Make or Buy: System on Modules and Small Board Computers

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The System on Module, which is sometimes referred to as a Computer on Module (CoM) or SBC (Small Board Computer), is designed to plug into a carrier, or base board, and is generally a small processor module with a CPU and standard I/O capability. The complex effort associated with designing a CPU subsystem is avoided by using SoM functionality and a custom base board.

SoM Design: What’s inside the System on Module?

  • Application Processor from top semiconductors companies like NXP (Freescale), Texas Instruments, Atmel, Qualcomm, Altera
  • Memories both Flash (NAND/NOR) and RAM (DDR2/3)
  • WiFi/Bluetooth
  • Gigabit Phy
  • Audio Codec
  • PMIC (Power Management IC)
  • Touch Controller
  • Image 1: Example of System On Module

    And if you think about it the SoM Block Diagram is very similar or 70% the same as a Mobile Phone or Tablet.

    Today this type of question raised again and again in most of the development companies because the “Need for Speed” and the “Need for IoT” is part of every discussion and mainly every segment want to add a “Mobile Phone” to its application and there is few companies in the world that know how to develop a good Mobile Phone (Apple, Samsung, LG etc.) so the customers need to understand that they don’t need to “Invent the Wheel” again.

    Couple of years ago it was very popular to use this solution in low quantity projects so 100pcs to 500pcs per year but lately where the prices of the Processors based on ARM become very cheap (because of the Mobile and Tablet Market that made the Core so cost performance), customers is using the SoMs in 5000 and even 10000pcs per year projects or higher.

    In this example the calculation for a microprocessor based design with 2 Man Year NRE for hardware, software, and production test development, Prototypes and Debug and last is to include the Software Maintenance for another half year.

    All this Vs the cost per unit after this time is around $40 while when using a SoM, all the Development Cost, Prototype and Debug plus the Software maintenance doesn’t cost nothing and the price for the unit is the same.

      Design all in-house Use a SoM
    Development cost (2 man year) $240K  
    Prototypes and debug $30K  
    Software maintenance (0.5 man year) $60K  
    Cost per unit $40 $40 – 60$

    The main threat was that the Hardware Engineers can think that they are not needed but this is completely not truth because they need and should focus on the application board and this is their IP (intellectual Property) and they don’t need to “invent the wheel” again with the Processor board so they are getting a working platform based on the latest Processors in the market from Texas Instruments,Altera, Freescale, Qualcomm and Atmel. All this Processors based on the latest ARM Core from Cortex A5, to Cortex A8 and A9 and the latest Cores as well like Cortex A7 and Cortex A57.

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    Variscite Embedded System Development Boards and Kits View

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    Critical Link System on Modules - SOM View

    System on Module Market

    The SoM market can be divided in several ways

    1. Architecture : ARM and x86
    2. Form Factor so on ARM Based Solution for SMARC, Q7 or Proprietary (Others like COM Express are supported by x86 and Not ARM Based)
    3. Which ARM core (Cortex A5, A7, A8, A9, A57) and Example of SoM
    4. Operation System Support : Linux, Android, Windows Embedded

    1. Architecture : ARM and x86

    ARM – Most Popular Cores based in 90% of World Wide Mobile Phones and powerful Embedded Community with Cores like CortexA8, CortexA5, CortexA9, CortexA15 and CortexA57

    X86 – Support mainly by Intel with popular Solution based on Intel Atom and Core Ix Families

    2. Form Factor

    SMARC (‘Smart Mobility ARChitecture’) is a specification published by the Standardization Group for Embedded Technologies e.V. (SGET) for computer-on-modules (COMs). SMARC Computer-on-Modules are specifically designed for the development of extremely compact low-power systems. Generally, SMARC modules are based on ARM processors, they can, however, also be fitted with other low-power SoC architectures, like, for example, ones based on x86 SoCs. Typically, SMARC modules’ power requirement is in the range of a few watts, which opens up avenues to markets which to date could not be addressed due to processor designs with much higher power consumption. Two Module sizes are defined: 82mm x 50mm and 82mm x 80mm

    Q7 - Qseven - Qseven is a well-established, legacy-free standard for technology-independent small form factor computer modules (COMs) which includes standardized thermal/mechanical interfaces. Qseven was the first Standard that supported x86 and ARM technologies in COM-compatible environments. The size is 70 mm × 70 mm and The Qseven standard was adopted by the Standardization Group for Embedded Technologies e.V. (SGeT).

