What is a Backplane: A Simple Guide

Printed circuit boards (PCBs) are the backbone of modern electronics. Today’s computers and servers would not exist if it were not for PCBs.

The backplane is an excellent example of this. Essentially, it would not exist without the invention of the PCB.

But what is backplane, and why are they so important? This guide will answer these questions.

What is a Backplane?

Backplanes contain a collection of electrical connections sitting in parallel to each other. The individual pins of each connector sit in such a way that it creates a connection system.

The technical term for this system is a data or computer bus. We use backplanes to develop computer systems.

We do this by connecting different PCB-based components to them. Serial backplane technology sends information using a low-voltage signal.

Manufacturers usually create backplanes using several types of PCBs as a base. Yet, wire-wrapped versions are still available.

Although they are pretty rare, fabricating wire-wrapped backplanes can be expensive – especially in mass.

As such, we usually use these versions in miniaturized computers. Additionally, you can find them in industrial applications that use high-reliability parts.

A fine example of this is the Altair 8800. It is a microcomputer that uses a backplane and various plug-in cards.

Illustration of Altair 8800

Backplane vs. Motherboard

Backplanes (or backplane systems) are similar in structure and use to motherboards.

One key difference is that backplanes use a cable-free management system. As such, people often get them mixed up.

Furthermore, they do not have onboard support (sockets) for processors. Instead, backplanes use expansion or plug-in cards to add processing and storage.

Thus, you can tell the difference between backplanes and motherboards by looking at the connections and sockets. 

Motherboards have more diverse connectors than backplanes. Usually, backplanes have one bus type. This can be limiting.

Yet, you can add storage to the backplane by connecting a single-board-computer (SBC) or system host board (SHB).

Backplane connected to an SBC.

Backplane connectors are more reliable than cables. Backplane-based systems tend to last longer than cable systems (motherboards).

When you add a new component, you must change the positioning of the thread, causing it to bend.

Accordingly, these actions damage the line, resulting in mechanical failures over time.

Passive vs. Active Backplanes

There are two types of backplanes – passive and active. True passive backplanes have no active bus-driving circuitry.

Daughter expansion cards handle signal routing, processing, or logic. Contrastingly, active backplanes feature chips that buffer the various signals to the slots.

The difference between passive and active backplanes isn’t straightforwards clear. We use passive backplanes for systems with a single point of failure (SPOF).

At the same time, active back-planes have a non-zero risk of malfunction because of their complexity. Yet, it may become an issue for computer systems that have many points of failure.

Even so, maintenance and board-swapping can disrupt both types of boards. Removing and inserting panels can damage the connect/pins on the backplane.

This may cause a complete outage. Thus, manufacturers have begun introducing new systems using high-speed, redundant connectivity.

They interconnect system boards point-to-point. As such, they have no SPOF anywhere in the system.

Backplane Connection/Bus Types

The most common backplane bus and connection types are:

  • VME eXtensions for Instrumentation (VXI)
  • Multisystem Extension Interface (MXI)
  • Embedded Technology Extended (ETX)
  • Embedded PCI eXtended (ePCI-X).

Backplanes have become more complex since ISA and S-100 form factors were released.

Where a common bus handled all the connections between the connectors, you can find both passive and active today. This fact is due to the limitations of the PCI specification.

Backplane Form Factors

Much like motherboards, backplanes have design form factors. These form factors affect the size of the chassis/enclosure that houses the backplane.

Additionally, it will dictate what power connection the backplane can use. The most common form factors are as follows:

  • Advanced (AT): They come in two types – complete and small. Full-sized backplanes are up to 31 cm wide and 35 cm deep. Contrastingly, tiny (AKA baby) backplanes can be up to 22 cm wide and 33 cm deep. With this form factor, IBM originally designed backplanes for personal computers (PCs).
  • Low Profile eXtension (LPX): These are 23 cm wide and 33 cm deep. Western Digital developed this form factor in the late 80s as an alternative to the AT form factor. It’s notable for its use of a riser card.
  • Advanced Technology Extended (ATX): The successor to the AT form factor. It combines both the features of AT and LPX form factors. It comes in five different sizes and configurations. They include standard, micro, mini, nano, and pico.
  • Nex Low-Profile Extended (NLX): Found in industrial applications due to its ruggedness. It’s an alternative low-profile form factor, and many consider it LPX’s successor. As such, it has similar measurements to LPX.

You can also find backplanes in the following size and form-factor specifications:

  • Size A (10 cm x 16 cm)
  • Size B (23,3 cm x 16 cm)
  • Size C (23,3 cm x 34 cm)
  • Size D cards (36 cm x 34 cm)

Backplane Specifications

How do you specify and differentiate between backplanes of the same size and form factor? You can judge backplanes by the following criteria:

  • Card Segments
  • Expansion Slots
  • CPU Slot (For Active Backplanes)
  • Bus Type (Type of slots)
  • Onboard terminators

What Is The Difference Between Backplane Vs Midplane?

