February 29, 2024

PICMG Roundtable: 30 Years of Focus on Long Service Life, Modularity

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The PICMG roundtable featured lively discussions on the various PICMG standards. (Pictures: WEKA Fachmedien)

For 30 years, PICMG has been shaping the embedded computing industry with standards. However, the organization is by no means resting on its laurels. Quite the opposite: with ModBlox7, some member companies have developed the first global standard for industrial box PCs.

Under the umbrella of the PCI Computer Manufacturers Group (PICMG), several manufacturers have been working on a new standard for modular industrial PCs: ModBlox7. It is intended to combine the advantages of scalable systems such as CompactPCI with cost-saving box PCs. As a flexible box PC system, ModBlox7 is based on units that are defined in terms of height and depth and can be extended in width as required. At the Markt&Technik roundtable, experts explained why a modular standard is needed in view of the large installed base and the long history of use of box PCs.

Matthias Beer, Managing Director at Ci4Rail, played a key role in the implementation of the new standard alongside Bernd Kleeberg, Managing Director at EKF Elektronik. When asked about the background to the idea of ModBlox7, Beer cites the increasing demand for small, space-saving, and lightweight industrial box PCs. The challenge for developers is interoperability between different PCs and a lack of flexibility. 

“Developers have to work with devices they get in shops, regardless of how they are configured. We want to combine the advantages of modular systems with those of a box PC,” explains Beer. Standardizing box PC technology is a completely new idea; often, only the technology used in the box PC is standardized, for example, COM Express modules. For this reason, it was easy to start something new, says Beer.

“We want to combine the advantages of modular systems with those of a box PC.” – Mathias Beer, CEO, Ci4Rail

Thomas Kaminski, Director Product Sales and Marketing Management at Advantech, draws a comparison with the so-called Intel NUC standard. It is the only example where a company has attempted to develop a standard for industrial computers that addresses several vertical markets. “Other companies are more focused on a specific market with a standard product family,” continues Kaminski. 

Interoperability as a Major Advantage

The wide range of industrial computers available on the market raises the question of what the advantages of ModBLox7 are compared to off-the-shelf box PCs. Matthias Beer says: “What all standards achieve is to provide interoperability for the user, as well as for suppliers who manufacture products according to the new standard. This means that developers can put together a system from several suppliers. Conversely, manufacturers of ModBlox7 components can exchange and interact with each other—not everyone has to design every component themselves,” explains Beer.

Advantech is one of the largest manufacturers of industrial computer technologies such as box PCs or computer modules. The company manufactures proprietary or custom industrial PCs, but so far not in the new ModBlox7 form factor. Thomas Kaminski explains the reasons for this: “Firstly, we serve completely different markets with different requirements, and we also want to be flexible when it comes to system configuration. We also have to meet the demands of the market, for example in terms of certifications or thermal management. This often leads to a certain size, a certain housing, and a certain shape of PC. I very much doubt that all of this can be accommodated in a single standard for the various markets. However, we are keeping a very close eye on standardization,” says Kaminski.

For Matthias Beer, it was never the intention to force every application into a specific performance class or internal standard, as this was simply not possible. “It was never the intention to revolutionize the market for box PCs,” explains Beer. “Rather, we want to appeal to users of control or diagnostic systems, especially for the rail sector, which is where Ci4Rail comes from,” reports Beer.

Ci4Rail is one of the first PICMG member companies to develop and manufacture devices according to ModBlox7.

Increase Availability with ModBlox7

Another point that is currently the subject of heated debate in the field of industrial computers is processor technology. This is because they are becoming ever more powerful and energy-efficient, which is leading to new innovations on the market. “With ModBlox7, we are addressing low-end to high-end Arm as well as x86 processors up to 20-25 W. However, the standard does not provide for clusters in which two or three CPUs can be stacked. ModBlox7 is more about redundancy, for example in terms of availability,” says Beer. 

Timo Korhonen, Chief Engineer Control Systems Division at European Spallation Source ERIC, shares his experience from scientific applications: “There is always a gap between systems with high and low performance requirements,” says Korhonen. You end up with lots of different box PCs or programmable logic controllers (PLCs) in the lab that don’t fit together, he explains. Matthias Beer likes the description: “ModBlox7 fits perfectly if someone wants to do general-purpose computing and have a normal operating system”.

