By Charles J. Murray
The quest for higher performance in embedded applications is pushing systems manufacturers to search for a successor to the PCI Industrial Computer Manufacturers Group's (PICMG's) venerable 1.0 architecture. Vendors in growing numbers are addressing that need with the rollout of single-board computers based on PICMG's new embedded PCI-X specification.
Embodied in the PICMG 1.2 specification, ePCI-X is viewed by many as a logical way to combine more-robust bandwidth and greater cost efficiency in applications ranging from medical imaging to industrial controls to virtual private networking.
"The companies that have traditionally used PICMG 1.0 passive backplanes are certainly moving in the direction of ePCI-X," said Dick Somes, a technical officer for PICMG (Wakefield, Mass.).
"We're seeing a lot of interest from the industrial side and from telecom equipment manufacturers, particularly in voice-over-IP and virtual private networking," noted Eric Gauthier, corporate director of customer marketing for Force Computers (Fremont, Calif.).
The primary reason for the newfound interest in ePCI-X is that the legacy buses described in the original PICMG 1.0 specifications-PCI (Peripheral Component Interconnect) and ISA (Instruction Set Architecture)-have become data bottlenecks.
The new spec replaces the ISA bus with the higher-performing PCI-X bus and adds PCI-X capabilities to the old PCI bus. All of that is accomplished within the same mechanical dimensions of the original PCI-ISA boards.
Changing the architecture in that way boosts clock speed to 133 MHz and pumps throughput into the gigabyte/second range. ISA bus bandwidth is in the 30-Mbyte/s range, and PCI buses go up to about 264 Mbytes/s.
"The speed issue is on people's minds," Somes said. "We're starting to see a lot of chip sets that have PCI-X capability."
Engineers at Kontron America (Hayward, Calif.) and Force Computers helped spearhead the drive toward ePCI-X, mainly because they saw a growing demand for higher performance.
"To get full-gigabit throughput, we needed another architecture," noted Benoit Robert, executive director of product management for Kontron Canada (Montreal). "We weren't going to get that with PICMG 1.0, and we knew it."
The "Flagship" Standard
To meet the need, Kontron has rolled out two single-board computers (SBCs): the ePCI-100 and ePCI-200. The company describes the ePCI-100 as its "flagship single-board computer for the PICMG 1.2 embedded PCI-X standard."
It comes standard with a feature set that includes a choice of Intel Pentium III or Celeron processors, up to 512 Mbytes of SDRAM, dual 10/100Base-TX Ethernet ports, a dual IDE hard-disk interface and a built-in 2-D/3-D 64-bit CRT video controller. The ePCI-100 with a 1-GHz Pentium III processor sells for $725.
The ePCI-200 goes for higher performance by employing the dual-bus e-PCIX Pentium 4, offering up to a 3-GHz clock speed. It includes 478-pin processor technology, PCI-X support up to 133 MHz, up to 4 Gbytes of DDR SDRAM, an on-board ATO Mobility Radeon with 16 Mbytes of integrated DDR SDRAM and a dual Fast Ethernet controller.
Additional features include two USB ports, a floppy controller, two serial ports, a parallel port, PS/2 keyboard and mouse ports, a hardware monitor and a dual-stage watchdog timer. The ePCI-200 with a 2.4-GHz Pentium 4 is priced at $1,300.
"Our customers like the fact that they can have two separate PCI buses," Robert said. "It means they can have one very fast bus to put on critical cards, such as frame grabbers, and they can have another bus for their control cards."
Similarly, Force Computers' System 1H embedded server platform is aimed at the ePCI-X market but uses a 1U, half-depth configuration (hence the "1H" moniker) to pack more functionality into less space. Targeted at OEMs designing communications and networking equipment, System 1U measures 10.65 inches deep, making it a candidate for e-commerce systems, Web hosting and VPNs.
