PICMG Enhances COM-HPC, IoT.x, MicroTCA Standards as Edge Computing Demands Peak

By Chad Cox

Associate Editor

Embedded Computing Design

August 29, 2022


Every industry influenced by technology is now demanding intelligence at the edge, often without understanding its implications. For most organizations, acquiring meaningful edge intelligence means drastically changing their IT and/or operational technology infrastructure to support the deployment, integration, and then management of vastly more electronic systems.

From endpoints to control gateways, on-prem servers back towards the core network, technology standards represent the only reasonable path forward for technology-driven organizations hoping to capitalize on data intelligence without becoming technology organizations themselves.

In response, the PCI Industrial Computer Manufacturer’s Group (or PICMG), a consortium of companies who develop open standards for high-performance communications and computing applications, has committed to enhancing three of its existing specification families: COM-HPC, IoT.x, and MicroTCA.

COM-HPC Client Mini & FuSa Support

COM-HPC base specifications were only officially ratified at the beginning of last year, but its popularity has the PICMG COM-HPC working group actively developing two new variants that make it even more applicable at the edge: COM-HPC Client Mini and Functional Safety (FuSa) support.

The COM-HPC Client Mini specification defines credit card-sized (60 mm x 95 mm) modules that utilize a single COM-HPC connector instead of the two connectors used on today’s larger modules. Halving the footprint and number of pins means COM-HPC Mini supports up to 400 signal lanes, which still represents 90% of the COM Express Type 6 pin capacity.

As a result, the specification will allow engineers to integrate cutting-edge interface technologies such as PCIe Gen4, Gen5, and others in small form factor edge devices like railway gateways, building and industrial automation control PCs, and portable test and measurement equipment.

Separately, FuSa extensions available across COM-HPC form factors seek to leverage built-in safety features of newer x86 processors by exposing them to the rest of the system via specific signal pinouts. This will streamline support for mixed-criticality workloads on the same hardware and empower the module standard in all sorts of use cases, from machine control to transportation to autonomous robots.

“With the small-size definition of the COM-HPC Client Mini and the FuSa extensions, COM-HPC covers all embedded use cases I can think of,” says Christian Eder, Chair of the COM-HPC technical committee and Congatec Director Product Marketing. “COM-HPC is the most complete computer module definition ever.

“I expect an extremely fast growth for scalable and compute-power hungry embedded applications based on COM-HPC technology,” he adds.

IoT.X Work Continues Towards Industry 4.0 Interoperability

PICMG also continues to progress the IoT.x specification family focused on the development of interoperable plug-and-play sensors and effectors. Specifically, the IoT.1 firmware interface and data modeling specification and soon-to-be-ratified IoT.2 network architecture abstract low-level device physics so new and existing sensor nodes can be transformed into smart sensor nodes.

PICMG IoT.1 is primarily concerned with free and open-source tools that provide a data abstraction layer so sensors and effecters can interoperate. The IoT Configurator and IoT Builder reference implementations also generate sensor firmware that can be read by any sensor or controller and require little-to-no programming expertise.

The PICMG IoT.1 IoT Configurator and IoT Builder tools can be accessed from the PICMG Github repository.

The IoT.2 network architecture specification builds on the work in IoT.1 to define how sensors, effectors, and their data integrate into larger Industry 4.0 systems. It relies heavily on the Data Management Task Force's (DMTF’s) Redfish API to provide an abstraction layer and transactional model for monitoring and managing endpoints in the context of “jobs” similar to the frameworks used by major cloud service providers.

It will not be exclusive of other existing IoT communications protocols but instead provide a conversion mechanism that fosters an environment of openness and collaboration.

Together, the two specifications provide the transparency factory personnel need to send specific, state-based jobs to machines and achieve desired outcomes without having to understand device-level specifics.

"IoT.1 provides low-level visibility of physical device parameters that can directly impact the quality and efficiency of your production line,” says Doug Sandy, CTO of PICMG. “IoT.2 provides an IT-like interface for managing both machines and jobs at a high level of abstraction.

“When used together, they support the analytics required for higher levels of productivity and throughput across a factory environment.”

New MicroTCA Spec Work

Since its ratification in 2011, the µTCA Base specification has been updated to support fabrics like 10GBASE-KR and 40GBASE-KR4 Ethernet and adapted for data acquisition and control functions in markets like high-energy physics, aerospace and defense, and others. Now the MicroTCA Working Group is embarking on a next-generation platform architecture that aims to improve the specification’s bandwidth and performance in time-sensitive networking tasks.

The planned updates center around making the specification compatible next-generation CPUs and FPGAs by adding native PCIe Gen 5 support and increasing the system’s current 80W per slot power budget.

Newer backplane interconnect fabrics are also being evaluated.

"I am more than happy that the MicroTCA Working Group is so proactively addressing the recent demands. The new spec will find its way into many different vertical markets due to the flexibility of MicroTCA!” Heiko Koerte, VP and Director Sales & Marketing at N.A.T says. “Applications in industrial automation, medical, telecommunications and networking, aerospace, and transportation will not only benefit from these new features, but also from how easily MicroTCA can be adapted to exact needs.”

Not Future-Proof, But Future-Focused

As application demands push engineering organizations to the limits of their time, resources, and creativity, standards-based solutions that package the essential components of a connected electronic system are gaining popularity.

With the progression of these three specification families, PICMG is ensuring that technology organizations have an open marketplace to choose from when they decide to take the plunge into IoT edge computing. And, with hundreds of active members, users can be sure that a standards-based version of their platform requirements will be available for years to come.

“The idea of future-proofing a spec is unrealistic. Our teams, made up of industry experts, easily design-in five-plus years of advancements,” explains Jessica Isquith, President of PICMG. “As new processors and high-speed interfaces become available, the PICMG teams determine if specs need to be revised.

“Today, we have four families of PICMG specifications under revision and two new initiatives developing new specifications,” she continues. “The market has repeatedly demonstrated a need for open standards over the last four decades, and open standards have responded with solutions that democratize electronics and accelerate technology adoption.

“Today’s climate is no different, and PICMG, its member companies, and partner organizations will continue to fill that need.”

For more detailed technical information on the PICMG IoT.x specifications, visit www.picmg.org/understanding-smart-sensors and www.picmg.org/product/iiot_firmware.

For more on COM-HPC Client Mini and FuSa support, go to www.picmg.org/picmg-forms-new-smaller-com-hpc-module-committee-and-announces-fusa-support-at-embedded-world-2022.

For more on MicroTCA specification updates, visit www.picmg.org/the-evolution-never-ends-picmg-announces-new-microtca-specifications.