The Emerging Requirements for Next-Generation Single-Board Computers

Digi International
November 24, 2014

With the Internet of Things and machine-to-machine computing, application demands are increasing. From medical diagnostics and transportation to precision agriculture and entertainment, engineers today are challenged to find new ways to design in greater intelligence, connectivity, and performance. Not to mention that it’s required to do so while cutting costs, power consumption and size. Single Board Computers (SBC) are an ideal platform for quick and focused product design. They continue to evolve in sophistication, and the range of possibilities continues to expand.  As those capabilities grow, so do the choices for design engineers.  But what are the factors that matter most in SBC evaluation and selection?

Design needs always vary by application criteria, industry, and deployment environment, but the following criteria can serve as a springboard for the evaluation of SBC options.

  1. Processor Platform

At the heart of every SBC is the underlying application processor platform. Traditionally, the majority of SBCs were based on x86 platforms and somewhat derived from the typical desktop PC motherboard form factor. This is still evident in some of the form factor variants that are being utilized—Pico-ITX, Mini-ITX, microATX, EmbATX, and others. They range from “standalone” models to stackable solutions, like PC/104, to specialized “blades” for use in rack systems. ARM-based System-on-Chip (SoC) platforms are becoming more capable with an extended reach into the x86 performance bracket, low power consumption, broad operating system support and cost-effectiveness, the SBC now also is an extremely viable option for a host of new applications as well as potential replacement for existing x86 based solutions.

  1. Form Factorindustries_industrial_agriculture

SBCs are available in a wide variety of available “standard” form factors and continue to shrink, giving designers much greater latitude in how they create innovative devices and applications that can leverage a much higher level of computing power.  For instance, it’s possible today to create a compact SBC built on an ARM-based System-on-Module (SoM) solution with integrated, pre-certified 802.11a/b/g/n and Bluetooth 4.0 connectivity in a footprint of just 50×50 mm, only 5-7 mm high. Such an SBC can provide scalable single to quad core Cortex-A9 SoC performance with a complete set of integrated peripherals and interfaces, from storage (SATA, SD) to user interface (up to four display, capacitive multi-touch). A level of computing power and flexibility paired with dramatically reduced power consumption and at a price point that was unthinkable at that size just a few years ago.

In addition, choosing an SBC design based on a SoM provides an almost seamless migration path to direct component integration once an application warrants a custom carrier board design due to increased volume and/or application-specific customization requirements. Given that the SoM stays the same when used on the customer board design, software transition is in principle minimal and the SBC may also act as a reference design for the customized product development effort.

  1. Reliability, Longevity, Availability

SBCs are often used in very specialized and environmentally challenging embedded applications. Specific industry standards related tests for temperature, shock, and vibration will ensure that the platform is able to operate reliably without failure.

The selection of components an SBC is designed with also has a significant importance in respect to product long-term availability. For example, a product like Digi International’s Digi ConnectCore® 6 SBC is built using industrial temperature rated components, which contribute to overall reliability and long-term availability of parts.

Digi’s SBC is also built around the scalable Digi ConnectCore 6 SoM. The Digi ConnectCore 6 SOM is a Freescale i.MX6 based surface mount multichip module with integrated wireless connectivity. It eliminates the need for high-density module connectors, expensive multilevel board designs. It also increases durability in rugged environments and offers a unique long-term availability approach for embedded, industrial-grade Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity. Last but not least, it also enables you to move to a fully integrated, customized product design utilizing the single-component SoM without the traditional design complexities of a discrete design approach.

  1. Low Power Consumption

Today’s ARM-based SBC designs – even those that leverage quad-core processors – can achieve excellent power efficiency in both mobile and fixed-power applications. The inherent design advantages of the ARM platform and its advanced power-saving modes enable you to minimize and tune power consumption for applications, load, temperature, time of day, users, and other application specific criteria.  What’s more, it also helps you create thermally sound designs appropriate for the usage environment without the mandatory need for active cooling, which affects design complexity, longevity and most importantly reliability over time.

