COM and IIoT market growth aligns with PICMG initiatives
The Computer on Module (COM) market is expected to grow significantly over the next five-plus years, according to multiple market research studies. Within the COM market, COM Express is the recognized leader, with its strongest areas of growth being IIoT [industrial Internet of Things] and adoption in rugged environments, including drones, military, and transportation.
Several recent studies show that the largest area of IIoT investment and growth has been in smart factories.[1,2] Research in this area reveals that two of the major factors impeding rapid adoption of IIoT are a lack of standardization and a large legacy install base. This is particularly true of the sensor domain, which is currently made up of a combination of legacy and smart or IT-enabled sensors and actuators.
The McKinsey study states that the smart sensor market will reach over a trillion dollars: “… one of the largest sources of value from the adoption of the Internet of Things, potentially generating an economic impact of $1.2 trillion to $3.7 trillion per year. In the factories setting, value from the Internet of Things would arise chiefly from productivity improvements, including 10 to 20 percent energy savings and a 10 to 25 percent potential improvement in labor efficiency.” (McKinsey, 2015.)
Other studies support this growth: “We believe the Internet of Things opportunity for Industrials could amount to $2 trillion by 2020. The Internet of Things has the potential to impact everything from new product opportunities, to shop floor optimization, to factory worker efficiency gains that will power top-line and bottom-line gains.” (Goldman Sachs)
PICMG IIoT strategy
With the lack of standards within the sensor domain, many companies and organizations are working together to provide solutions. Based upon our strong history and member companies’ wealth of experience in industrial automation, system architecture, and cross-industry collaboration, PICMG has set forth a multiprong IIoT strategy.
At the heart of each initiative is the enabling of plug-and-play at the “last foot” of IIoT implementations. The concept of the last foot is analogous to the issues faced by the telecommunications industry in delivering services to the “last mile,” which refers to the portion of the telecommunications network chain that physically reaches the end users’ premises. In the case of IIoT, the last foot is the sensor domain.
Core elements of PICMG’s IIoT sensor domain strategy include:
- Postage-stamp form factor to convert of legacy sensors into smart sensors
- Network architecture and data models for the sensor domain
- IIoT developer kits
Over the past year, PICMG has taken many steps toward its vision of bringing standardization to that last foot. We established an Industry Advisory Board (IAB) – under the leadership of PICMG CTO Doug Sandy – that combines existing members (including new participants from member companies), outside experts, sensor manufacturers, and complementary associations, all to enhance the IIoT industry expertise.
In May, PICMG formed a partnership with the Distributed Management Task Force (DMTF), another industry-standards organization, to collaborate on IIoT efforts. The DMTF creates open manageability standards spanning a range of emerging and traditional IT infrastructures, including cloud, virtualization, network, servers, and storage. Redfish is an open industry standard that specifies a RESTful interface based on the Open Data Protocol (OData) which uses HTTPS and JSON to transfer data. (Figure 1.)
The alliance between our organizations will help ensure the groups’ standards are coordinated and aligned in the IIoT domain. It will advance collaboration between the two groups as PICMG specifies Redfish Application Programming Interface (API) resources to create a critical component of a new architecture and data model for the sensor domain. The work product from this partnership will include creating and maintaining Redfish extensions to support IIoT system deployments.
Our partnership signifies a key step in realizing a new IIoT infrastructure that addresses the sensor domain (smart and “not smart” sensors and actuators). To realize this goal, many technical challenges must be tackled, including security, data modeling, synchronization, and required memory footprint.
COM market surging
The COM market is also growing rapidly, which bodes well for PICMG technology. Market-research firm IHS forecasts an 8.6 percent combined annual growth rate (CAGR) for the COM Express market during the period 2015 to 2020, an impressive gain. Market-leading technologies are usually those that are well-established, and market volume tends to be stable rather than dynamic. Similar studies from Research and Markets paint even healthier growth prospects for COM Express, forecasting that the global COM market will grow at a CAGR of 17.97 percent during the period 2016 to 2020. Technavio’s market study estimates that the global COM market stood at $543.98 million in 2017, with COM Express at more than 50 percent of the market. According to Technavio, it will increase to $818.25 million in 2022, growing at a CAGR of 8.51 percent during the period 2017 to 2022.
This tremendous growth in the COMs market aligns well with current PICMG COM Express specifications as well as for two new initiatives that are underway. The first new initiative is an extension of COM Express (COM.0) for harsh environments, while the second is a new generation of COM Open Specifications.
COM Express has become ubiquitous in embedded applications and the most recognized PICMG standard. At recent events, from embedded world in Nuremberg to Computex in Taiwan, hundreds of COM Express products were on display. Though we are not privy to all available products, PICMG has distributed the specification to hundreds of manufacturers since its first release in 2005.
The COM Express standard – or family of standards, as it is sometimes described – is more than a dozen years old. (Figure 2.) It has emerged and endured as the most widely used small form factor for thousands of applications worldwide. The standard defines a family of COM single-board computers appropriate for a wide range of commercial and military/aerospace applications. The first two revisions of the standard were designed to accommodate modern high-performance chipsets and serial signaling protocols, including PCI Express Gen 3, SATA, USB 3.0, and high-resolution video interfaces. It is entirely open, with anyone permitted to build COM Express products without licenses or royalties.
