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Choosing a Right Computer on Module Partner

by Maheshwari, Head - Product design services
 

Introduction

I have always been faced with a question whether or not this is a right Computer on Module Company to partner with. Well, here is a checklist to help you determine the COM partner.

Target Usage

It is important to identify the applications for which a COM is going to be used. Customers always have a range of applications and would want to have the Computer on Module working across their different applications. It is obvious that one does not want to develop expertise with the different COMs and would want to spend time on the target applications. Think about the applications you will be probably deploying in the next couple of years and see whether the COM can fit in there. Once this is done short list the companies that provide these COMs that meet your requirements.

Life Time

Some applications like Defence demand that you have life time for at least up to 10 years. The customer might order a few thousand pieces after 7 years of production. This is probably one of the challenging ones that a module manufacturer faces as he has to depend on the processor manufacturer for the life time. And unless the processor manufacturer is really committed to that processor, there is no guarantee that he would be continuing the production of the same. The processor has to be supported with huge volumes to stay in production. With the silicon manufacturing process improving at this break-neck speed, the fabrication technology of today becomes obsolete day-after-tomorrow and hence the older processors using older fabrication technology are difficult to produce or tend to be costly in the long run. It would be too much to ask the module manufacturer for a life time of 10 years but see whether he is interested to provide a pin to pin compatible module after the lifetime with similar capabilities.

 

This I think is reasonable and most module manufacturers provide this. So do not slog away if the lifetime doesn't match your expectations, ask the manufacturer if you can get a pin to pin compatible module and if you look at their history you will probably able to figure out this.

 

Some Applications like Medical demand that there is no change in process or components used in the COM for at least 5 years. With the memory and processes technology developing at lighting speed it becomes a very big challenge for the COM partner to provide such a guarantee. Hence at this juncture it is important that you choose a COM partner who can keep you well informed of the changes happening in the COM and BSP. It is important that you check on the production process certification of the COM. It needs to be ISO9001 certified and in the case of medical domain, it needs to be ISO13485 certified. If this is been checked, then the changes related to COM shall be intimated to you. But you need to check with your COM Partner about the timeline for such intimation so that it shall help you in your process.

Support

This is the most important thing to see whether the COM Company has thorough documentation in their website to support their module. For customers interested in designing a custom baseboard using a COM, having a set of application notes on usage of the COM from the COM vendor would be of great help as it would place you on the next orbit of the production design directly. Sometimes you may find the documentation is old and not updated. This is a sign that there is not enough done for customer support. Check whether the company provides you ticketing support in case you have queries. This is another feature that is necessary and would come to play when you design custom carrier boards around the COM.
 
 Support System
Figure 1: Support Systems(Click to Zoom)
 
You might have multiple queries and you need to make sure that it might be a chain of email exchanges and probably you would need a log of them, So, I recommend tickets system for support. Another thing is that you have to look for is design support. You need to know if the COM Company backed up by a solid design team that can support your stuff like custom carrier board schematics review. Before you buy the Evaluation boards ask the COM Company as what is the support they provide. Some companies offer free support for a carrier board schematics review, PCB design review.

Reference Designs

Also, check the availability of the design materials of the reference designs using the COM from the COM manufacturer. This will help a lot in custom design. As every manufacturer offers reference design for any of the chip they make, availability of design materials such as schematics, PCB layout files of the daughter board from the COM vendor would be useful, especially while designing a daughter board using their COM.

 

Some COM Vendors release community boards using their COM. The BSP for the boards gets updated quite often and their support for you at a later point of time would not be possible. Also the BSP might not be a production ready and it requires quite an amount of work to get the BSP to be production ready and qualified. Hence sometimes it becomes imperative for you to choose a BSP supported by Independent software Vendors which becomes a substantial development cost.

Certification

In today's world where time to market is an important factor for product success, it is very important that COM is FCC complaint. So you must check if the COM that you are selecting is FCC compliant. If you are designing a product which has WiFi inbuilt, it might be necessary for you to change the antenna for several reasons. In that case, the FCC demands certain wireless related test to be repeated. To cater to such needs, it is important that you check with your partner that he can give you full support to get your product certified.

Partner Status

If you choose Windows Embedded or WinCE as your Operating System, it is good to have a COM partner who has Gold Partner status. This would mean accreditation by someone on their potential.

BSP Quality

Whatever may be the OS, one has to know whether or not the COM Company provides enough documentation on their BSP Features. It is very important to ask for Release Notes of the BSP before selecting it.

 

You don't want to spend too much time on debugging the BSP. You would ideally want to spend more time on writing your application that will achieve the marketing specification. Read the release notes carefully before selecting the BSP and the COM.

BSP Version

At this time of publishing this article, it is advantageous to have Android KitKat or Lollipop based product. The look and feel of the product can be substantially improved when using the latest OS and it can be important selling point when it is GUI based product. Also the latest BSP will have support for latest features and latest drivers so support for latest peripherals. This is true for Linux, Android and Windows. Because the peripheral vendors may not be able to support all the old operating systems.

 

You need to check with your COM partner if he can support the latest version of OS.

BSP Source

No Software is bug free or perfect software. There will always be improvements to make, especially now, when the web and mobile technology like Android evolves at such a blistering pace and when the end-users' expectations evolve and continuously change, requiring for continuous improvement. So you would need to have access of the complete source for debugging any issues and adding new features to the BSP.

 

This may not be needed for most of the customers but having an option to license the source is an important factor. So see whether the COM company is willing to do that.

Sample Applications

Check whether the evaluation board has got sample applications for the peripherals you are interested in. if you are good in 'C', you can choose Linux as the OS. If you are familiar with C# then Windows CE with .NET compact frame work is the better option. See whether the COM Company is offering application on top of .NET compact Framework or Java applications for Android.

 

When I say application, it is has several layers involved. For example: To write an ADC application on Android, its needs to have support for driver, Hardware abstraction layer, Framework and then application. So it would be easy if you start with some sample rather than from the scratch.

Pricing

While choosing a module, pricing is one of the key factors. However, other than pricing of the module in various volume categories, you need to look for.

 

 
  • What is the cost of loading my target image into the COM during production? This is often missed and it is better to discuss this upfront with the COM Company. A customer would want to load your target applications also so that it can be shipped directly from the factory. This might also save you the application loading cost. So talk to the company about loading the Kernel, file system and application binaries as the modules during production. There are hidden costs and the cost of the module should be calculated on the basis of this.
  • Runtime license loading - Does the COM Company offer runtime license loading on the module. This saves your time and hence cost.
  • Review of schematics - What is the cost of reviewing carrier board schematics? Some of the COM companies provide it free and hence if your COM Company is charging for it, it has to be added to the price of the module.
  • Support Hours cost - What is the cost of support hours? You cannot discount this cost and need to factor this too.

 

In all, pricing is very important, but at the volumes that COMs are procured, the unit price does not impact very much. But choosing a lowest cost COM that is not supported well or supported at exorbitant cost, would be disaster to the company that is planning to use such low cost module. With the goal being to get the product in to market faster using the COM, one should understand that though the module cost is marginally higher, it is the support (even paid-support) availability is the key criteria than rock-bottom cost COMs with little or no support.

 
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