Final Steps of the Specification Process

Bernd Kleeberg explains which points of the specification are currently being worked on and which points still need to be discussed. “With regard to ModBlox7, we have reached the end of the specification process. The technical work is complete. We just need to take the final administrative steps and expect to be ready in the first quarter of 2024. We would like to present the finished specification to the community at embedded world 2024.”

“We would like to present the finished ModBlox7 specification to the community at embedded world 2024.” — Bernd Kleeberg, CEO and Head of Sales, EKF Elektronik GmbH

When asked about the service life of ModBlox7, Matthias Beer says it depends very much on the market. “We are active in the rail business, where a service life of at least 15 years is required. We have to be able to supply and change our product for ten years or more,” adds Beer, unlike in the automation sector, for example, where innovation cycles are shorter. The standard helps here because it offers the possibility of iterating individual parts.

There is also the question of how to achieve higher performance from ModBlox7 PCs and whether documents need to be expanded or provided for this. Matthias Beer says: “What the standard covers are additional cooling options. We are currently talking about including graphics processing units (GPUs) up to a certain level—not the 90 or 200 W versions, but up to about 30 watts, which are suitable for smaller computer vision applications or similar. We want to cover edge AI applications with this,” explains Beer.

AI Applications and ModBlox7: Do They Go Together?

Edge AI is a good keyword, as more and more AI applications are entering the market for embedded computing technology. And the question arises as to whether the opportunities on the AI market are not being taken away by standardization, as the necessary flexibility could be lost in the process. Brandon Lewis, Marketing Officer at PICMG, says: “When we talk about AI, everyone immediately thinks of GPUs, and the first thing that comes to mind is Nvidia. Of course there are other GPUs, and the question is whether GPUs can thermally fit into a small form factor standard like this,” says Lewis. Matthias Beer notes that applications are increasingly networked and that the connection between the cloud and edge devices is much more stable. This makes it very easy for developers to distribute AI applications between the two, explains Beer. 

“When we talk about AI, everyone immediately thinks of GPUs, and the first thing that comes to mind is Nvidia.” — Brandon Lewis, Marketing Officer, PICMG

Thomas Kaminski sees the opportunities in AI as one of Advantech’s biggest goals for the next few years. First and foremost, this is about capturing information and processing it at the edge. The next generations of Intel processors are very well suited for this. They have a Neural Processing Unit (NPU), scaling of the core components for more computing power, and AI efficiency. This opens many doors for edge computing. And Intel is also starting to launch its GPU cards. “We have specialized in AI at the edge with the latest generation of Intel and AMD technology,” explains Kaminski. 

“We specialize in AI at the edge, using the latest generation of Intel and AMD technology.” — Thomas Kaminski, Director of Product Sales Management, Marketing, and Technical Support at Advantech

MicroTCA Receives Update

In addition to ModBlox7, there are other PICMG standards that are along the same lines, including CompactPCI Serial and MicroTCA. MicroTCA emerged in 2006 from its predecessor AdvancedTCA and was mainly developed for the telecommunications industry for systems with high power density. In 2024, the question is to what extent the standard will play a role at all.

Timo Korhonen can speak from the perspective of scientific applications. Here, MicroTCA is used in areas that primarily process high-frequency (HF) signals, measure electromagnetic fields, or similar. He also sees a growing area of application in image processing. Jess Isquith, President of PICMG, says: “The scientific community has adopted the specification worldwide and new applications are constantly being added. A new version of the specification was even published in 2023. There is a high level of acceptance of the standard, particularly in Asia and Europe,” says Isquith. Bernd Kleeberg disagrees: “We don’t use the standard. One of the main reasons for this is that the administrative effort and associated costs are too high. That’s why we prefer other standards in industrial applications.” 

As MicroTCA was originally developed for telecommunications applications, the question currently arises as to whether it is necessary to revise the standard with regard to 5G and 6G. Jess Isquith says: “There is a problem with the connectors, because each connector can only transmit a certain amount of data. So we have to change the specification in terms of the connectors. This is a new specification because the backwards compatibility is no longer given. So we are creating a new set of specifications,” summarizes Isquith. 

There has also been a MicroTCA Technology Lab for several years, which is funded by the German government. “The employees are very committed and develop frameworks, standard products, and reference designs,” Isquith adds. 

