Top 5 Reasons You Should Care About PC/104 in 2020 and Beyond

Press Office, VersaLogic Corporation, 04/14/20

It’s a valid question to ask why someone would design using a form factor that was originally created way back in 1987, especially in a world where consumer electronics have conditioned us to expect the latest and greatest in technology each and every year.

But, when talking about industrial, military and medical applications, there are still plenty of valid reasons why the PC/104 platform remains strong in 2020 and into the future.

Ask yourself – is working with a product that’s stable, reliable, flexible, expandable, rugged and supported with a long (10+ year) product lifecycle – something you’re looking for in your next system design? If so, check out PC/104 single board computers and see how it stacks up!

The PC/104 form factor is stackable, rugged, compact, and familiar. The benefits are many, but we’ve compiled our top five:

#1 – Rugged & Reliable

rugged single board computer with AMD Geode LX800 processorLong before Raspberry Pi and Arduino, PC/104 computers got their start and quickly became widely adopted as the standard for industrial rugged embedded computers. Unlike a Raspberry Pi and Arduino, PC/104 was designed to function reliably at temperatures from -40° to +85°C and withstand shock and vibration to MIL-STD-202, making PC/104 the perfect choice for a wide range of industrial and military applications.

VersaLogic has been designing and manufacturing rugged, reliable PC/104 computers (like the EPM-14 Cougar, shown right) from the very beginning, and we utilize that 30 years of experience to deliver quality PC/104 products that have extremely long MTBF (Mean Time Between Failure). That means, regardless of the conditions, when you need it to work, VersaLogic PC/104 computers deliver!

#2 – Long Lasting (Long-Term Availability)

Technology is like a river, always flowing and winding its way through the landscape. Some places are raging, full of rapids and rough water, but if you’re willing to take the risk or aren’t concerned about the outcome, those spots are fast and exciting!

Industries like medical device manufacturing also have to navigate the river of technology, but their desires are different than the fastest ride. They want to enter the water at the right spot, where it’s calm, tested and most of the dangers are known. They want to look downstream and see a long, stable stretch of water that they can rely on during their journey through the regulatory waters of building medical devices.

VersaLogic has been a long time supplier to medical device manufacturing companies all over the world, providing stable, reliable and long term platforms (like the EPM-16 TomCat) to help companies that value long term availability navigate the waters.

Using VersaLogic’s MCOTS programs to supply customized products (as needed), lock a board revision or freeze a BOM, along with outstanding Supply Chain Management that keeps an eye out for rough water, notifies you of problems or changes, and anticipates customer requirements by stocking critical component inventory needed to keep delivering you boards for years (or even decades) and help keep in the waters calm. Let VersaLogic be your guide for long term availability.

#3 – Vast Ecosystem

What does PC 104 even mean? Well, PC means Personal Computer (this did start in the 80’s after all) and 104 is in reference to the 104 pin ISA Bus connector that was used in the original design.

pc 104 consortium logo

As a result of the standard being adopted by the PC/104 Consortium, hundreds of vendors began making every type of add-on (stack on) accessory you can think of, from common needs like additional serial communication ports (CAN, RS-232, RS-485, Fieldbus, Aviation Bus, etc.), to adding digital I/O control, analog inputs and outputs, relay control to more specific needs like frame grabbers, digital signal processor (DSP), servo control, digital resolvers, and other more specific or custom designed PC/104 modules.

Over the last 30 years, that eco-system of add-on options has only continued to grow to meet the needs of the market and the PC/104 form factor specification has grown to keep pace with advancing technology requirements. The format was updated with the PCI Bus, to increase bandwidth, and later with a PCIe interface to increase the bandwidth even further. Each generation supported by an ever-widening ecosystem.

The PC/104 ecosystem supports new projects by providing access to off-the-shelf solutions for most processor and I/O needs. This drastically reduces development time, time to market, while keeping the project upgradeable over time.

By working with a long term availability partner, like VersaLogic, you can reduce obsolescence risk, as well as having a standardized path for migration (if needed). The PC/104 ecosystem allows you to focus your efforts, energy and resources into what matters most: your own IP and system development.

