What is a System-on-Module?

Ezurio's system-on-module solutions are built on the latest processors and wireless, and utilizing our long-term software support to give developers a secure, smart, connected IoT platform.

Published on April 18, 2024

What is a System-on-Module?

In the ever-evolving landscape of embedded systems, the need  for more compact, flexible, and powerful computing solutions has never been more critical. The technological advancements of the 21st century have brought in an era where efficiency and adaptability are critical, particularly in product design and development. 

Among these developments, one solution stands out for its pivotal role in shaping the future of embedded computing: the System-on-Module (SOM). This article dives into the core of SOMs, exploring its components, functionality, benefits, applications, and the criteria for selecting the right SOM for your project.

What is a System-on-Module?

A system-on-module (SOM) is a compact, fully-integrated circuit board that contains all the necessary components of a computer or other electronic system on a single module. It's designed to be plugged into or otherwise connected to a carrier board, which provides the external interfaces and connectors needed for the SOM to interact with the rest of the system or device. Key components typically included in a SOM are:

  • Central Processing Unit (CPU): The CPU core, often an ARM-based processor for low-power applications or x86 for higher computational needs, acts as the computational heart. It executes the system software and application codes, and then orchestrates data processing workflows tailored to specific application demands.
  • Memory Architecture: Incorporates volatile and non-volatile memory elements. Volatile memory typically comprises DDR3/DDR4 SDRAM for high-speed data access, critical for running applications and the operating system. Non-volatile memory, such as eMMC or NAND flash, is provisioned for persistent storage of the OS, firmware, and application binaries.
  • I/O and Peripheral Interfaces: A comprehensive suite of I/O interfaces is embedded to ensure versatile connectivity options. This includes high-speed interfaces like USB 3.0/2.0, Gigabit Ethernet for network connectivity, and lower-speed interfaces like I2C, SPI, and UART for peripheral and sensor integration. High-definition multimedia interfaces, such as HDMI or LVDS, support sophisticated display and multimedia functionalities.
  • Wireless Communication Modules: Advanced SOMs might embed wireless communication modules, integrating Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and sometimes GNSS modules, to facilitate IoT-ready applications requiring remote data transmission and location services.
  • Power Management ICs (PMICs): These integrated circuits are meticulously designed to manage and distribute power across the SOM’s components efficiently. They ensure operational stability across varying load conditions and manage power sequencing to prolong system reliability and battery life in portable applications.
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System-on-Module vs. System-on-Chip: What's the Difference?

The terms "System-on-Module" (SOM) and "System-on-Chip" (SoC) both refer to solutions that integrate multiple functional components into a single system to streamline design and development processes in electronics. 

However, they represent fundamentally different approaches and are used in distinct contexts within embedded systems and electronics design. Understanding the differences between SOM and SoC is crucial for engineers, designers, and decision-makers involved in product development. Below are the key differences between a System-on-Module and a System-on-Chip:

  • Integration Level: SoCs represent the highest level of integration by embedding all essential electronic components into a single silicon chip. SOMs, while highly integrated, are modular circuit boards that combine a SoC with additional critical components.
  • Development Complexity and Cost: Developing a custom SoC involves significant upfront design work, making it suitable for high-volume productions. SOMs, offering modular integration, significantly reduce development complexity and cost, making them ideal for a wide range of production volumes.
  • Flexibility: SOMs provide greater flexibility in design and updates, allowing for easy upgrades or modifications by swapping the module. SoCs, being very integrated designs, do not offer this level of flexibility post-manufacture.
  • Application: SoCs are commonly used in consumer electronics (smartphones, tablets) due to their high integration level – they’re as compact and power efficient as possible. SOMs are preferred in industrial, medical, and IoT applications, where customization, flexibility, scalability, and time-to-market are key considerations.

How do System-on-Modules Work?

The architecture of a SOM is designed for seamless integration with a carrier board, which provides the necessary connectors and interfaces for peripheral devices. This modularity allows for a high degree of flexibility and scalability in system design. 

The communication between the SOM and other hardware components is facilitated through these connectors, allowing the SOM to interact with and control various peripherals and devices within the larger system. 

Integration with Carrier Boards

SOMs are designed to mechanically attach to a carrier board via high-density connectors. These connectors carry a multitude of signals between the SOM and the carrier board, including power supply lines, communication interfaces, and control signals. 

