Electronic Design

Low-Risk COTS Keeps A Cutting Edge

COTS (commercial-off-the-shelf) products represent dependable, predictable, long-term solutions. But they also can deliver cutting-edge technology—and it doesn't take an expert to build a complete custom solution. COTS can provide the hardware base for software developers to deliver new products, and a hardware platform for adding custom hardware.

COTS covers a wide range of products. Yet as a group, it has fared better than most of the electronics industry, because many parts have been gutted due to changing economics.

Its success can be traced to two factors. First, COTS-enabled developers can deliver solutions with less development risk and overhead because they were involved in creating only a fraction of the necessary hardware and software. The second factor was the availability of the latest technology.

MOTHERBOARDS AND MODULES
PCI Express is driving new initiatives in the motherboard and module space. It will become the mainstay for PC motherboards this year as adapters migrate to the new platform. As for high-performance video adapters, they're moving from the aging advanced graphics port (AGP) to multilane PCI Express.

COM Express, a late entry in 2004, is expected to bring the latest technologies to module-based solutions. It blends serial interface technologies, including PCI Express, Serial ATA (SATA), Gigabit Ethernet, and Universal Serial Bus (USB). A number of companies, such as Kontron and its ETX Express product line, support it (Fig. 1).

For motherboards, smaller size is the name of the game. The compact Micro-ITX form factor is spawning a tinier cousin, dubbed Nano-ITX. It's targeted at even smaller COTS applications. Likewise, the microATX standard allows more conventional PCs to be built as reduced slot solutions. Motherboards incorporate more functions than ever, eliminating the need for adapters for network or audio services.

PCI Express isn't the only peripheral standard coming of age, though. HTX adapters provide an off-board link for HyperTransport-based processors.

SWITCHING NOW OR LATER
Switched backplanes are graduating from the research lab and standards committees to full product this year. Technologies like 10-Gbit Ethernet, RapidIO, and InfiniBand provide high-performance interconnects in larger multiprocessor systems. Advanced Switching is in the wings, ready to exploit the now-available PCI Express hardware.

Advanced TCA is taking off with products like Radisys' Advanced TCA system (Fig. 2). Gigabit Ethernet dominated last year, but this will likely change as faster hardware becomes more readily available. Nonetheless, watch for 10-Gbit Ethernet to emerge as a major player in switched backplane systems.

The Advanced Mezzanine Card proposal should see the light of day this year, making Advanced TCA much more intriguing. The hot-swappable solution can pack up to eight cards into an Advanced TCA carrier board. It will be interesting to see if AMC cards will be used to build systems in their own right.

VME continues to dominate a wide variety of markets, including military applications. Products like Curtis-Wright Controls Embedded Computing's dual-processor, single-board computer continue to produce the kind of performance and reliability necessary for rugged environments (Fig. 3).

The growing availability of chips that implement higher-speed parallel bus implementations, such as the 2eSST Source Synchronous Transfer, gives significant breathing room to VME. Switch fabrics are still part of VME's future, including products already being delivered. But it's one area where parallel and serial solutions are expected to coexist for quite some time. Standards such as the VITA-42 XMC (Switched Mezzanine Card) will continue to round out the serial interconnect area.

Also, CompactPCI is doing better all the time. It's matching the serial interconnect standards of Advanced TCA and VME while retaining a base for parallel PCI/PCI-X interfaces.

HARDWARE ACCELERATION
COTS modular solutions are a boon to growing technologies such as XML-based protocol switching and security hardware add-ons. Rapidly rising network performance requires high-level packet-switching support to keep pace. Plug-in adapters offer a solution by quickly incorporating hardware acceleration without major system redesign.

LITTLE PACKAGES
Express Card plugfests are finally here, heralding the arrival of real products. Hopefully, though, these will disappear as Express Cards replace the PCMCIA market. Use of PCI Express and USB has the potential to provide lower-cost, higher-performance removable solutions in the embedded space as motherboards, modules, and processors migrate to PCI Express, and USB becomes the de facto external peripheral interconnect.

WIRELESS CONFUSION
Standards change so fast in the wireless space, which is good and bad news for COTS vendors and users. On the plus side, availability of products for 802.11 standards is high, and vendors can bear the cost of moving to new WiFi standards. On the downside, vendors are hesitant to deliver products too soon should a standard go south or a market not appear.

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