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Standard for popular embedded processors

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article image Standard for high-density embedded CPU modules.

KONTRON Embedded Modules has released the X-board standard for mini-format high-density embedded CPU modules. The standard will allow the on-board integration of ARM and PowerPC processors for the first time, as well as the traditional x86 types.

The board measures 7mm x 49mm and is externally similar to a DIMM-PC. Each X-board will be fitted with a 200-pole SO-DIMM socket that complies with the JEDEC standard. This will form the board's physical interface to customer-specific application baseboards. In contrast to traditional connectors that often are more expensive than the chips themselves, SO-DIMM sockets are very cost effective, robust and compact.

Instead of replacing the DIMM-PC, the X-board will fill the gap between existing x86 DIMM-PC and ETX component SBC-based designs. The X-board makes the use of ARM and PowerPC architectures available for the first time in standard embedded computing designs. This will lead to a broadening of the standard's application area so that eventually new CPU boards will be compatible with all popular processor architectures available in the world of embedded computing.

ARM processors often are used in small and fast applications, whereas Power-PCs are popular in military and defense, as well as in the telecom sector. In order to support the use of these processors, the X-board design does not include legacy interfaces such as keyboard, mouse, floppy and parallel. The use with the X-Board of a Keyboard and mouse is still possible since the onboard USB interface supports the quick and easy integration of all legacy peripherals. This also provides a cost saving to users. USB device controllers are already cheaper than legacy controllers. USB also supports the cascading of peripherals that allows up to 127 devices to be connected simultaneously.

A service computer can be attached to the X-board via the Ethernet interface and then be used to modify the system configuration or to read-in data. Portable USB storage media such as a USB Floppy Drive or a Disk On Key also can be plugged in to X-Board based systems.

The new mini-format modular SBC no longer explicitly supports the ISA bus. ISA, with 16 data lines, 24 address bits, 8MHz bandwidth and a data transfer rate of 5 MBytes a second is still popular in industrial applications. This bus is sufficient in simple expansion modules such as multiple I/O cards, but it has been on its way out for years and there is hardly any serious demand for its inclusion in new developments.

The more powerful PCI bus was later introduced as an alternative for commercial systems. Implementing both buses on the same board would mean an increase in both cost and space consumption. Taking this into consideration when creating the X-board concept, developers opted not to include both buses on board.

To facilitate peripheral attachment, chip manufacturers have already developed a slender alternative to the ISA bus. The Low Pin Count (LPC) bus is a four-bit physical bus with a net data transfer rate of around four MBytes a second and is included on the X-board.

The X-board is ideal for use in intelligent I/O latches with Ethernet connectivity, for industrial and building automation sectors. Ethernet-based automation is more than sufficient in application areas that have thus far been dominated by field buses. Advantages include the ability to omit at least one gateway, not having to maintain know-how for several field bus systems, the ability to use interface-free and, if required, worldwide communication and web-based visualisation. Other application areas include mini DIN rail PCs with soft PLC functionality, industrial mini-clients in PDA or handheld formats for mobile applications such as data acquisition as well as the stationary integration into intelligent sensors or actuators and distributed local devices of all types.

All applications stand to benefit from the X-Board's high-performance, low power consumption, scalability, fanless operation and compact design. The "buy instead of build" factor presents another major advantage. Traditionally, it might have been necessary to develop an eight-layer board to integrate a CPU, which would account for a large part of a project's development time and cost. However, using an X-board leaves the developer free to concentrate on the application-specific feature development. In-house maintenance and redevelopment of CPU boards and their basic functionality is no longer necessary. Instead, the board supplier provides this at significantly lower cost. As a result, it is possible to produce a four-layer carrier board with the functionality required for instrumentation or system integration, both rapidly and cost-effectively. The modular SBC is then plugged in to the carrier board and locked securely in place with screws. It can easily be exchanged with another X-Board that offers greater processing power. This does not require any modification of the application baseboard. The solution remains scalable and open for future performance upgrades. Since the carrier board's interfaces to the outside world remain unchanged, it is not necessary to update the current system or make any changes to the housing.

The first X-Board is based on a Geode SC1200 processor running at 266 MHz. It includes 3 x USB, Fast Ethernet, 2 x COM, PCI, LPC, Audio and IDE expansion. CRT and 18-bit TFT graphics support are included for small to medium panel resolutions, as well as TV-out. Up to 128MB of on-board RAM can be used and 128MB of on-board flash is provided.

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