x86-Based Hardware and the Internet-of-Things Devices Market

Why x86-based technology is important to key companies worldwide and continues to evolve

By Samuel Phung, ICOP Technology

The fast pace computing technology evolution and rapid expansion of the Internet during the past two decades created the environment which enables technology companies to develop highly efficient, low-cost and connected computing devices to serve the commercial, consumer, industrial and government markets.

As part of the continuing computing and Internet technologies evolution, connected computing technology is being adopted to build intelligent devices around our daily living. Not counting the PC, most of us interact with multiple computing devices on a daily basis, such as the ATM at the bank, information kiosk at the shopping center, self-check-out terminal at the supermarket, ticketing machine, vending machine, smartphone, digital camera, multimedia entertainment system, etc. Aside from these devices, the connected computing technology evolution created the environment and opportunity to upgrade existing legacy devices and create new types of devices, which we refer to as the Internet-of-things devices.

The Internet-of-Things Device
In the Internet-of-things device domain, many of these devices are built with a low-power and low-cost processor, with limited processing resources and minimal system and storage memories. Currently, many of these devices are built with low-cost microcontrollers and ARM-based processors.

What is the opportunity in the Internet-of-things domain for devices built with an x86 CPU? Without a specific business scenario, this is a vague question. To address this vague question, we need to look at how the Internet-of-things devices fit into a system which we can relate to. Let’s consider the following scenarios:

Using a simple home automation system as an example, the Internet-of-things devices in the home automation system, as shown in Figure-1, are the connected sensor, actuator, lighting control and security devices. The system is connected to the Internet and enables the user to access each of the devices remotely through the Internet from a PC, smartphone or tablet.

 

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Figure-1: Home Automation System

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Figure-2: Sensor network

 

The system in Figure 2 illustrates a simple sensors network for a manufacturing or processing plan, where different types of sensors and actuators are deployed to different locations and attached to different machinery to monitor operating status. The system is connected to the public or private cloud and enables the user to access each of the sensor and actuator devices remotely from a PC, smartphone or tablet.

Let’s consider the following for the above home automation and sensor network systems:

  • The ability for the system’s sensor/actuator devices to connect to the cloud or Internet alone is not sufficient to make the system intelligent.
  • Should the sensor/actuator devices be connected to the Internet directly?
  • Connecting the sensor/actuator devices directly to the Internet poses serious security risks. Instead, the sensor/actuator devices should be connected to a local gateway, which in turn provides the facility for the user to access each of the sensor devices in a controlled environment, based on the user’s security role.
  • What value can a system like this provide?
  • In addition to being able to access each of the sensor/actuator devices remotely, a system like this can provide more value by collecting data, performing analytics, providing historical trends and triggering events under certain conditions, which are valuable forms of business intelligence.
  • In order to be an intelligent system to be able to provide valuable business intelligence, the system needs to do the following:
    • Collect and archive data.
    • Analyze real-time data, comparing real-time data against archived data and deliver meaningful analytical information.
    • Based on the real-time data, comparing against archived data and historical trends, trigger event and initiate appropriate function response to the triggered event, based on pre-configured parameters.

For the Internet-of-things devices that are part of an intelligent system, x86-based hardware is suitable for the following roles:

  • Being a local gateway connecting the sensor/actuator devices to remote user with controlled access based on the user’s security role.
  • Being a local data storage to collect and archive data from the sensor/actuator devices.
  • Processing resources to analyze real-time data and deliver appropriate analytic information to designated recipients.
  • Processing resources to analyze and compare real-time data against archived historical trends and pre-determined conditions, trigger event and initiate appropriate function responding to the triggered event, based on a set of pre-configured parameters.

Note: One or more of the above connected intelligent system’s functions/tasks can be allocated to a single x86 device.

x86 Processor Advantage
Computing hardware based on other processors, such as ARM, is able to perform these intelligent system’s functions. What is the advantage of using x86-based hardware?

In general, many developers consider x86 CPU to perform better than ARM CPUs in terms of processing capability and low-power consumption, as well as being at a lower cost.

In recent years, the advance in silicon technology enabled x86 CPUs to be built with much smaller silicon and significantly lower power consumption. The computing market’s explosive growth created huge demand, caused technology providers to manufacture x86-based hardware in unprecedented quantity and caused a dramatically lower cost.

In addition to looking at the processing resources and hardware cost, we also need to consider development cost, risk and how quickly the development team is able to bring new products to the market. Time-to-market, initial development cost and the risk of not being able to complete the development process are key business concerns.

With over two decades of cumulated hardware and software design resources from key global companies, x86-based hardware established a large pool of design resources and a set of specifications adhered to by key companies that deliver x86-based hardware solutions. These design specifications, spanning across both hardware and software, also include I/O peripherals common to the x86 CPU hardware platforms. Many of these development resources are available off-the-shelf, enabling the development team to develop and build working proof-of-concept units quickly with minimal cost and effort. These readily available technology resources also translate to lower production cost to the final product.

Within the x86 hardware technology provider community, which includes the main processor board, module and I/O peripherals, there is a high degree of compatibility where you can use processor boards and I/O peripherals from different vendors to build a system that supports off-the-shelf software solutions.

The well-established and recognized design specifications that revolve around the x86 CPU hardware platforms provided the environment that drives technology providers to compete based on quality, features, price and service that greatly benefit the end users, which also generates a strong sense of confidence in the technology and creates more opportunities.

Contrary to the x86-based hardware, hardware platforms built with ARM processors by different vendors are not compatible. And it’s hard to find an off-the-shelf software solution that is able to support ARM-based hardware from different vendors. Many hardware development projects based on the ARM processor are one-of-a-kind products, which incur an unpredictable development schedule and the risk of not being able to complete the development or meet all specified requirements.

Summary
The x86-based technology providers were able to form a community and establish a set of design specifications more than two decades ago. This community was able to evolve, adapt new technology and maintain a set of design specifications adhered to by all of the key companies worldwide, which created an environment that benefits the user and provides solid foundation for x86-based technology to continue to evolve.

While x86-based technology is not able to be everything to everyone, it’s one of the best processor platforms with the largest developer community and support resources, both commercial and open source.

 


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Samuel Phung works for ICOP Technology, an x86-based hardware technology provider. Mr. Phung has worked in the computing technology field for more than 20 years. Although he works in the sales & marketing side of the business, he likes to tinker with technology and is continuing to learn and keep up with new technology. He published two books, “Professional Windows Embedded CE 6.0” in 2008 and “Professional Windows Embedded Compact 7” in 2011. His blog can be found at: http://www.embedded101.com/Samuelp101/