We already established a backplane as a baseboard for PCB components, which also allows electrical and data exchange.

There’s also a type of backplane called a midplane. Both serve a similar purpose, but a midplane has additional capacity, making it different. 

One of the major differences between a backplane board and a midplane is a midplane’s architecture. 

A midplane has slots that accept connections on each side. A backplane only accepts connections on one side. 

Based on that double-end feature, you will find midplanes in large-scale computer systems, too. 

You can find midplanes in servers, specifically blade servers. In these servers, I/O components and peripherals connect to the midplane on one side, whereas the server’s service modules connect to the midplane’s other side. 

Another major difference is in the placement of a midplane and a backplane. 

Usually, you’ll find a backplane at the rear end of a system. That way, any connections (daughtercards) fit parallel into the backplane from one side. 

Advantages Of Backplane PCB

Simple Connectivity

Thinking of a backplane as a circuit canvas, you can connect several modules and connectors. The backplane reduces the need for excessive cross-wirings.

It provides a neat base during assembly and cuts down on the possibility of error that could come from complicated wiring. 

Better Scalability

What do you do to improve a system without discarding all of it? Replace minimum-capacity modules with higher-capacity modules.

Backplanes allow you to improve a system or add capacity using the same backbone with better components. 

Increased Reliability.

A backplane ensures your system can still work if a component is faulty. You can replace every faulty component and retain the same backplane.

Also, one failed component won’t necessarily affect the entire system. 

Better Power Management

Since a backplane acts as a central power point, its stability means overall stability in individual modules.

It becomes harder for individual modules to develop power-related inefficiencies. 

They Save Space

Since backplanes are used in small and large systems, they are vital in keeping the systems lean. They utilize a fraction of the space that would have been full of wires.

Not only does the minimal cabling reduce inefficiencies, but it also makes it easier to transport any systems that have backplanes. 

Backplane Fabrication Focus Factors

The backplane is a crucial element of a working electrical or telecommunication system. To that end, manufacturers must meet the highest standards when designing and producing it. 

Here are some key considerations they look at in the production process. 

Attention to Layer Alignment

PCB manufacturers typically use tooling holes during PCB fabrication. Tooling holes are placed at the edges in a precise design to ease fabrication.

Since it needs a high degree of precision in drilling and a high layer count, the layer alignment process is one of the most crucial aspects of fabrication. 

Cleaning

The typical backplane requires high-pressure machine washing to clean the drilling holes. Since they are thicker than PCBs, the high pressure keeps the working fluid outflow from accumulating in the numerous backplane drilling holes. 

Attention to Reflow Soldering

Reflow soldering is used in PCB mass production. Manufacturers use it to mount components on the PCB. Backplanes retain heat during reflow soldering because of their thickness.

Manufacturers pay more attention to the reflow of soldering ovens and additional cooling air. 

Therefore, backplanes need more time to cool during the process. 

FAQs

What is a backplane in a server?

Backplanes contain several connectors. Hence, we use them in servers to connect multiple hard drives, for instance, in a network-attached storage system or server.

Backup disks in a data center

Backup disks in a data center

What is the backplane in a router?

Some routers use miniaturized backplanes as opposed to a motherboard. The functional principle is the same. The backplane provides connectivity for modules.

What is a backplane of an SBC?

Encountering a single board computer (SBC) that uses a backplane as its base is rare. Instead, they use motherboards. Yet, we often connect these motherboard-based SBCs to backplanes. This action allows us to extend their purpose and functionality.

What is a backplane in networking?

We typically use backplane systems to construct modular repeaters for network applications. Repeaters allow you to add modules to them. Hence, we use them to create completely customized network configurations. 

Conclusion

Backplanes are modular alternatives to motherboards. As such, they’re more suitable for industrial and commercial purposes.

They are especially ideal for servers with hot-swappable drives. 

Even so, you can find backplanes of all shapes and sizes. They use PCBs with varying thicknesses. Accordingly, the thickness of the PCB will determine the application of the backplane.

Nevertheless, the above guide explored backplanes and their uses.

If you have reached this point, you should now be able to tell the difference between motherboards and backplanes.

Avatar photo
Emma Lu
Our professional engineering support saves our customers a lot of trouble and loss. >>>>>> After you place the order, our engineer will conduct technical reviews to make sure the parts can be mounted well/correctly on the boards. We will check if the component packages match well with the Gerber footprints, if the part numbers you provided match well with the descriptions, and if the polarity is clearly marked. >>>>> When your design is ready, please send your Gerber and BOM so we can quote and start!

Services