COM Express = versatile
The ability to plug a COM Express module onto a carrier board reduces the time and cost to develop a product, as the user does not need to understand the often-complex details associated with high-speed signaling or the latest chipsets. The mezzanine capability is enabled by two standardized connectors mounted on the bottom of the board that can plug onto a board below it. All versions have these two connectors, although there are slight variations in pin assignment depending on the version. This layout means that the customer’s product lifetime is lengthened, as newer COM Express modules can simply be plugged onto the carrier board, as they become available, to improve performance or lower cost.
Target applications often need to strike a careful balance between cost and performance, which leads to a variety of COM Express form factors and board sizes being defined in the standard. All of this flexibility is not without its challenges, however. Interfaces continue to evolve, especially video interfaces, as GPU and CPU chipset manufacturers change them or update them frequently.
COM Express Revision 2.0 Embedded Application Programming Interface (EAPI)
For the introduction of Revision 2.0 of the COM Express specification, PICMG developed a corresponding API. The EAPI specifies functions for industrial applications, which do not employ a common programming interface. In the past, the use of special features – such as a watchdog timer – required vendor-dependent software programming. This situation limited the free exchangeability of modules between different module vendors. With the release of the EAPI, this limitation has been removed.
The EAPI describes a common API to unify the software control for system information, watchdog timer, I2C bus, flat-panel brightness control, and user storage area.
COM Express Revision 3.0
Revision 3.0 of COM Express – ratified in 2017 – provides for a new Type 7 connector and the addition of as many as four 10 Gigabit Ethernet (10 GbE) interfaces on the board. Previous revisions of the specification had been limited to a single Gigabit Ethernet interface. The higher-speed ports provide compatibility with new markets, such as data centers, where the high compute density of COM Express can result in increased rack utilization. The 10 GbE ports are also ideal for high-bandwidth video applications such as surveillance. The specification also increased the number of PCI Express lanes to 32 across the Type 7 connector, an improvement that brings a wealth of connectivity and interface options, including the support for GPGPUs.
The COM Express standard’s new Type 7 pinout does away with all graphics support and replaces it with as many as four 10 GbE ports and an additional eight PCI Express (PCIe) ports, bringing the total PCIe support to as many as 32 PCIe lanes. The Type 7 pinout has been specifically tailored to leverage all the functions of low-power, headless server-grade systems-on-chip (SoCs). A Network Controller Sideband Interface (NC-SI) bus is also supported, enabling Intelligent Platform Management Interface (IPMI) Board Management Controller (BMC) support on the carrier board.
New PICMG COM specification kicks off
Earlier this year, PICMG launched another project: A new COM specification is under development that will be a parallel effort to existing COM Express efforts. The subcommittee will develop a next-generation COM standard and an accompanying Carrier Design Guide. This standard is intended to coexist with the existing standard, rather than as a replacement for COM.0. The new specification is expected to support two different module sizes – one for high-performance computing and the other for embedded computing. Initial plans include incorporating a new high-speed connector able to support existing and future interfaces such as PCI Express Gen 4/5 and as fast as 100 Gb Ethernet. The specification will target medium- to high-performance server-class processors.
In all, 18 of PICMG’s member companies have joined the group, which is being sponsored by Congatec, ADLINK, and Kontron.
Rugged COM Express shifts over to PICMG
Rugged COM Express began as an initiative within the VITA organization as an adjunct to the COM.0 PICMG specification. In the summer of 2018, VITA and PICMG agreed to transfer Rugged COM Express into the PICMG organization in order to complete the specification. PICMG and VITA have a rich history of successful collaboration as both organizations work together to meet industry needs. A key example of this is our Hardware Platform Management (HPM) specification.
The specification will define a ruggedized version of PICMG COM.0 for harsh and mission-critical environments. The goal of the specification is to describe a 100 percent mechanical-compatible housing around a COM Express module. The team is finalizing a solid aluminum-frame design that protects the electronics against environmental influences such as moisture, dust, vibration or EMC radiation, and operates in the extended temperature range of -40 °C to + 85 °C. Conductive cooling and a metal housing will be integral parts of the specification and serve as a clear differentiator to existing COM specifications. The committee will determine which COM Express versions will be supported.
This effort is sponsored by MEN Micro, nVENT, and Elma.
The need for open specifications to enable successful hybrid solutions, migration paths, and hardware/software interoperability are at the heart of PICMG’s strategy; the drive for these solutions aligns with our nearly 25 years of success in providing answers to similar industry needs.
PICMG will continue to work on resolving obstacles to enable successful IIoT implementation through the development of open specifications. Our COM family of specifications will continue to evolve to meet processor, I/O, environmental, and market-specific needs. To further aid adoption of COM Express, we developed short-form specs that are available for free. All PICMG associate and executive members are welcome to participate in the IIoT initiatives and COM subcommittees. For more information, please contact us at email@example.com. We look forward to hearing from you.
 Morgan Stanley (2017). Automation World Industrial Automation Survey
 McKinsey Global Institute (2015). Mapping the Value Beyond the Hype
 Goldman Sachs (2015). The Internet of Things: The Next Mega-Trend
 DMTF (2017). redfish. Retrieved from DMTF: https://www.dmtf.org/standards/redfish
 Technavio (2018). Global Computer on Module Market 2018-2022