Why Use COM Express?: The Rise of Configurable Computing Part II

August 20, 2019

COM Express as a SOC is a complete computer and thus can be used on its own. It is a “plug and play” device without any predetermined I/O capable of using the latest serial signaling protocols. It delivers the highest performance of any COM or SFF on the smallest embedded modules while still lowering the total cost of ownership and minimizing design risks.

The latest protocols include PCI Express, 10GbE, SATA, USB 3.0 and high-resolution video interfaces. COM Express modules plug into a custom carrier board that contains all the application’s specific I/O and is tailored to design constraints. Thus, the cutting-edge protocol inclusion with the lack of predetermined I/O creates total flexibility and possibility for engineers. Ultimately, this configurable, scalable design leads to a faster time-to-market and improves cost-effectiveness short and long-term.

A carrier board is the control center of a digital application. A carrier board “carries” the I/O, controllers and other computing components necessary for function not included on the COM. When it comes to industrial applications, a carrier board will vary in the required specifications. For example, a public safety dispatch board may need more USB ports than an oil&gas application.

COM Express “plugs and plays” because it will have the fundamentals that a board needs – communications via Ethernet capability, processing speed and PCI Express slots – attachable easily by plugging it, like a USB or HDMI plug, into a slot on the board. This characteristic also makes the board easy to repair. Either a module in good condition can be reset on a new board, or a board can have a new module installed.

These complete, affordable computers come in a variety of sizes and form factors. This is the other benefit to “plug and play.” As an application ages, it may be beneficial to update the board with a new specification that accommodates the changing needs. For some fields that increasingly require smaller, but faster and more powerful, applications, the variety of form factors in COM Express add flexibility and feasibility to an operation. This flexibility, combined with the ease, is called “future proofing.”

The alternative to COM Express is cost, time and effort. Without relying on an OEM COM Express board, the application designer must have a team of engineers and other technical specialists on hand to build each computing module for their applications. This process, which is arduous and costly, only extends the design time as the same team would then need to develop a motherboard with all the requisite I/O.

COM Express Use Case: Rugged Computing

COM Express has promoted innovations in heavy industry, which were previously inaccessible to computing solutions. The ruggedization of technology through the COM Express configuration has digitally transformed several industries. Included in the affected fields are oil and gas, mining and military.

Mining, in particular, requires extremely rugged technology. There is intense shock from the equipment as well as almost constant vibration from ongoing operations related to earth moving. In mining sites, operating temperature extremes and intense fluctuations require thermal engineering. Moreover, debris and environmental elements such as moisture and dirt pose threats to computers. 

New applications that require digital monitoring include traditional administrative needs but mostly machine condition monitoring or command and control expertise. New mining machines may be controlled robotically and remotely. They may require on-board systems that run software applications used by drivers for visual or process GIS imaging support during operations. 

These machines with computers can, with the right FPGA on the device, even work semi-intelligently, notifying operators when machines in its system are not processing input correctly, indicating maintenance needs. Finally, large-scale mining systems may even have a digital twin process used in the field, which would require strong network connections for access to the virtualized twin.

COM Express helps in these fields for a few main reasons. First, the extremely small chipset creates less risk. With the number of devices that could be relying on a rugged industrial computer, the computers need to be repairable quickly, which the small plug offers. Moreover, they need to be reliable to ensure maximum field time. With the backing by PICMG, the open standards and design of COM Express have been thoroughly proven to be effective. 

COM Express is also scalable. With rugged operations, the initial field investment with technology may be small. As the operations grow, the demands―frequency of use, change in application, change in environment, processing needs and network connectivity―could expand rapidly. By using COM Express, carrier boards can be updated rapidly. As well, new modules can be inserted, with some modification to the boards, when the application needs to be updated.

Choosing a COM Express Computer

Choosing the right COM Express computer can be difficult. However, Sealevel offers both standard and client-tailored computing solutions. With our world-class engineers and expert sales support, the Sealevel team can make what you need and guarantee it for life.