A Comprehensive Guide to Computer-on-Modules: From Origins to Applications

A Comprehensive Guide to Computer-on-Modules: From Origins to Applications

Introduction to Computer-on-Modules

In the ever-evolving landscape of embedded computing, Computer-on-Modules (COMs) have emerged as a cornerstone technology. These compact, modular computing solutions offer a flexible and scalable approach to designing and deploying embedded systems across a wide range of applications. Whether in industrial automation, medical devices, robotics, or the burgeoning field of IoT, COMs provide the performance and versatility needed to meet the demands of modern technology. This article delves into the world of COMs, exploring their definition, history, and the various types available today.

What is a Computer-on-Module?

A Computer-on-Module (COM) is a small, self-contained computer designed to be plugged into a carrier board. Unlike traditional single-board computers (SBCs), which include all components on a single board, COMs separate the core processing elements from the application-specific components. This modularity offers several key advantages:

  • Scalability: Easily upgrade the processor without redesigning the entire system.
  • Flexibility: Customize carrier boards to meet specific application needs.
  • Time-to-Market: Accelerate development cycles by leveraging pre-built, tested modules.

A typical COM includes a CPU, memory, storage, and essential I/O interfaces. It connects to a carrier board via standard connectors, which provide additional I/O options, power, and other features tailored to the application.

The History of Computer-on-Modules

  • Early Beginnings: The concept of modular computing dates back to the late 20th century. Early embedded systems often required custom-built hardware, which was time-consuming and expensive. The need for a more flexible and scalable solution led to the development of COMs. One of the earliest standards, PC/104, was introduced in the early 1990s, providing a stackable, modular approach to embedded computing.
  • Growth and Standardization: In the early 2000s, the introduction of more standardized COM formats, such as COM Express by the PCI Industrial Computer Manufacturers Group (PICMG), marked a significant milestone. These standards provided clear guidelines for size, connectors, and interfaces, fostering broader adoption and interoperability.
  • Evolution and Modern Advancements: Over the past decade, COM technology has advanced rapidly. The rise of IoT, edge computing, and AI has driven demand for more powerful, energy-efficient, and versatile modules. Modern COMs feature advanced processors, including multicore ARM and x86 architectures, enhanced graphics capabilities, and extensive connectivity options.
  • Current State: Today, COMs are integral to a wide range of industries. Their ability to provide high performance in a compact, modular form factor makes them ideal for applications requiring robust computing power and flexibility. The continued development of standards and technology ensures that COMs will remain a critical component of embedded systems for years to come.

Application Areas for COM Modules

Computer-on-Modules (COMs) are versatile and powerful solutions that find applications across a wide range of industries. Here are some key application areas:

  • Industrial Automation
    • Factory automation
    • Process control systems
    • Human-machine interfaces (HMIs)
    • Robotics and machine vision
  • Medical Devices
    • Medical imaging systems
    • Diagnostic equipment
    • Patient monitoring systems
    • Portable medical devices
  • Transportation
    • Automotive control systems
    • In-vehicle infotainment systems
    • Railway signalling and control
    • Aerospace and avionics systems
  • IoT (Internet of Things)
    • Smart sensors and devices
    • IoT gateways
    • Home automation systems
    • Smart cities infrastructure
  • Telecommunications
    • Network routers and switches
    • Cellular base stations
    • Communication hubs and gateways
    • Data centres and server farms
  • Consumer Electronics
    • Smart home devices
    • Wearable technology
    • Gaming consoles
    • Multimedia and entertainment systems
  • Energy
    • Smart grid management
    • Renewable energy control systems
    • Power distribution monitoring
    • Energy-efficient building systems
  • Retail and Point-of-Sale
    • Point-of-sale terminals
    • Digital signage
    • Kiosks and vending machines
    • Inventory management systems
  • Security and Surveillance
    • Video surveillance systems
    • Access control systems
    • Security monitoring devices
    • Intelligent video analytics
  • Agriculture
    • Precision farming equipment
    • Automated irrigation systems
    • Livestock monitoring
    • Agricultural drones
  • Defence and Aerospace
    • Military communication systems
    • Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)
    • Ground control stations
    • Navigation and guidance systems
  • Scientific Research
    • Laboratory automation
    • Environmental monitoring
    • Data acquisition systems
    • Research instrumentation

COM modules provide the performance, scalability, and reliability required for these diverse applications, making them an essential component in the development of modern, embedded computing solutions.

