technology, SGET has set simplified rules and shorter objection periods so that specifications can be passed much faster.

The first working group formed under SGET has defined the Ultra-Low-Power Computer-On-Module (ULP-COM) standard aimed at supporting ultra-low-power applications using System-on-Chip (SoC) devices. Figure 1 shows an example of a ULP-COM platform. The ULP-COM specification is characterized by its extremely flat form factor dimensions and its optimized pinout for SoC processors. The ULP-COM standard specifies a 314-pin connector with a height of just 4.3 mm (the MXM 3.0). This connection method satisfies mobile design requirements for very low-profile, robust, and cost-effective modules. For additional design flexibility, two different module sizes are specified – a short module measuring 82 mm x 50 mm and a full-size module measuring 82 mm x 80 mm.

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Figure 1: Kontron’s ULP-COM-sAT30 is a low-profile platform based on the ULP-COM specification, which was designed to extend the proven and scalable COMs-based usage model to new modules with ARM and SoC processors.

Standardization brings interface support benefits

Before ULP-COM, all existing module specifications were primarily based on x86 technology and its associated chipsets that support a multitude interfaces such as USB, PCI Express, and PCI Express graphics ports geared to PC design. ARM, on the other hand, supports more traditional embedded ports such as UART, I2C, I2S, and SDIO.

The ULP-COM standard addresses the need for dedicated interfaces supported by the latest ARM processors, which makes it notably different from the COM Express standard (see Figure 2). ULP-COM adds features that are not typically found on COM Express, such as the cost-effective parallel TFT display bus and MIPI display interface. It includes support for multiple SPI links and SDIO interfaces, which are needed for consumer camera and phone memory cards. ULP-COM also supports LVDS, HDMI, and embedded DisplayPort for future designs.

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Figure 2: Based on the 314-pin MXM 3.0 connector with a height of 4.3 mm, the ULP-COM standard supports new interfaces specifically tailored for the latest ARM processors, including video outputs such as LVDS and dedicated camera interfaces.

ULP-COM gives designers the standardized feature set specifically matched to ARM I/O. This feature set brings to light the importance software plays in enabling board compatibility and interchangeability and demonstrates why it has become a crucial system design decision now more than ever.

The value of a building block approach

ARM-based devices have been successfully implemented in many embedded systems. However, most of these existing systems offer limited interoperability and lack a clear, scalable design path. Furthermore, products that supported ARM in the past typically required more in-depth development, as the software was tied directly to both the hardware and the specific application, making them more proprietary in nature. That meant that any new design basically had to start from scratch. It was obvious that flexible building blocks were necessary to support the demands of evolving market applications.

This is where platform suppliers with experience bringing standardized form factors such as COM, Mini-ITX motherboards, and Pico-ITX embedded SBCs to market can benefit OEMs. It is this know-how for creating standardized modules that will create ARM-based platform building blocks that OEMs can leverage to secure system longevity and smooth migration from generation to generation. While ARM processors will never completely replace x86 or RISC processors in embedded systems, ARM-based computing platforms can be used as optimized building blocks for certain applications and market segments that are presently underserved.

Steps taken ensure easy adoption and long-term viability

Designers have realized that ARM processor-based platforms are ideal for low-profile, high-density embedded devices such as tablets, smartphones, and HMI tools. ARM satisfies these application requirements with long product life – a minimum of 7 years and up to 15 years – with processors that are small in size and height and do not require a chipset. With no moving parts, simplified passive cooling and thermal management are achieved to eliminate points of failure for higher system reliability.

A strong ecosystem of hardware and software providers is currently overcoming the continuity of support issues associated with implementing ARM. The availability of standards-based platforms such as the new ULP-COM makes it easier for designers to implement and speed the development of ARM-based products. ULP-COM platforms deliver the desired performance-to-power ratios needed for portable and fully enclosed systems and offer an array of flexible display options for the full range of deployment needs.

Above all, the ULP-COM platforms gives OEMs a prevalidated building block approach that helps ease integration, reduce design risk, and shorten the time from development to deployment of smart, connected devices. The ability to reuse these known building blocks provides the needed interoperability and evolutionary design path embedded systems OEMs demand while also securing technology investments. Suppliers are taking these steps with the goal of making it easier for OEMs to adopt new modules so that ARM’s long-term viability and development benefits will be available for many years to come.

Jack London is product manager in the COM Division at Kontron.

Kontron www.kontron.com

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Jack London (Kontron)
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