Electronic Design

Universal Graphics Module: The New Standard For Graphics Control Modules

The demand from embedded applications for high-performance graphics has increased dramatically as larger flat-panel displays have become readily available and very desirable components are integrated in systems ranging from medical imaging to point-of-sale. Yet interface reliability, interchangeability, and long-term availability have been sticking points for designers in choosing which controller to use.

Embedded designers needed a simple, slim-line graphics controller card that can augment the abilities of any already integrated graphics controller, such as the integrated graphics on some Intel advanced chip sets. But this card also would have to still allow for future design flexibility. Thus, the idea of the Universal Graphics Module (UGM), which could plug into a system carrier board, was born.

The UGM offers long-term availability and tailored, scalable, high-end PEG graphics. Created by Kontron and XGI, the standard defines an 84- by 95-mm universal graphics- on-module (Fig. 1). It supplies monitors with all the desired current and future graphics card signals.

Unlike the conventional graphics-card mounting, where the card is installed at a 90° angle to the baseboard, the UGM is plugged in parallel to the baseboard. This saves space, allowing for extremely flat and custom scalable designs.

Users can take advantage of the UGM’s long-term which at least three to five years. It also offers extremely simple and quick implementation of the graphics functions in customized designs, including tested and reliable graphics drivers.

UGM cards receive PCI-Express signals and video signals via the 220 pins of the connector over one, four, eight, or 16 lanes (PEG), which are also used in the design of Kontron’s COM Express-compliant ETXexpress computer- on-modules. The UGM card processes the signals, including video capture functions and up to 512 Mbytes of DRAM. It then delivers the converted signals back to the baseboard, via the same 220-pin connector.

Extremely short life cycles where vendors discontinue graphics cards after just a few months is one the greatest troubles in developing solutions around non-UGM controllers. These cards typically target the consumer market, where long life is not as important. But this is just the beginning of the problems associated with consumer-market graphics cards.

Frequent driver updates, high power consumption, and limited mean times before failure due to active cooling solution failure are some of the other points of difficulty for embedded designers. Additionally, most conventional graphics cards must be installed at a 90° angle to the system baseboard. This not only uses excessive space, it also opens up additional points for failure.

The UGM alleviates these troubles. The parallel mounting of the UGM to the system baseboard ensures good signal integrity and minimizes failure. No cables are needed either. Also, tested and reliable graphics drivers are available for the UGM. To address the long life-cycle requirement of embedded applications, UGMs are designed to support three- to five-year life cycles.

Let’s look at an example of an application that can benefit from the integration of UGM within a system. A point of information system needs to run multiple independent displays from a single subsystem. If the computing core of the system is already taking advantage of dual-display support (1x analog and 1x LVDS) from the chip set, we can expand the graphics capabilities with the addition of a UGM. The LVDS and analog graphics signals are retained, and two DVI signals are added in care of the UGM. Thus, the system can now drive four displays from the single system via the UGM.

With the introduction of the UGM standards and products that follow it, the true advantages of the modular design concept now include the system’s graphics (Fig. 2). Embedded solutions can take advantage of the same capabilities as the commercial space, but without the hassles. The new UGM standard now paves the way for more embedded applications in a wide range of usage areas to integrate more advanced graphics and display elements.

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