Designed for harsh operating conditions, System 1H employs a low-power 400-MHz Celeron processor-based single host board and three 64-bit ePCI-X expansion slots. Force designed it for back-to-back system installation configurations, making it possible to incorporate up to 64 servers in one rack.
"The operators' control panel can be mounted in the front or rear of the box, and you can put two of those on the same 1U level," noted Force's Gauthier. Volume pricing for the System 1H embedded servers starts at $800.
Diversified Technology Inc. (Ridgeland, Miss.) has also rolled out ePCI-X products, largely for the industrial community. Its ePX-Sx10 SBC complies with PICMG 1.2 and offers a low-power, half-length card form factor.
The system host board features either a Pentium III or Celeron low-power processor, an Intel 815E chip set and up to 256 Mbytes of PC100 SDRAM on a single 144-pin SODIMM socket.
An integrated 2-D/3-D AGP4X video controller is enhanced with a 4-Mbyte display cache and PanelLink transmitter to enhance performance with a digital flat panel or CRT output. A 10Base-T/100 Base-TX Ethernet controller and an Ultra ATA/100 EIDE controller support fast data file transfer. Two Universal Serial Buses, four serial ports, a parallel port and a floppy interface are included.
The company's engineers say the ePX-Sx10 is particularly well-suited to industrial applications ranging all the way up to programmable logic controllers.
"Most PLCs today offer connectivity through a 10/100 Ethernet port," said Clark Manuel, an application support engineer for Diversified Technology. "This system has a 10/100 port built into it, so it can easily serve in a PLC."
Pricing for the ePX-Sx10, excluding memory, starts at $650 for a 300-MHz ultralow-power Celeron processor-based board and ranges up to $750 for a 700-MHz low-power Pentium III-based board.
American Portwell Technology Inc. (Newark, Calif.), meanwhile, says that its ePCI-X boards are targeted at imaging systems, such as those used in medical applications and broadcasting. The Robo- 8820VG2 is based on the Intel E7501 chip set. Introduced in February, the board was said to be the first ePCI-X SBC with dual Intel Xeon processors and dual 64-bit Gigabit Ethernet interfaces.
It also includes Intel Netburst microarchitecture and so-called hyperthreading technology, which lets the board partition tasks among processors. It includes up to 4 Gbytes of DDR-200/266 ECC memory, an Intel 82546EB Gigabit controller for dual Gigabit Ethernet support and dual 64-bit PCI-X buses.
"The majority of imaging systems require not only the speed of the bus, but processing power, too," said Keith Ng, product manager for Portwell. "This gives you both." Prices start at $2,250 with the heat sink but without CPU and memory.
Adlink Technology Inc. (Taipei, Taiwan) offers an ePCI-X board with dual Xeon processors and 64-bit Gigabit Ethernet. The NuPro-900 full-size 64-bit SBC incorporates the IntelR E7501 chip set.
It supports Xeon processors up to 2.4 GHz. The board targets storage servers, high-end compute servers, telecommunications computers, high-end industrial controllers and other 64-bit applications.
Trenton Technology Inc. (Utica, N.Y.), meanwhile, said it does not offer ePCI-X boards in production volumes but that it will develop custom ePCI-X systems for individual customers who request them.
Officials of PICMG say they expect the trend toward PICMG 1.2 to grow, especially as performance demands escalate.
"There's a need for faster I/O," said Somes of PICMG. "People will always want quicker access to the memory sub-systems, and ePCI-X is a good way to provide that."
Companies Mentioned In This eeProductCenter Feature:
American Portwell Technology Inc., Phone: (510) 790-9192. Go directly to company Web site.
Adlink Technology Inc., Phone: (949) 727-2077. Go directly to company Web site.
Diversified Technology Inc., Phone: (601) 856-4121.
Go directly to company Web site.
Force Computers, Phone: (800) 367-2399. Go directly to company Web site.
Kontron America, Phone: (450) 437-5682. Go directly to company Web site.
Trenton Technology Inc., Phone: (800) 875-6031. Go directly to company Web site.