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Industrial computers Amplicon

Industrial computers are already the natural choice for many varied applications. From ATE to security, these systems provide a robust expandable platform, but with the arrival of PCI Express in the IT market over a year ago and more recently dual core processors, what can we expect next?

Way back in 1994 a group called PCI Industrial Computer Manufacturing Group (PICMG) was founded. This consortium of over 450 companies has since defined and developed the open specifications for high performance industrial computing and telecommunications applications. Collectively, PICMG members have a long history of developing leading edge products for these industries. PICMG specifications include CompactPCI for Eurocard, rackmount applications and PCI/ISA for passive backplane, standard format cards.

Prior to the PICMGs conception, the selection of an industrial computer system often meant committing to a bespoke system. Today you don’t have to tie yourself to one line of supply.

One of the earliest standards formed by the PICMG group was PICMG No. 1.0 PCI/ISA. This defined both the single board computer (CPU card) and backplane. A year later it was followed up with PICMG No. 1.1 giving provision for PCI-PCI bridging. This allowed backplanes to have high numbers of PCI slots. In industry a wide range of backplanes became available with different mixes of PCI and ISA expansion slots, to suit different applications and expansion cards. The primary benefits of a backplane and card arrangement was to lower MTTR, make upgrades easier and allow more cards to be added to one system.

More recently PICMG 1.2 Embedded PCI-X (ePCI-X) was released. This gave provision for PCI and PCI-X expansion slots, with support for ISA expansion cards being dropped. Due to the high cost of PCI-X and associated design complexities, the number of PCI-X cards available in the marketplace is low. Those that are available are often very specialist, high cost and demand the extra bandwidth PCI-X can provide. For these reasons this standard has not been widely adopted by industrial computer users.

For the majority of industrial computer users, the next big thing will be the arrival of PICMG 1.3 SHB PCI Express. Whilst the main aim of the new standard is to bring the PCI Express bus to industrial computers it’s also expected to provide backward compatibility in the form of PCI slots and ISA slots. Industrial computer users are often reluctant to give up using existing ISA cards. In Industry there’s an ‘if it’s not broke don’t fix it’ ethos. This coupled with small quantities means that it’s not often economically viable to redesign cards away from the ISA bus. So this new standard means that the very latest high performance PCI Express expansion and graphics cards can be used with existing PCI/ISA cards. This enables system integrators to migrate to the latest platform whilst still providing support for existing systems using the new platform.

Whilst the new PICMG 1.3 SHB PCI Express standard potentially looks very promising one of the difficulties will be selecting the slot mix, i.e. the number ISA, PCI or PCI Express slots in the system will be defined by the applications. But what manufacturers offer initially when the specifications are finally approved will be limited, and may not suit all requirements.


reliability and repeatability Amplicon

In industry repeatability, reliability and performance are key factors, and whilst price is important, it’s not given as much priority. As Industrial computers are largely x86 based they often share the same component base as the commercial sectors. In recent years, key silicon vendors have recognised the importance of the Industrial field and now provide long-term support to ensure repeatability.

Perhaps of no surprise is that Intel leads the way in supporting the industrial computing user. Many years ago Intel established its Embedded division. This division focused on providing long terms support to certain processors and chipsets, enabling manufacturers to design products where they can confidently expect to be able to provide a minimum 5-year life cycle.

An example is that whilst the commercial mainstream processors such as the PIII may be considered old hat and obsolete, in industry they soldier on and provide plenty of computing power for many applications.
Intel is so committed to product longevity, that it is still possible to obtain a 386 or even a 186 processor!
VIA also offer a range of processors that provide long-term availability, which are the Eden and C3 CPU’s and associated chipset such as the CLE266.

Even AMD are getting in on act, with the acquisition of National Semiconductors Geode range. AMD have shown their commitment to the embedded market with the release of the new Geode LX 800, a 500MHz x86 CPU with a maximum power consumption of just 2.4W.

Although the support from the main silicon vendors for the major ICs is strong, manufacturers still sometimes experience difficulty with of some associated lesser components onboard. These can some times start to cause difficulty towards the back end of products life

In recent years a problem for industrial computers has been the advent of ever increasingly power hungry CPUs. Whilst many users don’t take in to consideration power consumption as part of the total cost of ownership, the fact that it is hot enough to cook an egg on does raise an eyebrow. When Intel launched the Prescott Pentium 4 we saw CPU power consumption rise to over 100W, making the task of removing the heat generated even harder. However, there are low power alternatives that can almost rival the performance and even be used with no CPU fan.

The benefit of going ‘fanless’ is that you can eliminate an obvious mechanical point of failure, another benefit is a reduction in noise. For some applications, such as medical, this is ideal and necessary. Intel’s Pentium M processor can provide Pentium 4 level performance with just a 4th of the power consumption, and the Celeron M provides Pentium III level performance. Bother processors draw less than 25W power and there are also Low Voltage versions that draw under 11W making them ideal for fanless applications.

Looking further ahead, it is rumoured that Intel will apply its dual core technology to the Pentium M processor, and will go even further by enabling the processor to be used in dual CPU mode. Potentially, this will enable very low powered quad CPU system to be deployed, which would suit vision processing based systems.


MOre information Amplicon

If you would like more information please contact our sales engineers on 01273 570 220 or email

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