You hear the term “small form factor” a lot in the world of industrial computing and it has become one of those phrases used to describe a huge range of products. I’ve been working with OnLogic for over 5 years, and small form factor standards have certainly evolved over time. With the ever-changing nature of the computer industry as a whole, the idea of what constitutes a small form factor device continues to evolve as well. So, what exactly is the definition of small form factor, and where might the industry be headed in the coming years?
Small form factor computers are most commonly classified by their motherboard form factor, as shown. Image: VIA Mini-ITX Form Factor Comparison by VIA.
One staple PC form factor that has remained extremely popular is Mini-ITX. First developed by VIA in 2001 as a concept to showcase their processors, Mini-ITX took off and became the go-to solution for small form factor system builders. Much of it’s success can be attributed to the fact that Mini-ITX stuck close to the width of your standard tower computer but lopped off the excess length, meaning that you could achieve the same I/O within a small footprint. Mini-ITX offers a compact alternative to full size ATX systems, but without sacrificing much in the way of connectivity and capabilities.
I like to parallel this trend in the tech industry to the mobile phone industry, and the way phones continued to get smaller and smaller to the point that they were irritating and straining to use. Mini-ITX strikes a perfect balance of form and function which makes it ideal for embedded applications in both size and flexibility.
Nano-ITX and Pico-ITX Computers
Nano-ITX and Pico-ITX motherboards were released shortly after the Mini-ITX platform debuted, but did not take off in large part due to a lack of the same careful balance that Mini-ITX was able to maintain; the smaller the platform becomes the less I/O and features it can support. We are finally getting to a point of discontinuing our last Pico-ITX motherboard because our customers find that all of the pin headers needed to enable additional I/O can shake loose in industrial applications.
Intel NUC Computers – The Next Unit of Computing
Recently released by Intel, the Intel NUC was initially launched with a multitude of digital I/O that made it ideal for both consumer (e.g. HTPC) and commercial (e.g. Digital Signage) use. We’ve since seen both Intel and other motherboard manufacturers produce boards that include up to two LAN ports which have opened the doors to other applications such as networking and data acquisition.
Not to toot our own horn, but OnLogic has really helped progress this form factor to the next level by working closely with Intel to engineer designs such as the ML300, and more recently the ML100, which can incorporate UPS power supplies and COM ports, making them ideal for industrial environments.
With Intel leading the charge we’ve seen simple, plug-and-play computers, or compute sticks, gaining popularity in the last year. However, particularly among our clients, we’ve found that this form factor has some inherent flaws. With it’s small size, it can be easily removed from a direct-plug application, which makes it a vulnerability for digital signage applications. Compute sticks also feature limited I/O, drastically inhibiting their connectivity. We’ve also found that these systems are still in the early stages of development and have not been able to maintain the thermal performance that would allow them to withstand challenging computing environments, at least not the type that many of our clients face.
Proprietary Form Factors and Other Standards
Every year we find new proprietary form factors being released. In many cases by integrated solution providers who make their boards unique to their enclosure. These are great if you want to have an off the shelf computer that meets your specifications, but it does significantly limit the amount of customization you can make to the I/O. There are also a growing number of Single Board Computer (SBC) on the market, which often make for a solid development platform but frequently lack the long-term support and revision control that many of our clients require.
The Future of Small Form Factor
As far as I’m concerned, until we all become cyborgs, Mini-ITX will continue to be the leading small form factor for industrial environments.