The Evolution of Modules

The world is growing more connected and reliant on technology day by day. Artificial intelligence (AI) and Internet of Things (IoT) systems give enterprises a range of benefits, such as real-time data sharing and analysis, automation, and organization-wide enhancements in efficiency, productivity, and competitiveness. And all these advancements depend on small, but crucial computer-on-modules.

Computer-on-modules provide the computing power, memory, and more to make systems work, but they also play a pivotal part in AI and IoT system development. Complex systems require time and investment to build – particularly if you attempt to build from the ground up.

Modules provide developers with pre-certified building blocks that save time and money and enable them to take systems to market more quickly. They also allow developers to focus their attention on the project overall, rather than needing to re-engineer basic hardware infrastructure.

The Computer Module Evolution Timeline

A variety of computer-on-modules, suited to different applications in different environments, are available today. However, this hasn’t always been the case. This timeline shows how modules have evolved to keep up with industry demands and enable advanced computing in virtually any location.

Pre-2000: PC/104

In 1987, Ampro (now ADLINK) devised PC/104™. The name reflects the instruction set architecture (ISA) – or PC/AT (personal computer advanced technology) bus—and the 104 pins on the connector, and the PC/104 Consortium standardized PC/104 in 1992. This module’s architecture drove the evolution from ISA to PCI, 10Mbit to 100 Mbit Ethernet, dynamic random access memory to synchronous dynamic random access memory (DRAM to SDRAM) and 486 to Pentium.

The Early 2000s: EXT and COM Express

A new century ushered ininnovation, including ETX and COM Express modules.

In 2000, JUMPtec (now Kontron) introduced Embedded Technology eXtended (EXT), a highly integrated and compact (3.7 x 4.9 inch; 95 x 125 mm) computer-on-module (COM). ETX COMs integrate core CPU and memory, and a range of I/O options, such as serial, parallel, USB, audio, graphics, and Ethernet. EXT maps all I/O signals, as well as ISA and PCI bus implementation, to four high-density, low-profile connectors on the module.

In April 2006, members of the ETX Industrial Group, including ADLINK, Kontron, Advantech, and MSC Vertriebs GmbH, released ETX 3.0. This generation differed primarily by the addition of additional SATA ports. It also evolved from PCI to PCIe, higher performance per Watt, new display interfaces including DVI, HDMI, and DisplayPort), SDRAM to DDR, and increased bandwidth requirements.

The 2000s also saw the introduction of COM Express in 2003 by Kontron, Advantech, and ADLINK, which was standardized by the PCIMG Consortium in 2005. There have been several COM Express iterations. COM Express Rev. 2 in 2010 included eAPI, followed by Rev 2.1 in 2012 and a Rev. 2 carrier board design guide in 2013. COM Express Rev. 3, released in 2017, added interfaces and increased PCI Express lanes to 32. In 2018, COM Express added short-form specs and ruggedized COM Express.

Solution builders can use this highly integrated and compact computer-on-module form factor much like an integrated circuit component. COM Express integrates core CPU and memory and maps common I/O signals to two high-density, low-profile connectors on the module.

The 2010s: QSeven and SMARC

The IT industry also experienced a paradigm shift in the 2000s toward decentralized, wireless, and battery-powered devices so that enterprises could build IoT systems and other solutions that process data more quickly and operate more efficiently as energy costs rose. Additionally, the industry faced challenges to comply with stronger government-backed green energy programs, the proprietary standards related to Arm processors and a well-defined form factor for Arm and low power systems-on-chip (SoC).

In response to these changes and challenges, two new types of computer-on-modules emerged: Qseven® and SMARC™.

Introduced in 2012, Qseven modules, based on Arm processors and AMD G-series APUs, feature compact size (70 x70 mm), low profile, cost efficiency, and access to high-speed interfaces including PCIe, SATA, Gbit, Ethernet and USB 3.0. One of the keys to keeping costs down is the MXM connector that connects the module to the carrier board and is reliable even in high humidity, temperature extremes, or other demanding environments.

Also in 2012, ADLINK and Kontron introduced Smart Mobility ARChitecture (SMARC), and it was standardized by SGeT Consortium in 2013. Considered the first and truly global defined Arm and SOC form factor, it supports next-gen, ultra-low power CPU architectures for mobile applications. It uses only one 314-pin MXM3 SMT edge connector to connect all power and signal lanes to the carrier board.

SMARC 2.0, introduced in 2016, bridged the gap between Qseven and COM Express, particularly for IoT applications, offering more interfaces than Qseven and support for lower-power processors that COM Express doesn’t.

Enter the 2020s and COM-HPC

Changing demands meant solution builders needed more embedded solutions, more interfaces for edge servers, and high-speed performance. Module evolution continued with the introduction of COM-HPC®. These modules integrate core CPU, memory, and I/O including USB up to 4.0, audio, PCIe up to 5.0. Two COM-HPC computer-on-modules are available to address different needs:

  • Client Module with a Fixed or Wide Range Input Voltage
  • Server Module with a Fixed Input Voltage

Today’s AI-on-Modules and I-Pi Development Kits

Today, innovation continues. ADLINK has launched the first SMARC rev. 2.1 AI-on-Module (AIoM) that uses NXP’s i.MX 8M Plus SoC for edge AI applications in 2021. It includes LVDS/DSI/HDMI graphic output, dual CAN bus/USB 2.0/USB 3.0, dual GbE ports, and an I2S audio interface. Its rugged design makes it a good choice for use in harsh environments, and it includes machine learning software that enables models such as MobileNet SSD, DeepSpeech v1, and segmentation networks. Enabling intelligence at the edge eliminates dependency on the cloud and keeps data within the business network for compliance, security, or privacy reasons.

In addition, ADLINK’s I-Pi Development Kits bring together the best of all module hardware and software to enable faster prototyping and industrial application development. It can replace Arduino and Raspberry Pi that engineers commonly use in IoT applications — but the I-Pi Development Kit can be used in an industrial application after prototyping as-is. The I-Pi Development Kit also protects against hardware obsolescence, allowing you to replace modules with new versions years – or even decades – after deployment. Additionally, it’s backward compatible with industry standards such as PICMG COM-HPC, COM Express and SGET SMARC, and the I-Pi site also offers online support.

Where Module Evolution is Going

Solution builders can rest assured that module evolution isn’t over. New options are emerging, for example, Arm-based SOCs that use semiconductor IP core for a range of processor systems-on-chip, such as COM-HPC Ampere Altra that meet demands for compute-intensive workloads as the digital world becomes more intelligent and automated.

Of course, COM-HPC, COM Express, SMARC, Qseven, or other modules may be the best choice for your application – and ADLINK offers them all. To learn more, visit our Computer-on-Modules page.

Henri Parmentier
Henri Parmentier

Senior manager EPM-Modules Product Center at ADLINK Technology

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