The carrier board typically provides the physical interfaces for these signals, such as RJ45 jacks for Ethernet or USB ports, and connects to other custom hardware required for the application. 

This configuration results in developing a flexible Single Board Computer (SBC) platform. These SBC platforms can be customized to meet the specific requirements of your project, with selections made from a range of processors, memory, wireless, and I/O options that best match the performance and functionality needs of your product. At Ezurio, we specialize in helping build your custom SBC solution needs. 

Pin Mapping and Configuration

The SOM's pinout is meticulously designed to maximize functionality and flexibility. Design engineers must carefully map these pins to the appropriate functions on the carrier board, considering the requirements for impedance matching, signal integrity, and routing constraints, especially for high-speed signals.

Communication with Peripheral Devices

SOMs come equipped with a variety of communication interfaces to interact with external devices. These include: 

  • I2C: utilized for low-speed device control.
  • SPI: suitable for higher-speed peripherals.
  • UART: used for serial communication.
  • PCIe: facilitates high-speed data transfer to external components such as SSDs or FPGA modules. 

GPIO (General-Purpose Input/Output): 

For more direct control or interaction with external hardware, SOMs offer GPIO pins that can be configured either as input or output.

These pins play a crucial role in interfacing with sensors, actuators, and other digital components, enabling a wide range of application-specific functionalities.

Software and Firmware Integration

Upon power-up, the SOM executes code from a bootloader stored in non-volatile memory, which initializes the hardware components on the module and loads the operating system (OS) into RAM. 

The choice of OS can vary, including options like Yocto Linux, Buildroot Linux, Android, Ubuntu, Zephyr RTOS and FreeRTOS. Real-time operating systems (RTOS), such as Zephyr RTOS and FreeRTOS are used in applications where timing is critical, while more comprehensive systems like Linux are suited for complex applications that require advanced functionalities.

Driver and Middleware Support:

For a SOM to effectively communicate with peripherals and execute application-specific tasks, appropriate drivers and middleware are required. 

These software components abstract the hardware complexity and provide APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) for application development, streamlining the process of software creation and integration.

Application Software Development

With the foundation provided by the OS, drivers, and middleware, developers can focus on writing the application software that runs on the SOM, tailored to the specific needs of their product. This software can leverage the full capabilities of the SOM, from processing power to connectivity options, to perform its intended functions.

Related Reading: Is Your Wireless SOM Certified? What Boundary Devices and Ezurio Bring to the Table

Benefits of Using a System-on-Module in Embedded Applications

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The utilization of System-on-Modules (SOMs) in embedded applications presents a multitude of strategic advantages, particularly for design engineers and product development teams aiming to accelerate development cycles and enhance product performance. Here are the key benefits of incorporating SOMs into embedded system designs:

Reduced Time to Market

SOMs enable developers to bypass the time-consuming processes of designing, testing, and troubleshooting custom hardware through rapid prototyping. By providing a pre-tested, ready-to-use computing core, SOMs allow for immediate focus on application-specific aspects of product development.

Additionally, with critical components already integrated and validated, design teams can minimize the risk of hardware compatibility issues, reducing the iteration cycles needed to reach a stable product design.

Cost Efficiency

The need for extensive custom circuit design, layout, and prototype manufacturing is significantly reduced with SOMs. This translates into lower overall development costs and reduced need for specialized hardware design expertise.

SOMs also facilitate economies of scale, as manufacturers produce modules in large volumes reducing the cost per unit. End-users of SOMs can leverage these cost savings without the need for high-volume production commitments. 

Design Flexibility and Scalability

Implementing system-on-modules into your IoT design projects offers high design flexibility, as the same module can be used across multiple products or product variants, allowing for easy scalability and adaptability to different market needs or technology updates.

In addition, using a SOM with a standardized form factor, like SGET’s Smart Mobility Architecture (SMARC), provides a reliable foundation for your product design. Our integration of the SMARC architecture assures that a range of Ezurio module options will support your design for 10, 15, or even 20 years. Upgrading your system to incorporate new technologies or improve performance (e.g., a more powerful processor, additional memory) is straightforward – simply replace the existing SOM for a more advanced one via the standard edge connector, without the need to redesign the entire system. 