#4 – Size Matters

SWaP (Size, Weight and Power) is one of the fundamental principles on which the PC/104 form factor was founded. The idea was simple enough, take the power of the “Personal Computer” and make a format that is smaller, more rugged and consumed as little power as possible to meet the demands of the industry.

Like with all technology, the pressure to make the next generation of embedded computers smaller and more powerful, fueled by the explosion of miniaturization in electronics over the last 30 years has led to the introduction of many other single board computer standards and sizes.

Form factors such as mini ITX (VIA 2001), NUC (Intel, 2013), Nano ITX (VIA, 2003), ETX (Kontron, 2005) and even COM Express (which isn’t a single board computer and requires a development or custom baseboard) which was later released in 2005 by another group of companies making up the PICMG consortium which started in 1994 and of course, the latest, Raspberry Pi (which is NOT an industrial computer).

All of these formats found homes and uses, some more than others, and many were heralded as a replacement for PC/104 computers, signaling that the end was near. It turns out few of these formats were actually smaller than PC/104 (90mm x 96mm) footprint; they generally used the same processors (or often parts rated only for commercial temperatures) and offered much of the same performance, but in most cases consumed more power and had shorter lifecycles.

For those that were smaller, they lacked the necessary features, expansion and durability. None of them could address the rugged, stackable expansion that PC/104 offers or came with the huge eco-system of expansion options.

If size matters to you and the principles of SWaP apply to your next project, take a look at VersaLogic’s line up of low, mid and high performance PC/104 single board computers. VersaLogic is committed to supporting the thousands of design engineers that have built tens of thousands of systems used around the world today in difficult environments performing critical functions.

#5 – Not Just ISA Anymore

Why would I use a standard built around the ISA Bus…you say? Well, it was the access to ISA bus expansion, with its flexible, rugged stack-ability, that made PC/104 so successful. Those advantages continue today as the PC/104 standard has grown to include the PCI bus and the PCI Express bus (Gen 1, 2, and 3).

Designing with PC/104 today doesn’t mean using the ISA bus. The continued development of the standard and the incorporation of newer features like on-boards eMMC or soldered down RAM continue the legacy of ruggedness in a small size.

Additional expansion options like mini PCIe socket(s) can be used for flexible add-on modules like high capacity solid state storage (mSATA), GPS, PoE, AIO, DIO, Serial Communication (RS232, RS422, RS485, CAN), Wi-Fi, Cellular and many more.

Pair a reliable and stable single board computer, like the VersaLogic EPMe-30 (Bengal), with its PCIe (OneBank) expansion bus with a 4-port mini PCIe board; giving you up to 5 sockets for flexible mini PCIe expansion, all in a space of roughly 90mm x 96mm x 50mm, that can you can trust in a hostile environment and count on being available for years (or decades) to come.

The Future is From the Past – PC/104 Computers

VersaLogic is committed to building rugged PC/104 single board computers. Many of us have worked our whole lives along that stretch of the technological river where stability and reliability are valued, like Old Man River with his long white beard, full of wisdom and knowledge of the past with an eye towards the rivers turns ahead. rugged single board computer with Intel Kaby Lake processor

What lies ahead? Depending on your needs the future could already be here. For example: the EPMe-42 (Lion), shown right, delivers Intel Core i7 performance with PCI/104-Express OneBank expansion. This king of the jungle delivers outstanding performance in a small package at only 12-13.5W depending on the model, with its flexibility and longevity available for many years.

But, just as in the past, the latest demands of many rugged, real-world applications being developed for the market today are pushing (just like they did with desktops before) for access to more performance and features.

VersaLogic is already working on developing products for that future and you’ll be able to read more about our progress around those future bends in the PC/104 river in future blog entries.

Meeting the Challenges of the Future

VersaLogic stands ready to meet the challenges of today and tomorrow. We’re here to help – reach out to our application engineers to discuss your project needs, whether it’s two months from now or further downstream.

Check back soon for additional information on VersaLogic’s further developments in PC/104. You can subscribe to VersaLogic’s newsletter to be among the first to know, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn, or contact us today to discuss your requirements!