Embedded computing systems are nothing new. For decades, they’ve ensured that manufacturing and industrial production lines run smoothly with little maintenance or downtime, says Engela Minnaar, Intel IPC and embedded systems brand manager at Rectron.
The fact that embedded computing technology has not evolved as quickly as mainstream consumer and business technology means it is still coming of age and could be the next big thing in five to 10 years’ time as more industries express an interest in the technology.
We use the term embedded system, or single board computer, to describe a product with no moving parts. Everything it needs to function – the hardware, software and operating system – is already on the motherboard. Embedded systems typically have dedicated functions within a larger mechanical or electrical system, and are found in many everyday objects, including smartphones, ATMs and traffic lights.
Intel refers to the fourth phase in the evolution of the Internet as the Embedded Internet, with 15 billion devices expected to be connected by the end of this year, while Cisco expects this number to increase to 50 billion by 2020.
It makes sense, then, that there is increasing interest in embedded computing across all verticals. The benefits are especially appealing to the industrial and manufacturing sectors, which need to run machines consistently without any breakdowns. Here’s why the largest enterprises opt for embedded systems to run their machinery:
Long life cycles
Industrial organisations typically refresh their IT environments every five to seven years, purely because it is such a massive undertaking. Factory automation businesses, vehicle manufacturers, railway operators and other industrial organisations need reliable systems that won’t fail with consistent use. This makes embedded computing systems the ideal technology as they have eight- to 10-year life cycles, and vendors can guarantee support and product availability for years to come. Embedded computing systems also support old technology, such as ISA slots and parallel and serial ports, which are common in manufacturing environments.
Embedded computing systems can withstand extreme temperatures, from as low as -40°C to as high as 85°C, with a heatsink enclosure radiating heat away from the board to prevent overheating. They’re also dustproof and water resistant or waterproof, making them ideal for harsh manufacturing environments characterised by heat, moisture and dust.
While embedded computing systems can run mainstream Microsoft and Linux operating systems, most vendors recommend Windows Embedded. Think of buying a regular software licence as being given a castle built out of Lego. It’s already constructed and you can’t make any changes to it. When choosing Windows Embedded, however, you’re given a box of Lego blocks, which you can use to design and build your own castle. Don’t want a drawbridge? Leave it out. Want five towers? No problem – you can have as many as you want. Windows Embedded is a fully customisable operating system with all the key features of generic operating systems, only you get to decide which features you want to use. This streamlines the operating system and makes it a lot faster.
Windows Embedded also allows you to lock down certain drives so that they’re inaccessible by outsiders and therefore cannot be corrupted, making embedded computing more secure than mainstream systems.
Low IT management and costs
With no moving parts, fewer interconnections and a customised operating system, embedded computing setups are easier to manage than complex environments comprising many components. If something goes wrong, enterprises only need to replace the motherboard, rather than ripping and replacing the entire infrastructure. This reduces costs in the long term as enterprises will save money on new hardware, skills and training.
Embedded systems are also a lot smaller than desktop systems and consume less power, lowering storage and cooling costs. Because the system performs the same function continuously, it rarely needs hardware changes and can run old software for years without any issues, making it a low-maintenance technology.
These benefits make embedded computing perfect in environments where machines cannot be shut down or repaired, or if the cost of shutting them down will be too great. It’s also why we’ll soon see a lot more devices running on embedded computing, especially those that need increased longevity and durability. We expect to see exciting developments in this industry as more verticals opt for reliable, low-maintenance operating technology.