    Proprietary – The Proprietary form factor is the most popular in the SoM (System On Module) market because most of the customer want a unique platform for their use. It can be very small or in any shape needed to the application.

    Image 2: Example of Proprietary System On Module based on I.MX6  

    3. ARM core and Example of SoM

    Cortex-A5 Processor

    The Cortex-A5 is the smallest, lowest cost and lowest power ARMv7 application processor and is supported by a suite of optimized IP targeted at mid-range solutions, bringing highest efficiency levels and ease of integration. ARM Mali™-400 provides support for 2D vector graphics through OpenVG™ 1.1 and 3D graphics through OpenGL® ES 1.1 and 2.0.

    Atmel SAMA5 Family

    Popular Application Processors based on CortexA5 are Atmel SAMA5 Family with System On Module from Shiratech company called AT-501. The AT-501 is one of the lowest power SOM for Linux Application. It is an industrial embedded SoM offers the optimal balance of the most power efficient Cortex A to date with a high performance CPU running at 536 MHz and a floating point unit. The Memory is 32bits wide @ 166Mhz, 256 MB DDR2, expendable to 512MB. NAND Flash of 256 MB expendable up to 1GB, Optional 4GB eMMC. The Mechanical are 200 pin SO-DIMM.

    Cortex-A8 Processor

    The Cortex-A8 was introduced to the market in 2005 as the first processor supporting the ARMv7-A architecture. This processor is supported by a suite of optimized IP targeted at mid-range solutions bringing highest efficiency levels and ease of integration. The Mali™-400 provides a mid-range graphics processing option for the Cortex-A8, and all Mali high-end, video and display processors are compatible with it.

    TI Sitara Family

    Most popular application processor based on CortexA8 is the TI’s Sitara Family AM33xx and an example of System On Module based on the this solution is the VAR-SOM-AM33 from Variscite ( Supporting the 1 GHz Sitara™ AM335x ARM Cortex-A8 processor from Texas Instruments (TI) with a rich 2D/3D graphics accelerator, The VAR-SOM-AM33 provides a low-cost powerful and flexible selection across the full spectrum of applications. Feature set includes -40 to 85°C temperature range and dual CAN bus makes it ideal for industrial applications such as automotive, control systems, lighting, motor control and agriculture. With dual Ethernet, USB, touch controller, audio and Wi-Fi/BT, the VAR-SOM-AM33 is a highly integrated SoM in a very attractive price range. New: VAR-SOM-AM33_V2 with enhanced WiFi/BT module including optional Dual Band 2.4 / 5 GHz and MIMO with improved performance and effective bit rates reaching 100 Mbps.

    ARM Cortex-A9 Processor

    The ARM Cortex-A9 processor is a mature option having been introduced in 2008, and remains a very popular choice in smartphones, digital TV, and both consumer and enterprise applications enabling the Internet of Things. As a single processor solution, the Cortex-A9 processor offers an overall performance enhancement of well above 50% compared to ARM Cortex-A8 solutions.

    The Cortex-A9 processor is available with a range of supporting ARM technology. ARM Physical IP is available to support a synthesizable flow optimized for lowest power or highest performance, as well as a choice of hard-macros reducing risk and shortening time-to-market.

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    SolidRun Ltd System on Modules - SOM View

    The Most Popular families based on Cortex A9 are the NXP (Freescale) I.MX6, TI’s newest Sitara AM4xxx and the SoC (Systec On Chip) from Altera. SECO have a Q7 Module named QuadMo747-X/i.MX6 A scalable multi-core ARM Cortex™-A9 architecture in Qseven standard modular solution Combines and emphasizes high-graphics performance with power-efficient processing capabilities. OpenGL (FULL) and OpenES 2.0 3D Graphics and up to 3 independent displays (only up to 2 displays with i.MX6DL and i.MX6S)Flexible solution enables multi-display platforms to mobile fanless applications

    ARM Cortex-A7 Processor

    The ARM Cortex-A7 processor is the most power-efficient multi-core processor.

    The Cortex-A7 processor is supported by a suite of optimized IP targeted at mid-range solutions, bringing highest efficiency levels and ease of integration. All of our Mali™ mid-range and high-end graphics processors can be integrated with the Cortex-A7, as well as the Mali-V500 video processor and Mali-DP500 display processor. Our pervasive range of physical and system IP is also available as standard.

