Industrial PCs (IPCs) are all about performance, including processors, mass storage performance, and network throughput. In all applications — medical, communications, automation, process control, transportation, military and defense, and more — bandwidth requirements for data transmission and processing are on the rise. Long-term use, low-level noise tolerance, ruggedness for shock and vibration, extended availability of additional systems — these are just some of the top-level requirements that must be considered in pairing the right industrial solution to the right application.
Deployed systems have an incredibly broad range of applications, even within a single market segment, yet the systems engineer is tasked with building in the right features for long-term, rugged, and ever increasing performance needs. As a result, configuring systems flawlessly — carefully verifying performance with the broad range of specific required components — can be a challenge for implementing industrial systems quickly and effectively.
In the past, available processor performance may have had limited bandwidth; however, today’s quad-core systems are responding with new and growing levels of processing horsepower. Quad-core systems enabled by Intel’s 45- nm process technology can handle massive computing and visualization workloads in faster, cooler, and quieter systems. Making the most of that performance, today’s IPCs are delivering complex feature sets that vary dramatically from application to application. In certain applications, increased drive capabilities may be required — for example, up to terabyte drives — to handle greater amounts of video and graphics. These applications are also storage intensive and may require DVD drives as well as more powerful graphics processing units or media accelerators. Applications such as battlefield simulation and training, measuring real-time radiation characteristics from a mobile ground vehicle, or even real-time data processing in a hospital operating theater or computer server room, may require these special adjustments in available features and performance, all contained within proven rugged construction.
Modular Means Faster Time to Market
So how are project engineers developing the most effective systems and getting to market quickly? Meeting diverse industrial requirements with custom systems can be costly in terms of both expense and development time. In contrast, ready-to-go configurable systems are gaining ground as a notable engineering trend. Modular and scalable to users’ needs, they eliminate the need for many custom design efforts, and avoid being subjected to high minimum order requirements, extensive compatibility testing, and special certification efforts.
With configurable systems, today’s project engineers are able to select specific components and functions, controlling the choice of processor, memory, mechanical parts, and hardware and software options, all pre-tested and validated for performance compatibility. Attention to thermal flow and power management ensure high reliability and low operating cost as well, providing platform stability that makes all the difference in getting systems up and running faster and more efficiently — well prepared for a MTBF (Mean Time Between Failures) requirement of up to 50,000 hours.
Configurable vs. customized solutions incorporate identical building blocks such as consistent chipsets, and simplify the adaptation of software for all form factors. Based on the PICMG 1.3 standard, industrial servers solve problems of bandwidth by integrating high-speed serial links to replace system host board (SHB)-to-backplane parallel bus interfaces. Emphasizing mechanical compatibility with the PICMG standard, the PICMG1.3 SHB interfaces to PCI Express peripherals through the backplane, and multiple PCI Express links on the backplane can operate at ×1, ×4, ×8, or ×16. Data bottlenecks are eliminated, systems integrate additional PCI Express interfaces while retaining the PCI bus, and PCI and PCI-X option cards can take advantage of high-speed serial links as well as streamlined interconnects.
Multicore processing technology from Intel has had decisive impact on the range of embedded applications, and in particular, on industrial PCs. Using Intel’s hafnium-based 45-nm high-k metal gate silicon process technology, multicore chips such as the dual-core Intel® Core™2 Duo processors and fourcore Intel® Core™ i7 processors have improved the power-to-performance ratio dramatically for industrial systems. Dual-core chips are readily integrated into many popular embedded computing platforms such as CompactPCI, Computer-on-Module, MicroTCA and VPX; however, industrial PCs are taking the lead with quad-core integration in a non-server platform.
The Intel® Core™2 Quad processor is the first quad-core processor within the Intel® Core™2 processor product line with embedded lifecycle support, meaning Intel will guarantee five to seven years of product availability and support, enabling suppliers to keep offering the product so customers can add to their equipment base without requalification processes. Four complete execution cores are placed within a single processor, delivering exceptional performance and responsiveness in multi-threaded and multi-tasking environments. As a result, more instructions can be carried out per clock cycle, shorter and wider pipelines execute commands more quickly, and improved bus lanes move data throughout the system faster.
Extending High Performance with Rugged, Flexible Features
Optimized on the front side bus (up to 1333 MHz), quad-core performance means much faster and power-efficient data transfer. Lower thermals are achieved though updated Graphics Memory Controller Hubs (GMCH), which include a low-power graphics core with only 13 Watts of thermal design power. From there, any number of configurable options makes the most of the system’s development budget and application requirements.
For example, media accelerators such as the Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 3100 enhance 3D imaging and processing with greater flexibility and scalability. By using components that extend the thermal tolerance levels of the system, most systems tolerate operating temperatures of 0 to 50 ºC. Built to withstand the rigors of shock and vibration common to harsh computing environments found in building automation, transportation, and communications, many systems have redundant power supply units (PSUs), integrated RAID, and shock-protected drive bays.
Many IPC systems support up to four external PCI-masters as well as one MiniPCI Type IIIA, 124-pin connector for a significant level of flexibility in building the overall system. For emergency situations such as unrecoverable power failure, natural disaster, or other critical field failure, the BIOS can be updated via USB FDD (floppy disk drive) designated as a special ‘crisis disk.’ Super silent systems — inaudible compared to even normal conversation — operate below 35 dBA, something project engineers must routinely design into unique computing settings such as surgical theaters, offices, or other noise sensitive environments.
IPCs Moving Forward
According to IMS Research, provider of market research to the global electronics industry, the world market for IPCs was estimated at almost $1.5 billion in 2006, and is anticipated to increase to more than $2 billion by 2011. In terms of unit shipments, the total world IPC market is expected to reach nearly 1.5 million by 2011. Undoubtedly, the trend toward configurable systems for faster time to market is a factor fueling this growth, as well as continued improvements in supercharged multicore processing.
The underlying philosophy of IPCs is to provide a rugged environment where the computing tasks at hand are safely executed. From a design perspective, IPCs can represent some of the most challenging and complex engineered systems — yet configurable solutions are driving IPCs quickly forward, offering more and more features, performance capacities, and time-to-market advantages. Robust controls, rugged construction, high-grade power supplies, sealed connectors, slim chassis for desktop or rack-mount integration, quad-core available performance, and the ability to accommodate any number of CPU and backplane options means that project engineers must understand their end-use requirements, not only today, but also as the application moves into later generations of high-level industrial performance.
This article was written by Nancy Pantone, Director, Product Management, Modules & Systems, for Kontron America, Poway, CA.
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