Embedded high-performance computing for industrial applications

Edge, fog, and cloud applications demand increased computing power in industrial environments using embedded controls; COM Express (Type 7) offers more and faster Ethernet connections and more throughput.

By Mary Poniatowski October 12, 2017

In contrast to most business and IT applications, many production tasks cannot be easily outsourced to a cloud service, although it would be useful for simplicity, cost savings, and maintenance. In spite of modern infrastructures such as time-sensitive networking (TSN)-based networks, the physical length of the lines with the associated latencies often ends any thoughts of cloud-connected real-time control. Also, many companies do not want to see their production data being stored and processed offsite. The answer to this challenge is an approach like edge or fog computing.

In practice, edge computing means to move the cloud physically closer to production and/or consolidate data by on-site pre-processing. Of course, there are robust, industry-grade edge gateways available, however, performance is limited. In many scenarios, it is most cost-efficient and easier to maintain the computing power on-site. Standardized computer-on-modules (COMs) provide wide scalability and reliability that result in increased efficiency, especially for industrial applications. So what would be closer than to build a scalable computing infrastructure based on proven module systems? This way it could be designed to fit demands now with the option to be upgraded later. 

Deciding on the proper module

One of the main advantages of using COMs is the largely pre-integrated platform. The customer can concentrate fully on the development of their own (application) software. Ideally, the module supplier would offer a carrier board that already contains all of the required interfaces. If, however, special functions such as fieldbus interfaces are missing, it saves a lot of time and headaches if the corresponding module supplier data can be accessed so the system integrator can access existing solutions (IP) and/or resources of the module manufacturer easily. This can save resources and development time. This particularly applies to elements that require specific knowledge and experience, such as all aspects of safety and security. It is especially important that the module manufacturer uses components and technologies that are reputable, standardized, and lead to time and cost savings.

PCI Industrial Computer Manufacturers Group’s (PICMG’s) COM Express standard provides wide scalability, as well as maximum computing power and power dissipation. For instance, its "basic" size form factor with the compact dimensions of only 95 x 125 mm² can use processors with a 50 W thermal design power (TDP) or more without problems. The rapidly-growing demand for high computation and network performance in the modular and embedded market also has motivated the PICMG to develop the latest COM Express standard (Type 7), derived from Type 6. With the partial reorganization of the signals on the connectors, graphic signals were dropped and replaced by four 10 Gigabit Ethernet interfaces to support requirements for more and faster external Ethernet connections.

In addition, eight additional peripheral component interconnect (PCI) Express lanes were added to achieve higher throughput. Modules also can be used as mezzanines (plug-in boards) for a more or less complex carrier board and also as a single-board computer (SBC). This makes it easier to build multi-module systems. Depending on the thermal design, a 19-in. plug-in unit can accommodate up to nine Type 7 modules in the "basic" size and up to 144 CPU cores. 

COM Express standard Type 7 modules

Hardware and software can work together with key features such as a security framework, intelligent platform management interface (IPMI) compliance, and baseboard management controllers (BMC), available for many manufacturers’ platforms. These features also simplify operations and maintenance for customers.

Upgrades can occur by exchanging the module, and complex fieldbus and sensor interfaces can be upgraded as well since special machine adaptions on the baseboard can be maintained over several CPU generations. 

Security for COM Express platforms

COM Express platforms also should have a comprehensive, cross-platform security solution in place to protect against cyber threats. An integrated trusted platform module (TPM) 2.0 chip ensures the highest level of security. Other features to consider should be copy and licensing protection and protection against tampering and reverse engineering.

Big Data is a growing trend. More realiable data must be recorded and processed within close proximity to the machine and the cloud. Interfaces to sensors and actuators are largely stable technology and only the requirements for computing power grow disproportionately. COMs offer cost savings and high performance in the industrial space. The robust design allows safe use within an immediate production environment. The possibility of outsourcing control functionality to real-time-embedded, high-performance computers and their physical proximity to the production equipment lead to further cost savings through consolidation without sacrificing safety or functionality.

Mary Poniatowski is a marketing manager with Kontron, an S&T company. Edited by Emily Guenther, associate content manager, Control Engineering, CFE Media, eguenther@cfemedia.com

More answers

www.controleng.com keywords: board-level control 

  • The benefits of computer-on-module (COM) Express platforms
  • About the COM Express standard Type 7 platforms
  • The benefits of embedded computing technologies.

Consider this

What applications would receive the greatest ROI from COM Express standard platforms?

ONLINE extra

PCI Industrial Computer Manufacturers Group (PICMG) provides more about the COM Express standard.

About Kontron – An S&T Company

Kontron is a global leader in embedded computing technology. As a part of technology group S&T, Kontron offers a combined portfolio of secure hardware, middleware, and services for Internet of Things (IoT) and Industrie 4.0 applications. With its standard products and tailor-made solutions based on highly reliable state-of-the-art embedded technologies, Kontron provides secure and innovative applications for a variety of industries. As a result, customers benefit from accelerated time-to-market, reduced total cost of ownership, product longevity, and the best fully-integrated applications overall.