Embedded-Systems Boards Help America Run 24/7

By Frank Shen, Product Marketing Director, American Portwell Technology Inc.

Today's economy demands that developers and hardware/software engineers squeeze every ounce of opportunity out of their applications. Operating those applications 24/7 has become a main criterion for enterprises to compete and medium/small business to survive. The embedded-systems board (ESB) has emerged as one of the more successful technologies to help meet these needs. In order for the ESB to successfully meet its challenges, however, it must provide more than just a compact form factor. While many ESBs are similar, they're far from being the same. To be truly effective in today's operating environment, the ESB must cater to the demands for greater computing power. At the same time, it has to respond successfully to the market's needs to maintain a trim bottom line.

A truly effective ESB must utilize the latest technologies to provide an across-the-board solution in a host of disparate environments. Yet the common denominators are that each application will benefit from increased computing power, lower energy consumption, and increased product longevity. The more compact footprint of today's ESBs is another advantage.

By using the Mini-ITX form factor, an ESB can be as small as 170 mm or 6.7 in. square. This is significantly more compact than the ATX form factor. In addition, Mini-ITX boards can be passively cooled due to their inherently low-power-consumption architecture. This aspect makes them particularly useful in applications where noise can be a distraction.

The most significant contribution to the success of today's ESB, however, has been made by the Intel® Q965 Express chipset. This chipset supports the Intel® Core™ 2 Duo, Intel® Pentium® 4, and Intel® Celeron® D processors in the LGA775 socket with scalability for future processor innovations. The Intel Core 2 Duo processor technology features two independent processor cores in one physical package. They run at the same frequency for true parallel processing. The is designed to increase computing performance and reduce energy consumption. In fact, the Intel Core 2 Duo processor can provide up to 40% savings in power consumption compared with the Intel Pentium 4 processor. Because the Intel Q965 Express chipset is covered by Intel® Communications Alliance (ICA) roadmap support, ICA members also can offer a product with five-year lifecycle support.

New ESB in Action

In addition to increased computing muscle and greater energy savings in a smaller package, many applications benefit greatly from the dual-display feature that's inherent in the Intel Q965 Express chipset. Because two functioning liquid-crystal displays (LCDs) are supported on the same central processing unit (CPU), one display can be dedicated as a field-service monitor. As a result, the field-service engineer or IT department can use one display to conduct diagnostics and maintenance without interrupting the function of the primary display.

Some examples are:

  • Medical instruments: As medical devices like surgical image control instruments become more sophisticated, the competition for physical real estate within those devices becomes more acute. The same is true for the demand for increased computing power without increased energy costs. Given the rising cost and time to market of medical equipment, the life of the ESB must parallel that of the machine it powers. One advantage of using a dual display in this environment is that more medical information can be displayed during the operation.
  • Networks: Network-attached-storage (NAS) devices are often controlled by an ESB. In addition to the advantages of size, power, and savings, some ESBs (like Portwell's WADE-8056) include single or multiple serial-ATA (SATA) ports (see the Figure). These ports provide the high speed that's necessary to access the disk drive. The SATA enables the NAS device to effectively control the data on the bus.
  • Kiosks: Almost all of today's kiosks operate 24/7. As a result, there's an unprecedented demand for reduced energy costs. Dual-display functionality benefits kiosk operators because they can effectively double the display power without the additional cost of a new CPU.
  • Gaming machines: Gaming machines
    function 24/7 and benefit from the energy savings that's inherent in the Core 2 Duo technology. The Core 2 Duo CPU also provides the extra computing power to run today's multi-tasking games and the enhanced graphics that players demand. The dual display enables side-by-side gaming. It also provides the player with more information to enhance the gaming experience. In addition, the ability to run regular diagnostics on the primary machines without interrupting the game is a significant boon for casino owners.
  • Industry: Automation control is a key area in every industry and especially in the manufacture of semiconductors. In addition to the universal requirements for a smaller, more powerful yet economical package, many industries require a complete system solution to expand the ESB into a fully functioning PC system. This complete solution includes the chassis and power supply. Members of the Intel Communications Alliance can provide these industries with a solution that they can operate at the board or system level.

Helping IT Improve Its Efficiency

The modern IT department is responsible for a widening array of hardware, software, and peripheral devices. Often, IT managers have to ensure that their systems operate around the clock. They must pre-empt any problems that are likely to occur and minimize—even eliminate—downtime.

One of the many features inherent on the WADE-8056 and similar ESBs is the Intel® Active Management Technology (Intel® AMT) with System Defense intrinsic to the Intel® Q965 Express chipset and Intel® ICH8 DO I/O controller Hub. Intel AMT enables remote, down-the-wire management of out-of-band networked systems regardless of system state. This aspect helps to improve IT efficiency, asset management, and system security and availability. Intel AMT even allows IT managers to discover their assets while the PCs are powered off.

The System Defense provides network protection by blocking incoming attacks, isolating infected clients from the network, and proactively alerting IT if critical software agents are missing. After operating-system failures, Intel AMT allows the IT manager to remotely heal systems. Its alerting and logging functions can actually help IT managers detect problems quickly in order to reduce downtime.

Putting It All Together

Today's highly sophisticated ESBs meet the demands of modern developers for a powerful ally that helps them provide a sophisticated application solution. At the same time, it meets their clients' budgets and provides the future-proofing that they seek for peace of mind. Because all ESBs may seem similar, though, how do developers measure the differences that will ensure post-sales satisfaction? Step one is to source a supplier that's an associate member of the Intel Communications Alliance. This credential ensures that the company is a member of a community of dedicated embedded developers and solution providers. Members of the Intel Communications Alliance have faster access to the latest technology. In addition, they can help their customers bring products to market much more quickly.

Step two is to determine the added value that the supplier can bring to the table. While the Intel Core 2 Duo processor combined the economy of a dual display, for example, several third-party vendors have enhanced their chips with a choice of PCI or PCI-E. This option enables the user to add two video interfaces, which means that users can now run four displays from the same unit. In addition to the expansion slots, some third-party solutions also feature the following: a single Gigabit Ethernet LAN port; four SATA ports; four COM ports; RAID (0, 1, 5, 10); and six USB 2.0 ports in a compact 170-mm form factor. Such solutions weigh in at as little as 0.43 kg (0.94 lbs.). Their critical accessories include the general-purpose IO (GPIO) and watchdog timers. Some vendors even add a chassis, power supply, and other peripherals to elevate the products to complete system status.

The third step is to determine the validity of the supplier. For example, does the supplier offer a worldwide company with ISO 9001 and 14001 certifications? For those developers and hardware/software engineers that have customers that are part of the move to 24/7 operation or simply want greater computing power, energy savings, and product longevity, ESBs can be the perfect solution.

Frank Shen is the Product Marketing Director at American Portwell Technology Inc. He is responsible for product management and new market development. Shen has over 15 years of product marketing experience in embedded computing, industrial computing, and touch panel industries. He has a master's degree in electrical engineering from University of Southern California.