Free COM Express!

By Brandon Lewis


Embedded Computing Design

February 18, 2023


Free COM Express!

The first publication I ever worked on was CompactPCI & AdvancedTCA Systems, which covered embedded hardware specifications produced by the electronics industry consortium PICMG. While the magazine no longer exists, PICMG is still alive and growing.

A big reason for PICMG’s sustained success is its development and management of the most popular (by deployment volume) non-PC board standard on the market today – COM Express. Released in 2005, COM Express has grown to include eight different pinouts (five of which are now considered legacy), four form factors, dozens if not hundreds of manufacturers (more on that later), millions of deployed units, and a next-generation derivative called COM-HPC.

The emergence of COM-HPC, whose suffix stands for high-performance computing, doesn’t foreshadow the imminent demise or even gradual erosion of COM Express. COM-HPC builds off the robust adoption and solid technical foundation laid by COM Express to meet the requirements of systems that need server-class processors and PCI Express 4.0/5.0 interconnect throughput and beyond. But the recent addition of PCI Express Gen 4 to COM Express, despite being the last upgrade of its kind for the spec, will keep it the favorite of mid-range edge computing deployments for the foreseeable future.

So what do you do with an industry-leading technology that’s entrenched in its market niche? I’d argue you double down by making COM Express free.

Consortia and the Cost of COMs

Before going further it’s important to clarify two things: how organizations like PICMG operate and what I mean by “free”.

As a nonprofit, PICMG employs a small staff to steward technical working groups, handle administrative duties, market specifications, etc. These activities are paid for by annual membership fees of $1,000-$3,000, as well as the licensing of specifications.

Today, licensing and downloading the COM Express specification costs $750. In exchange, your organization gets access to all the IP it needs to design a COM Express-compliant processor module. A Carrier Board Design Guide, which details how to build an application-specific interface card that integrates swappable COM Express modules with the rest of a system, can be downloaded at no cost.

For a nonprofit, $750 per license is not insignificant. So when I say that COM Express should be “free,” meaning there would be no charge to license and download any COM Express specification, an explanation is in order.

Ecosystem Enablement

PICMG specifications are made available to licensees as .pdf files, so you can imagine how liberally those move around once they’ve been licensed. While it’s not right (or legal), far more companies are building and selling COM Express-based systems than have licensed the specification over the years. In other words, the horse is already out of the barn.

Once you accept that fact, the $750 licensing fee actually becomes a barrier to the proliferation of COM Express and its ecosystem. Yes, $750 may seem trivial, but think about the haggling you do to get $750 approved by accounting for anything, especially if you have a vendor management system and whoever you’re buying from isn’t in it.

Why not just make licensing the specification free, then try to recoup any lost revenue through member dues from a larger pool of companies who are actively engaged in the COM Express ecosystem?

It’s been proven time and again that the easier a technology is to access, the more it will be used – and the more a technology is used, the faster its ecosystem will grow. Linux, Apache servers, Arduino, and Raspberry Pi are all wildly accessible and foster vibrant, dynamic ecosystems thanks to their accessibility. Yes, most of them are open source (a consideration for COM Express we’ll explore another time), but what COM Express has none of those did at the beginning is a commercially-hardened solution with a large installed base and the infrastructure to scale. The ingredients for accelerated adoption are there.

As for the value of membership if COM Express were to become freely available, it would actually increase. PICMG Associate members and above are able to participate in working groups where they can drive their strengths into a spec’s definition, and that’s worth more in a larger ecosystem. Intimate knowledge of the technology throughout the standard development process also gives you a head start on getting to market once the specification is ratified.

But longer term, “free COM Express” de-emphasizes the importance of the hardware specification itself – which is already mature – and prioritizes work on middleware, application enablement tools, and services. Whether that work is conducted by independent vendors or by PICMG through a mechanism like use case profiles (something else we’ll investigate in a future article), it can be much more profitable for COM Express vendors and add significant value for end users who want as close to a complete solution as possible.

This application-focused approach is already happening at companies like ADLINK, Advantech, congatec, Kontron, and others, who are using their COM Express leadership as a launchpad to increase their margins by supporting customers at higher levels of the stack. And it appears to be working.

So what do you say? Should PICMG “free” COM Express?

Brandon is responsible for guiding content strategy, editorial direction, and community engagement across the Embedded Computing Design ecosystem. A 10-year veteran of the electronics media industry, he enjoys covering topics ranging from development kits to cybersecurity and tech business models. Brandon received a BA in English Literature from Arizona State University, where he graduated cum laude. He can be reached at [email protected].

More from Brandon