A PCIe 4.0 Users Guide to PICMG Technology at Embedded World 2023

By Jessica Isquith



March 12, 2023


A PCIe 4.0 Users Guide to PICMG Technology at Embedded World 2023

In an industry where performance is expected to double every other year, we waited almost four cycles of Moore’s law (seven years) to move from PCI Express Gen 3 to PCI Express Gen 4. For critical embedded applications, where deployment lifecycles are typically longer than average, the hiatus was tolerable but limited performance at the edge.

Now that PCIe 4.0 support is almost universally available on SoCs and chipsets, the embedded systems designed around them can address markets and applications they simply couldn’t accommodate before. In response, embedded hardware suppliers are bringing building blocks to market based on PCIe 4.0 and industry standard form factors like PICMG’s COM-HPC, COM Express, CompactPCI Serial, and MicroTCA specifications, streamlining the development and deployment of high-performance systems at the edge.

PCIe 4.0 + PICMG Standards: … it’s a Smarter World

PCIe 4.0 doubles bandwidth over its predecessor to 16 GT/s, or unidirectional data transfer speeds of 31.5 GBps in 16-lane configurations. This amount of bandwidth puts graphics- and data-intensive applications within reach of embedded systems equipped with the new interface, and just in time for edge analytics and AI/ML workloads hitting the market.

With the release of PCIe 4.0 support on AMD Ryzen Desktop CPUs in 2020 and 11th generation Intel® Core™ processors the following year, it didn’t take long for embedded board and system suppliers to capitalize on the opportunity. It’s only been up from there, as attendees of embedded world 2023 will witness firsthand in solutions and presentations from PICMG member companies ADLINK Technology, AMI, Avnet Embedded, congatec, ept GmbH, N.A.T, nVent Schroff, Samtec, Sealevel Systems, SECO, and others.

Whether you’ll be in Nuremberg for embedded world 2023 or not, here’s a snapshot of the PCIe 4.0-based activities from PICMG technology manufacturers you can expect to come out of the show and where to find them.

High-Bandwidth Connectivity for COM Express 3.1 Users

Originally released in 2005, the PICMG COM Express specification family became the electronics industry’s default standard for computer-on-module (COM) technology by closely shadowing chipset and interface roadmaps. This trend continued with the ratification of PICMG COM Express version 3.1 in the fall of 2022, which added high-speed serial interfaces via a revised 16 Gbps connector that supports 10 GbE, USB 4, and, of course, PCIe 4.0 signals.

PCIe 4.0-enabled COM Express solutions on display at embedded world 2023 favor 13th generation Intel® Core™ processors, which provide a balance of performance and power consumption you’d expect from a multimedia- and AI-capable industrial edge controller.

  • ADLINK Technology – Hall 3, Booth 147: The Express-RLP is a COM Express 3.1 Type 6 module manufactured in the specification’s 125 mm x 95 mm “Basic” form factor that comes with 16x PCIe 4.0 lanes.
  • Avnet Embedded – Hall 1, Booth 510: The MSC C6C-RLP Type 6 module family is available in the 95 mm x 95 mm COM Express “Compact” form factor with up to two x4 PCIe 4.0 lanes.
  • SECO – Hall 1, Booth 320: The CALLISTO COM Express 3.1 Type 6 Basic form factor module features a 13th generation Core®, one eight-lane PCI Express graphics (PEG) 4.0 interface, and up to two additional four-lane PEG 4.0 interfaces.
  • Sealevel Systems – Hall 3, Booth 359: Since COM Express solutions are backwards-compatible, Sealevel Systems’ 12009 Compact Type 6 evaluation carrier board addresses prior-generation interconnects while still working with 3.1 modules.

Figure 1. The SECO CALLISTO COM Express 3.1 Type 6 Basic Module. (Source: SECO)

COM-HPC and PCIe 4.0: A Starting Point for the Next Generation

PCIe 4.0 marks the final interface upgrade for the COM Express family of specifications, but the modular tradition will continue in a next-generation COM architecture from PICMG – COM-HPC.

COM-HPC addresses the high-performance end of the market by supporting higher power, higher performance CPUs, GPUs, and FPGAs, including server-class processors. It does so through increased module sizes and a pair of 400-pin connectors (almost double that of COM Express) sufficient for PCIe 4.0 signaling and beyond.