Focus on Core Competency

With the hardware complexities managed by the SOM, development teams can concentrate on software development and application-specific functionalities, channeling their skills where they make the biggest impact. Ezurio enhances this process with our Support+ package, designed to minimize your design risks and accelerate your product’s time to market. This package includes comprehensive solutions and services such as enhanced support with direct access to engineering and live Field Application Engineers (FAEs), schematic and PCB layout reviews, and testing services. These offerings ensure your module remains current, fully functional, and compliant with all necessary certifications. 

Another benefit is that managing updates, compatibility, and support becomes simpler, as the core system hardware remains standardized across product lines or generations.

Reliability and Quality Assurance

System-on-modules are designed, manufactured, and tested to meet stringent industry standards. This ensures high reliability and performance right from the start, reducing the risk of hardware failures in the field.

SOM manufacturers like Ezurio provide long-term support for our products, including documentation, development tools, and software updates. This commitment supports the lifecycle of the end product, even as individual components may become obsolete.

Common Applications of System-on-Modules

SOM technology finds applications across a diverse range of industries, from commercial and healthcare to IoT and industrial automation. In the industrial sector, for example, SOMs are instrumental for improving precision in robotic controls systems and increasing efficiency in assembly line automation. 

The healthcare industry utilizes SOMs in patient monitoring devices and diagnostic equipment, leveraging their compact size and computational power. Similarly, in commercial IoT applications, SOMs enable smart building processes and the seamless integration of various IoT devices.

To learn more about specific applications and use cases of System-on-Modules, visit our case studies.  

How To Choose The Right System-on-Module For Your Project

Selecting the appropriate SOM for your project involves considering several key factors, including processing power, connectivity options, and compatibility with existing systems. It's also essential to evaluate the support and ecosystem provided by the SOM manufacturer. 

Leading SOM manufacturers distinguish themselves through their commitment to quality and support, and by providing comprehensive development resources. When evaluating potential SOMs, consider not only the product’s technical specifications but also the documentation, customer support, and availability of development kits and tools. These elements are crucial to ensure that your development process is as efficient and problem-free as possible. 

Assess the longevity of product support. Choosing a SOM from a manufacturer that offers long-term support guarantees that you will receive updates and assistance throughout the lifecycle of your product, which is especially important for applications requiring extended operational periods. 

Lastly, explore the ecosystem surrounding the SOM. A robust range of product offerings and compatible peripherals can greatly help the development process, offering ready-made solutions and expertise that can help overcome technical challenges. 

By considering these aspects, you can ensure that the SOM you choose not only fits the technical requirements of your project, but also has the support and resources necessary for successful implementation and future scalability. 

Related Reading: A Guide for Choosing The Right SOM or SBC For IoT Design

Future Trends in System-on-Module Development

Emerging trends in SOM technology are shaping the future of embedded systems. Advances in processing capabilities, miniaturization, and the integration of AI functionalities are at the forefront of these developments. 

These trends indicate a move towards even more powerful, versatile, and intelligent SOMs, capable of driving innovation in various industries. As these technologies evolve, we can expect SOMs to become even more integral to the development of cutting-edge products and solutions.

Ezurio works with numerous leading silicon partners to provide next-generation embedded systems: 

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NXP Semiconductors

Based on NXP Semiconductor’s i.MX 6, 8, and 9 for advanced graphics, imaging, machine learning, machine vision, audio, voice, and video applications.

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Based on MediaTek Genio, is ideal for high-performance, edge-AI IoT platforms with edge processing, advanced multimedia, wide range of sensors and multi-tasking OS.

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Texas Instruments

Open Standard Module (OSM) SOMs with multi-core MPU and MCU processing, camera and video support, AI accelerators, and a wide array of interface.

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About Ezurio

Ezurio turns design possibility into reality with a comprehensive range of RF modules, system-on-modules, single board computers, internal antennas, IoT devices, and custom solutions. With decades of engineering expertise, Ezurio provides solutions that reduce development costs and time to market. Our global reach and unmatched support are backed by a resilient global supply chain that gives our customers the stability to overcome every design challenge with confidence. Turn design possibility into reality with Ezurio, your connectivity expert. 

To learn more about Ezurio, visit www.ezurio.com.