Different Types of Computer-on-Modules

COM Express

COM Express is one of the most popular and widely adopted standards for COMs. It offers a range of module sizes and types, supporting various processors and interfaces. COM Express modules are typically used in industrial automation, medical devices, and transportation systems.

COM Express Sizes

COM Express modules come in three primary sizes, each designed to fit different application requirements:

A Comprehensive Guide to Computer-on-Modules - COM Express Mini
  • Mini:
    • Dimensions: 84mm x 55mm
    • The smallest COM Express size
    • Used in ultra-compact and mobile applications where space is at a premium
A Comprehensive Guide to Computer-on-Modules - COM Express Compact
  • Compact:
    • Dimensions: 95mm x 95mm
    • Ideal for space-constrained applications
    • Balances performance and size
A Comprehensive Guide to Computer-on-Modules - COM Express Basic
  • Basic:
    • Dimensions: 125mm x 95mm
    • Larger footprint for powerful processors and I/O interfaces
    • For high-performance applications

COM Express Types

COM Express defines several module types, each specifying different connector pin-outs and supported features to cater to various application needs:

  • Type 2:
  • An older type that is still in use for legacy systems
  • Supports a mix of legacy and modern interfaces
  • Suitable for long-lifecycle industrial applications
  • Type 6:
  • Supports high-speed interfaces such as PCIe, SATA, USB 3.0, and Gigabit Ethernet
  • Used in applications requiring high graphics performance and extensive connectivity
  • Type 7:
  • Designed for server-grade applications
  • Replaces video interfaces with additional Ethernet ports and PCIe lanes
  • Ideal for data centres, edge computing, and network appliances
  • Type 10:
  • Smaller version of Type 6
  • Compact and suitable for low-power applications
  • Used in mobile and handheld devices


COM-HPC (Computer-On-Module High-Performance Computing) represents the next evolution in the COM landscape, designed to meet the demanding requirements of modern, high-performance embedded applications. Developed by the PCI Industrial Computer Manufacturers Group (PICMG), COM-HPC offers significant advancements over previous standards, providing greater bandwidth, enhanced scalability, and support for the latest interface technologies.

COM-HPC modules are equipped with cutting-edge processors, including multi-core CPUs and GPUs, capable of handling intensive computational tasks such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, and real-time data processing. They also feature multiple high-speed PCIe lanes, Ethernet interfaces, and advanced memory options, ensuring robust performance and future-proofing for emerging applications. As industries move towards more complex and data-intensive operations, COM-HPC stands out as a crucial enabler for innovation, delivering unparalleled computing power and flexibility in a compact, modular form factor.

A Comprehensive Guide to Computer-on-Modules - COM HPC
A Comprehensive Guide to Computer-on-Modules - COM Express Qseven


Qseven is a smaller, highly integrated COM standard designed for low-power applications. It is ideal for mobile and handheld devices, IoT applications, and energy-efficient embedded systems. Qseven modules often feature ARM or x86 processors and offer a balance between performance and power consumption.

SMARC (Smart Mobility ARChitecture)

SMARC modules are designed for applications requiring high performance in a compact, lightweight form factor. They are commonly used in multimedia, automotive, and IoT applications. SMARC modules support a variety of processors and offer extensive connectivity options, including Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and Ethernet.

A Comprehensive Guide to Computer-on-Modules - SMARC


PC/104 is one of the oldest COM standards, known for its stackable design. It is used in rugged, industrial environments where reliability and durability are critical. PC/104 modules are often employed in military, aerospace, and industrial automation applications.