Timo Korhonen adds: “I have been working on this project committee for ten years. We rely on a lot of input from outside, from industry, and from our partner laboratories across Europe. The dilemma here is that, on the one hand, you want to be at the cutting edge of technology, but on the other hand you have to be able to maintain the system because you can’t replace everything when something new comes along. So the longevity of the standard is very, very important,” says Korhonen.

“The long service life of the MicroTCA standard is very, very important.” — Timo Korhonen, Chief Engineer in the Control Systems Division at European Spallation Source ERIC

CompactPCI Serial as a Perennial Favorite

Another PICMG standard also aimed at modular systems is CompactPCI Serial, which was ratified in 2011. In contrast to classic CompactPCI, CompactPCI Serial no longer uses the parallel Peripheral Component Interconnect (PCI) bus, but instead relies on modern high-speed serial interfaces.

The specification is soon to be extended to 4th generation PCI Express, explains Bernd Kleeberg, one of the initiators of the standard. Kleeberg adds: “The new specification is almost ready and we will publish it in the near future. Among other things, it includes an extension of the backplane connections to 25 or 40 Gigabit Ethernet and the USB ports to up to 10 Gigabit Ethernet. The connection for the CPU card will be changed, but the form factor will remain Horizontal Pitch (HP), so developers can use peripheral cards as before,” explains Kleeberg. In addition, work is already underway on the next version of the specification, which will support up to PCIe Gen 5. However, the form factor will have to be adapted somewhat due to the connector size, says Kleeberg.

“CompactPCI Serial is an interoperable modular standard that fulfills all the objectives of PICMG,” explains Jess Isquith proudly. However, the standard is not as widespread as expected. With the new version of the specification, PICMG has the opportunity to conquer the market anew. The standard is alive and only needs to be technically revised. 

“CompactPCI Serial is an interoperable, modular standard that fulfills all the objectives of the PICMG.” — Jessica Isquith, President, PICMG

There is also a new organization, the “Open Group”, which is working on new applications for CompactPCI Serial. “120 companies and organizations have come together to develop a forum for open process automation and to consider how we can introduce standards in this industry. New members such as Exxon Mobil, Schneider Electric, and a handful of others who have never been involved with PICMG are leading by example. We are seeing more and more potential applications for CompactPCI Serial. Other members are also getting involved and contributing their expertise to the new group. This is a very interesting new experience for all PIGMG member companies,” Jess Isquith concludes the discussions.

This article was originally published in Markt und Technik, issue 7/2024: https://wfm-publish.blaetterkatalog.de/frontend/mvc/catalog/by-name/MUT?catalogName=MUT2407D

January 18, 2024

MicroTCA.0 Revision 3 Delivers 4x Performance Improvement with 100 Gigabit Ethernet, PCIe Gen 5 in up to 12 Slots

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Latest MicroTCA revision adds high-bandwidth interfaces and increased TDP to prepare the specification for demanding next-generation edge and server workloads

WAKEFIELD, MA. PICMG, a leading consortium for the development of open embedded computing specifications, has ratified Revision 3.0 of the MicroTCA.0 (µTCA.0) specification. This new release addresses urgent bandwidth requirements by defining 100 GbE and PCIe Gen 5 fabrics that improve system performance by 4x while also expanding platform thermal design power (TDP), enabling the use of higher performance processors. Users can now select from a range of specification-compliant building blocks and solutions that allow for more power per slot for higher transfer rates within µTCA chassis and to external systems and server clusters. It also lays the foundation for building next-generation MicroTCA proofs of concept.

Revision 3 of MTCA.0 addresses the current and future demands of applications such as machine vision, AI, defense, research, instrumentation, wireless communication, and emerging applications like quantum computing. “Revision 3 of MTCA.0 addresses urgent requirements and thus enables companies to now provide specification-compliant solutions rather than proprietary or custom approaches,” says Heiko Korte of NAT Europe and lead of PICMG’s MicroTCA Technical Working Group. “The fact that so many MicroTCA ecosystem suppliers have joined the working group shows the importance of the changes and also underlines the strong interest to make these part of an open specification.

“The broad spectrum of participants also ensured that every single agenda item got reviewed from different angles and properly discussed,” he adds.

MicroTCA.0 Revision 3.0-compliant solutions will be available shortly, including chassis, MicroTCA Carrier Hub (MCH), Advanced Mezzanine Card (AMC), Rear Transition Module (RTM), and power modules (PM) products from VadaTech, NAT, AIES Sp z o.o., nVent SCHROFF, and others. The commitment of existing vendors to continuing the development of µTCA products is joined by increased interest from players in emerging fields like quantum computing, projecting a healthy lifecycle for the open computing specification for years to come.