  • Samtec – Hall 4A, Booth 324: Samtec will have COM-HPC connectors on-hand for visitors to see and feel. The company will also be discussing what’s new with the COM-HPC specification in a presentation at the embedded world 2023 Exhibitor’s Forum (Hall 2, Booth 501) at 12:00 on Wednesday, March 15th, and again during a panel discussion at the Embedded Computing Design booth (Hall 1, Booth 500) taking place at 16:00 on March 15th.
  • congatec – Hall 3, Booth 241: congatec will also be discussing updates to the standard on the Weka-VIP Stage on Thursday, March 16th at 10:15, then later at 14:15 as part of the main embedded world Conference program in “COM-HPC Server-on-Modules for Modular Edge Server Deployments.” In addition, they’ll be previewing the new COM-HPC Mini module specification at their booth.

Figure 2. Samtec COM-HPC connectors. (Source: Samtec)

All this, of course, in addition to COM-HPC module products being showcased by ADLINK Technology, Avnet Embedded, congatec, and others.

Proven Yet Future-Focused: MicroTCA & CompactPCI Evolutions Continue

PICMG MicroTCA.4 added extensions to the base MicroTCA specification that optimized the architecture for the physics community’s specialized data acquisition use cases. It was an immediate success, and now almost every high-energy physics laboratory in the world relies on MicroTCA technology.

MicroTCA was originally designed around PCIe Gen 3, but continued advances in sensors and instrumentation are driving demand for higher performance, higher resolution data acquisition, filtering, and control infrastructure. In response, the MicroTCA for Physics technical subcommittee is back at work and looking to implement PCIe 4.0 interconnects to the specification in 2023.

  • N.A.T. – Hall 4, Booth 544: N.A.T. will be demonstrating an FPGA-based edge detection system based on MicroTCA at their booth, and also participate in a panel discussion on the technology at Embedded Computing Design’s embedded world 2023 booth (Hall 1, Booth 500) on Wednesday at 14:30.

Elsewhere, CompactPCI Serial was developed to replace the parallel CompactPCI bus architecture designed for rail, transport, automation, and other critical applications almost 30 years ago. Today that replacement can be in the form of point-to-point USB, Ethernet, SAS/SATA, or PCIe 2.0/3.0 serial interfaces but, like the MicroTCA.4 working group, the CompactPCI Serial technical subcommittee is working on a revision that will add PCIe 4.0 links in the next few months.

  • nVent Schroff – Hall 1, Booth 441: In addition to demonstrating CompactPCI technologies for onboard railway applications, the company will showcase a MicroTCA.4 system.

ModBlox7: A New Standard for Industrial Box PCs Built on PCI Express

The industrial box PC market will be worth USD 6.1 billion by 2026. Surprisingly, none of that revenue is from standardized systems; unsurprisingly, significant developments are underway to change that.

ModBlox7 is a modular box PC standard nearing PICMG ratification that will transform the industrial box PC market by allowing users to daisy chain up to 12 fixed-height, fixed-depth CPU, I/O, and power supply “blox” in configurations that meet the requirements of rail, transport, automation, and other use cases – over internal interfaces that can include PCIe 4.0.

Figure 3. ModBlox7 box PCs connect CPU, PSU, and I/O Units via board-to-board connectors that carry USB and PCIe signals, including PCIe 4.0. (Source: PICMG)

The beauty of ModBlox7 lies in its simplicity, particularly with regards to the interoperability and cost savings it will provide users.

  • ept GmbH – Hall 1, Booth 407: The 80-pin ept 405/6-51080-51 plug and 406-51080-51 socket board-to-board connector system can be used to carry PCIe 4.0 signals between ModBlox7 CPU, PSU, and I/O units and will be on display at embedded world 2023.

Many Interfaces, Specifications & Member Companies, One embedded world 2023

Of course, PCIe 4.0 is just one of the interfaces popular PICMG specifications use as a data artery. It isn’t the newest, oldest, fastest, or slowest, but it has come at the right time for an industry looking to advance compute performance and data throughput while keeping power consumption and cost to a minimum.

Listed here are just a few of the PICMG specifications, members, and solutions that will be on display at embedded world 2023. For a more comprehensive list of activities, stop by the PICMG booth in Hall 3, Booth 544, or visit www.picmg.org/picmg-embedded-world-2023.