What is COM Express?: The Rise of Configurable Computing Part I

August 9, 2019

The new COM Express Type 7 carrier boards have been making waves in transportation and defense technology. The Type 7 pin-out specification that defines them is the latest innovation in a long line of open standard computing specifications revolutionizing embedded computing applications.

What is COM Express?

COM Express is an embedded computing specification. It is a sub-type of Small Form Factor (SFF) computers and Computer on Module (COM) devices. COM devices are modular computers, printed on a single printed circuit board as a complete computer, including RAM and microprocessor. They are a type of System on a Chip (SOC) and are standalone devices. COM Express entered the market in 2005 and have been progressing since to meet the expanding uses of COM Express technology.

COM Express specifications are determined and regulated by PICMG – formally known as the PCI Industrial Computer Manufacturers Group – which calls itself a “non-profit consortium of companies and organizations that collaboratively develop open standards.” The COM Express product is one of many developed by PICMG, whose goals have been to take desktop PCI standards to industrial applications. Their technology has been used in packaging, mechanical and thermal design as well as system management and military computing applications.

PICMG released the latest COM Express specification in Revision 3.0 in March 2017. Their latest specification is Type 7. It is an embedded computing “hot rod,” with up to four ports of 10GbE. This adds significantly more Ethernet access, which means data-intensive solutions such as video surveillance systems can send more information faster. However, a new revision does not remove access to prior specifications. It simply adds to the library of capabilities. This accessibility is essential for legacy devices that cannot upgrade and must continue to rely on earlier implementations. There are three current COM Express specification modules: Type 6, 7 and 10 pin-outs.

COM Express has been specifically targeted toward more rugged and extensive operations. Ruggedized operations include military and aerospace, rail and oil&gas. COM Express fits rugged applications because it can be suitably fit to a device that must withstand intense thermal operating conditions or fluctuations. Other frequently used fields that have more extensive operations than traditional administrative computing include transportation and high speed, connectivity dependent operations. Data centers are a key example of this targeted design.

COM Express Use Case: Public Safety

COM Express arose from the PICMG desire to bring the desktop to industry. In some cases, COM Express transformed the desktop for office-based industries that manage high volume yet work with inconsistent, limited budgets. One of these industries is the public safety arm of government services.

Public safety gets coordinated on the ground by teams of dispatchers in central control rooms that receive an enormous number of calls. These calls may be emergency calls from victims, bystanders or other concerned citizens. They also get contact from the squads and teams they’ve dispatched to an emergency situation.

Calls may be cellular, landline-based or even Wi-Fi calls with large audio packaging. Dispatchers may also receive live video feeds, footage from callers and images from on-site officials. This information gets relayed into software that manages the call, displays high-resolution images such as maps and interfaces with other computing tools as needed.

Consequently, the computers necessary for the job are the ideal candidates for COM Express. These computers need reliable, customizable and work-horse level computers that can process and manage more data than a traditional desktop would encounter. A simple desktop computer won’t cut it, especially since those traditional computing modules generate plenty of heat that will fill dispatch rooms. 

  1. Cost: As a government office, dispatch may have a limited or inconsistent budget. Technology upgrades may be few and far. Thus, the computers in which these teams invest must be reliable, guarantee a long field life and upgrade easily. COM Express’s lack of moving parts and its plug-and-play aspect give it all three of these qualities. Furthermore, long-term repairs are much easier to accomplish, and the lifetime downtime is reduced.
  2. Data Management: COM Express modules are equipped with up to four 1-10GbE ports. For dispatch servers, Type 7 specifications can offer up to 40GbE. For desktop consoles, a Type 6 works well.
  3. I/O: Because COM Express can be plugged into any carrier board, it offers a huge range of I/O customization. Moreover, if the I/O requirements change, or the computer needs an increase in any core computing components provided by the COM Express, the system can be adjusted as needed.