“VadaTech is proud to have been part of the development and ratification of revision 3 of the uTCA specification,” says Alex Malcom, Managing Director of VadaTech Ltd. “Its release secures the continued adoption of the standard by commercial, scientific and defense organizations around the world.”

The MicroTCA.0 Revision 3.0 specification can be accessed at www.picmg.org/product/micro-telecommunications-computing-architecture-base-specification. For more information on the MicroTCA family, visit https://www.picmg.org/openstandards/microtca.


Founded in 1994, PICMG is a not-for-profit 501(c) consortium of companies and organizations that collaboratively develop open standards for high performance industrial, Industrial IoT, military & aerospace, telecommunications, test & measurement, medical, and general-purpose embedded computing applications. There are over 130 member companies that specialize in a wide range of technical disciplines, including mechanical and thermal design, single board computer design, high-speed signaling design and analysis, networking expertise, backplane, and packaging design, power management, high availability software and comprehensive system management.


Key standards families developed by PICMG include COM-HPC, COM Express, CompactPCI, AdvancedTCA, MicroTCA, AdvancedMC, CompactPCI Serial, SHB Express, MicroSAM, and HPM (Hardware Platform Management). https://www.picmg.org.

November 29, 2023

PICMG 2023 in Review: Specs, Specs and More Specs

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By Jessica Isquith, President, PICMG

The end of every calendar year provides an opportunity to reflect on our achievements and shortcomings. But as 2023 draws to a close, I’m nothing short of astonished with what our membership has accomplished.

Seven specifications have reached significant milestones this year alone:

  1. COM-HPC 1.2. The latest and most advanced COM on the market was upgraded (to a smaller size) with the release of the COM-HPC 1.2 spec revision. Dubbed COM-HPC “Mini”, the 95 mm x 60 mm platform loses a connector compared to its fellow COM-HPC form factors, but still delivers 400 pins for carrying high-speed signals from the processor module to carrier boards.
  2. COM Express 3.1. The established leader in the computer-on-module (COM) market upgraded interfaces to provide increased speed and bandwidth over the previous generation. This will keep the specification compatible with leading-edge processor technologies.
  3. MicroTCA R3.0. MicroTCA continues its 15-year evolution, as Revision 3.0 of the specification add 100 GbE and PCIe Gen 5 interfaces to cement the open platform in high-energy physics and scientific research, communications, and medical applications for years to come. MicroTCA is also a favorite of Quantum Computing startups, many of whom have already adopted the standard in their R&D efforts.
  4. ModBlox7. The first open standard Box PC, ModBlox7, is in its final review phase and expected to be ratified by Q1 2024. It’s modularity, flexibility, and scalability is poised to address the demands of today’s industrial and transportation use cases.
  5. IoT Specs. PICMG’s IoT specification efforts continue to expand as work with Redfish APIs was formally adopted by the DMTF. With continued effort and adoption, the IoT.x family of specifications will enable sensor-to-controller-and-beyond data transparency that will drive the need for and application of compute intelligence at the edge.
  6. CompactPCI Serial Extension. CompactPCI, one of the original PICMG specifications, lives on in the form of CompactPCI Serial. A specification extension adds PCI Express Gen 4, 100 GbE, and support for other modern serial signals. The upgraded performance will allow CompactPCI Serial Extensions to keep targeting industry and transportation platforms where it has been successful for decades.
  7. InterEdge. InterEdge defines a set of specifications for process and automation control for the rugged far edge. This effort is a collaboration between PICMG and OPAF of the OpenGroup and backed by leaders in the energy and industrial markets. It is scheduled for release in early Q1.

All these accomplishments set PICMG up for an exciting 2024, which also happens to be the consortiums 30th anniversary of developing open embedded computing standards. With multiple new specifications primed to enter the industry, we’re looking forward to keeping up the momentum we’ve built over the last calendar year thanks to the hard work and determination of our member companies.

In addition to thanking existing members for their consistent contributions, we invite non-member companies to become part of the specification development process by joining and participating in PICMG. Through collaboration, significant problems are being solved that are reshaping multiple industries with open, interoperable solutions that enable thousands of embedded solutions to reach the market in an efficient and timely fashion.