  1. Connectivity

The Internet of Things (IoT) is pervasive throughout almost all applications in virtually all vertical markets. Fully integrated and complete connectivity options must be considered and designed into a product from the beginning. Options include: Wi-Fi connectivity link to an existing network, serving Wi-Fi connectivity to clients connecting to your product for configuration or services, Bluetooth Classic for user device integration, Bluetooth Low Energy for data acquisition from low-power sensors, or even Ethernet for mandating wired network connections.

With connectivity comes the need for security and trusted communication. The next generation of SBCs are equipped with Bluetooth 4.0 capabilities and fully pre-certified 802.11a/b/g/n (2.4 and 5 GHz), software and driver support enterprise-grade Wi-Fi security such as WPA/WPA2-Enterprise, cellular connectivity, and other options to ensure your device is tied into larger computing grids. The SBC can be integrated into any existing IT environment.

Lastly, taking advantage of a secure cloud-enabled software platform such as Device Cloud allows you to build products for the IoT almost immediately, without any need to develop a costly and proprietary cloud infrastructure.

  1. Open Platforms

Most SBCs support industry-standard operating systems, including Linux, Android, and Microsoft Windows Embedded Compact. This reduces learning curves and costs while reducing risk and accelerating development activities.

However, engineers invariably want to customize and refine their device designs as well as make sure that access to relevant software and hardware design components is available right from the start. Be sure your chosen SBC provides full and royalty-free access to source code of the software platform support.

On the hardware side, access to functional and verified reference designs is as important as choosing a supplier that is established and present both locally and globally with their own and partner resources.

industries_medical_medical_devicesMedical Devices

For manufacturers in the life sciences industry, innovation is a non-negotiable requirement.  Product complexity—including the inherent need for products to have seamless wireless connectivity—continues to grow, making it essential to have efficient designs that leverage reliable components with the power and simplicity that reduce points of failure, including support for the long product lifecycles in this industry.

Medical and healthcare devices need to become connected in order to create efficiencies in areas such as patient safety, reimbursement, or even asset management/tracking. The complex and lengthy regulatory approvals further drive the need to shorten time-to-market and focus on core competencies instead of spending time on basic core system design efforts.

The right SBC or SoM solution plays an integral role in bringing innovative medical products to market quickly. As a result, device manufacturers are increasingly relying on them for devices such as infusion pumps, ventilators, implantable cardiac defibrillators, ECGs, bedside terminals, patient monitors, AEDs, and more.

Precision Agriculture

Today, farmers are able to more finely tune their crop management by observing, measuring, and responding to variability in their crops. For instance, crop-yield sensors mounted on GPS-equipped combines can use industrial-grade, ruggedized SBCs and SoMs to measure and analyze data related to chlorophyll levels, soil moisture – even aerial and satellite imagery. It then can intelligently operate variable-rate seeders, sprayers, and other farming equipment to optimize crop yields. Wireless connectivity for cellular or Wi-Fi network connectivity plus sensor integration through technologies such as Bluetooth Low Energy adds a powerful, real-time connectivity to agriculture that drives a new level of efficiency.

Transportation

With focus on operational efficiency and safety, transportation applications are driving the need for connected and intelligent devices.

In situations that require rugged reliability that eliminates vibration concerns, embedded SBC and SoM solutions play a valuable role. In taxis, solutions can help optimize electric vehicles by controlling engine components while providing a fully integrated, state-of-the-art in-vehicle operator interface. In buses, monitoring systems can report emissions levels and the solution can operate fare-collection systems. On a commercial vessel, embedded solutions power connected navigation systems or highly sophisticated fish finders.

Consider taking advantage of connected SBCs and SoMs when building your next product. Significantly reduce your design risk while shortening your time-to-market, without sacrificing design flexibility.