Partners Corner: A Fresh Look at CompactPCI Serial

Publish Date:
October 16, 2023

Contributors: Dolphin,EKF, Elma Electronic and PICMG’s president

CompactPCI Serial has enjoyed notable success in rugged embedded industries thanks to its modularity, scalability and cost efficiencies. It’s a modular, open standard that has great application opportunities in applications where it can withstand most tough environmental requirements. After all, it’s widely used in the railway and transportation industry. For this blog, we asked a few CompactPCI Serial community members this question: What are some aspects that engineers should know about when evaluating CompactPCI Serial as a potential system architecture?

CompactPCI Serial has been around for many years. It’s enjoyed notable success in a diverse set of rugged embedded industries thanks to its modularity, scalability and cost efficiencies, especially in more complex application environments. At Elma, we believe it’s a modular, open standard that has great application opportunities in applications where OpenVPX might be more than a particular project needs, and yet it can still withstand most of the tough environmental requirements. After all, it’s widely used in the railway and transportation industry.

We asked some CompactPCI Serial community members the following question, and this blog is the result of their shared thoughts.


Q: What are some aspects that engineers should know about when evaluating CompactPCI Serial as a potential system architecture?


Jess Isquith, President, PICMG

CompactPCI Serial is alive and thriving! In fact, the active technical working group addresses increased high-speed I/O, processing, and system management requirements. New applications and products are regularly introduced to strengthen the ecosystem, and the level of collaboration between PICMG members working on the specification and in industry has been remarkable.

Thanks to all of this, the CompactPCI Serial standard has become a popular platform for various applications requiring modularity, high performance, and symmetric multi-processing.  In addition, the technical working group is updating with additional enhancements to keep the specification current.

This current level of adoption and momentum ensures that the CompactPCI community will see continued success in various transportation, medical, industrial control/automation, communications, robotics and space applications.

On the PICMG website, you can learn about the many CompactPCISerial reference materials and view the member product directory, which has over 160 product listings from over fifteen companies.

Herman Paraison, Vice President of Sales and Marketing, Dolphin Interconnect Solutions

Dolphin INterconnect Systems PCIe Adapter 3U CPCI Serial
Figure 2 - PCIe Adapter Card from Dolphin Interconnect

System engineers evaluating potential system architectures should consider the new capabilities of CompactPCI Serial.  Those developing complex systems can now use CompactPCI Serial to not only connect I/O components, but also multiple processors and more.  With the introduction of new CompactPCI Serial advanced PCIe switch modules, larger, more complex topologies can be created,which will have increased performance and lower latency. 


New features such as processor-to-processor communication, I/O sharing, scalingmultiple chassis with copper and fiber cabling are now available.  You will also be able to connect a CompactPCI Serial chassis to standard servers,increasing the processing power and scalability of CompactPCI Serial topologies.  System engineers can envision heterogenous environments with multiple processor and high-speed I/O based on CompactPCI Serial systems. 


A key component enabling these new system architectures is the introduction ofPCI Express (PCIe) software to CompactPCI Serial systems.  PCIe software isdesigned to enable communication between processors, SoCs, FPGAs, NVMe drives and other components.  For example, Dolphin’s standard PCIe software package, eXpressWare, includes APIs for shared memory, sockets, TCP/IP, and sharing as well as provides a standard interface to lower-level standard PCIe hardware. 


Several new system architectures are now available to system engineers looking for scalability or increased processing within a CompactPCI serial format. Let’s say an engineer combines Elma CompactPCI Serial modules and chassis with Dolphin’s CompactPCI Serial switch.  The resulting system can use eXpressWare to communicate between processors, hot-add components within or to a CompactPCI Serial chassis as well as share components between multiple processors inside or outside these chassis. 


The rugged, modular, scalable and cost-effective nature of CompactPCI Serial combined with these new capabilities, creates a powerful platform for system engineering evaluating potential new platforms. And we expect these capabilities to increase in time as CompactPCI Serial continues to evolve.

Wolfgang Wiest, Channel Manager, EKF

EKF Systems 3U CPCI Serial Tiger Lake CPU
Figure 3 - Tiger Lake CPU on a 3U CPCI Serial card from EKF.

CompactPCI Serial is one of the most, if not the most, modular standard forembedded applications. Its robust features make it suitable for harsh marketslike transportation and heavy vehicles, but it is still cost-effective enoughto be a good alternative in more complex industrial and IIoT applications.


With its modularity, robustness and versatility, CompactPCI Serial offers many advantages. In principle, the broad ecosystem and the defined consistentc ompatibility of the CompactPCI Serial standard make it possible to combine many different boards from different manufacturers.


These advantages can bring with them challenges, as well, especially in the initial phase of system development. However, with the right bridging options, such as those offered by EKF, it‘s possible to accommodate different technologies, e.g. PCI Express and CompactPCI Serial, in a hybrid system.


The connection of CompactPCI and CompactPCI Serial has always been provided by the CompactPCI PlusIO bridge standard. But for all the well thought-out and forward-looking compatibility between cards from different manufacturers and technologies, it still takes an element of experience to bring all this together in a functioning system and guarantee smooth operation.


Many things are possible with CompactPCI Serial, but for certain implementations – especially those that are more complex or have high degrees of customization – be sure to have strong partners as part of your development team, ones nimble enough to manage special application requirements. EKF values its ability to be this type of partner, and together with a broad partner network, the decision to implement a CompactPCI Serial system offers many more advantages than a less modular standard.  To see EKF’s fullrange of products:

David Caserza, Embedded Computing Architect Manager, Elma Electronic

3-, 5- and 9-slot CPCI Serial Backplanes from Elma.
Figure 4 - CPCI Serial Backplanes from Elma

CompactPCI Serial is a very economical, easy-to-use, robust computing standard.  It utilizes Eurocard packaging standards,which have been popular for decades, and been proven effective, when modular,rugged computing is required.  It supports both multi-processor as well as processor plus multiple peripheral configurations and should be considered for new designs as well as when there is a need to migrate from legacy CPCI or even VME systems.

CompactPCI Serial backplanes are designed with dedicated slot-to-slot connections for PCIe, SATA, USB, Ethernet and other required connections.  The wide variety of plug-in-cards (PICs) also follows these standards, thereby making hardware integration very easy.  The use of Eurocard packaging standards enables the chassis and boards to all fit together nicely, both during initial build and when performing maintenance or upgrade operations.  This modular approach carries the often-important benefit of keeping the mean-time-to-repair (MTTR) low.

Integrated CompactCI Serial system platform for a railway application
Figure 5 - Fully integrated 3U CPCI Serial System Platform

There are single-star and full-mesh backplanes available.  With single-star, one processor board can enumerate and communicate with several peripheral boards and with full-mesh, several processor boards can be connected to one another via Ethernet.  These topology options make CPCI Serial a good choice for replacing legacy CPCI and VME systems, as many of those older systems were often built using a single board computer with multiple peripheral boards or with a cluster of processor boards networked together.

The Eurocard mechanical form factor of CompactPCI Serial also offers the benefit of a very mature packaging ecosystem, where chassis of all types are readily available.  These can range from tabletop and portable to 19-inch rack-mount and other shapes and sizes suitable for a variety of markets including: industrial, semiconductor processing, medical, transportation, test/instrumentation, defense and others.


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