Other Emerging Standards

In addition to the established standards, several emerging COM formats cater to specific application needs. These include:

  • ETX: A legacy standard similar to COM Express, used in industrial and legacy systems.
  • µQseven: A smaller version of Qseven for ultra-compact applications.
  • Custom COMs: Tailored solutions for specialized applications, offering maximum flexibility and performance.

Custom Computer on Module Carrier Board Design

A Comprehensive Guide to Computer-on-Modules - Carrier Board

When it comes to creating bespoke solutions for embedded systems, BVM Ltd. stands out with its extensive expertise in custom carrier board design. Recognizing that off-the-shelf solutions may not always meet the unique requirements of specialized applications, BVM offers tailored design services to ensure optimal performance and functionality for your specific needs.

Why Choose Custom Carrier Board Design?

  • Tailored to Your Needs: Custom carrier boards are designed to match the exact specifications and requirements of your application. This ensures that all components and interfaces are perfectly aligned with your project’s goals.
  • Enhanced Performance: By focusing on the specific performance metrics you need, custom designs can offer superior performance compared to generic solutions. This includes optimized power consumption, thermal management, and signal integrity.
  • Improved Reliability: Custom carrier boards can be designed with robustness and durability in mind, making them ideal for harsh environments and critical applications where reliability is paramount.
  • Cost-Effectiveness: While initial costs may be higher, custom designs can reduce long-term expenses by minimizing the need for additional components or modifications, leading to a more streamlined and cost-effective solution.

The BVM Custom Design Process

At BVM, we follow a meticulous and collaborative design process to ensure that your custom carrier board meets all your requirements:

  • Initial Consultation: Our team engages with you to understand your specific needs, application environment, and desired outcomes. This involves detailed discussions to capture all technical and functional requirements.
  • Design Proposal: Based on the consultation, we provide a comprehensive design proposal outlining the specifications, timeline, and costs involved. This proposal serves as a roadmap for the design and development process.
  • Engineering and Design: Our experienced engineers utilize advanced design tools and methodologies to create a carrier board that integrates seamlessly with your chosen Computer-on-Module. This phase includes schematic design, PCB layout, and component selection.
  • Prototyping and Testing: We develop prototypes of the custom carrier board and conduct rigorous testing to validate performance, compatibility, and reliability. Any necessary adjustments are made to ensure the final design meets all criteria.
  • Production and Delivery: Once the design is finalized and approved, we manage the production process to ensure high-quality manufacturing and timely delivery. We also provide ongoing support to address any post-deployment issues or requirements.

Contact BVM for All Your Industrial and Embedded Computing Needs

Computer-on-Modules have revolutionized the way we approach embedded system design. Their modularity, scalability, and flexibility make them indispensable in today’s technology landscape. From their early beginnings to their current widespread adoption, COMs have continually evolved to meet the needs of various industries. As technology advances, COMs will undoubtedly continue to play a crucial role in enabling innovative solutions and driving the future of embedded computing.

At BVM, we specialize in providing top-quality Industrial and Embedded Computer hardware solutions. With over 35 years of experience in the industry, we are equipped to meet all your computing needs. Whether you need an off-the-shelf solution or a custom-designed system, our in-house design team is here to help. Contact our sales team today: Phone: 01489 780144 or Email: sales@bvmltd.co.uk

Let us provide you with the expertise and support to drive your projects forward. Reach out to BVM and discover how we can enhance your industrial and embedded computing solutions.

We like to make life easier ….

BVM supply a wide and diverse range of Industrial and Embedded Systems.
From Industrial Motherboards, SBCs and Box PCs, to Rack Mount computers and Industrial Panel PCs. Our support teams have worked in a variety of industrial and embedded environments and consequently provide knowledge, know-how, experience and all round good advice around all BVM’s products & services when and where you need it. 

We don’t profess to know everything you need at the time – but we’ll always help in the first instance and get back to you when a little more information is required.

You can Call us on +(0) 1489 780 144 and talk to one of the team | E-mail us at sales@bvmltd.co.uk | Use our quick contact form here

BVM Design and Manufacturing Services: The manufacturer behind the solutions you know

When a standard embedded design won’t suffice for what you need, you can always turn to BVM for help and use our custom design and manufacturing services.