    The new Core from ARM, Cortex A7 Embedded Solution is powered by Freescale Layerscape Family LS1. The First SoM in the world based on this solution came from SYSTEC Electronic from Germany that produce the ECUcore-1021.

    The ECUcore-1021 is a compact and cost-effective SOM based on the Freescale QorIQ LS1021A microcontroller. It was especially designed for networked industrial applications. With its high density of available communication interfaces and the two 1GHz ARM Cortex-A7 cores, the module offers outstanding performance at a low power dissipation.

    ARM Cortex-A57 Processor

    The ARM Cortex-A57 processor is a proven, high-performance 32-bit and 64-bit core. It was designed to extend the capabilities of mobile and enterprise computing applications including compute-intensive 64-bit applications such as high-end computer, tablet and server products. The processor’s advanced performance characteristics open it up to an extremely wide range of applications, delivering high-efficiency solutions in servers, and defining user experience in tablet and high-end smartphones.

    The newest 64bit Core is in the heart of the new Network Processor family from Freescale named LS2 (LayerScape 2). There are several companies that start a develop of SoM based on this solution that will announce in the end of 2015.

    4. Operation System Support

    The System On Modules need BSP (Board Support Packages) to be able to connect between the hardware and the support and this solution based on the Operation System the end customer want to develop. The Operation System are Linux, Android and Windows Embedded

  • Yocto - The Yocto Project is an open source collaboration project that provides templates, tools and methods to help you create custom Linux-based systems for embedded products regardless of the hardware architecture.
  • Ubuntu - A community-developed Linux-based operating system and it is open source Debian-based Linux distribution
  • Linaro - Linaro Ltd., the not-for-profit engineering organization that consolidates and optimizes open-source software for ARM applications
  • Android on an embedded device is a mix of modifications to the Android Open Source Project (AOSP) and the kernel on which it runs, Linux.
  • Windows Embedded is a family of operating systems from Microsoft designed for use in embedded systems. Microsoft makes four different categories of operating systems for embedded devices targeting a wide market, ranging from small-footprint
  • Description of the new solution approach for Systems on Module Market

    Arrow Electronics have started a project in US in 2013 and activate it in EMEA is 2014 to focus on the System On Module Market with the right and best in class Suppliers and with clear differentiation to support the different regions and applications.

    It is Supplier Focus and Market Focus driven as follow:

  • Solution based on the Top Suppliers from Texas Instruments, Atmel, NXP (Freescale), Altera and Qualcomm
  • Market focus on
  • Low Cost
  • SoM (System On Modules) from 29€ based on CortexA5 from Atmel (SAMA5) and 32$ Solution with TI AM335x. Also 40$ based on NXP (Freescale) I.Mx6 and TI’s Sitara AM49xx Family
  • High End
  • SoMs based Freescale Layerscape LS1 with Dual Core A7 and Altera SoC Solution with FPGA+Dual Core CortexA9
  • Community
  • Beagleboard and BeagleBone
  • HummingBoard - Solid-Run's HummingBoard (during development known as Carrier-One) is the internal development board for the i.MX6 MicroSOM (System on Module), since released as a powerful micro-computing platform. Based on the scalable NXP (Freescale) i.MX6 family of system-on-chip (SoC) processors ranging from a single to quad Cortex-A9 processor cores, 2D/3D hardware graphics processing unit, video decoding and encoding acceleration hardware, HDMI 1080p 3D as well a compatibility with a broad range of peripherals.
  • UDOO - UDOO is a single-board computer with an integrated Arduino 2 compatible microcontroller, designed for computer science education, the world of Makers and the Internet of Things.
  • 96Board - 96Boards is building a single software and hardware community across low-cost development boards based on ARM Cortex-A processors from multiple silicon vendors
  • M2M / IoT
  • Cloud Based SoM Solution from Digi based on NXP (Freescale) I.MX6
  • Standard Form Factors
  • SMARC from Shiratech Based on Altera SoC
  • Q7 from SECO based on I.MX6 from Freescale and also From InforceComputing based on Qualcomm Snapdragon 600
  • What is the target group of the article? The Embedded Market

    The System On Module market is focus on the Embedded Market based on the latest Micro Processors technologies and solution with the latest ARM Core and the powerful Semiconductors Companies like Texas Instruments, NXP (Freescale), Atmel, Altera and Qualcomm.

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