When the going gets tough, the tough get going. These days such words of wisdom are certainly worth considering when choosing motherboards for use in harsh embedded industrial computing environments.
Sure enough, the past 30 years or more has seen 32- and 64-bit x86 motherboards from leading PC brands doing a competent job in typical embedded industrial computing applications. And yes, in general terms, all embedded motherboards on the market are widely scalable in terms of computing power and energy consumption. What’s more, when it comes to size, the Mini-ITX to ATX formats are the widely accepted standard.
But times are changing. In today’s IIoT world it’s no longer a clear cut ‘one size fits all’ decision.
So what’s changed?
Motherboards must now be able to cope with increasing complexities, driven by new and emerging IIoT enabled applications, aided by rapidly emerging edge and fog computing architectures. These applications count on high levels of inter-dependence between numerous devices, often deployed in very tough, harsh environments. Therefore, embedded devices and computers are being deployed on an unprecedented scale, not only on factory floor assembly lines and in machinery for automation, inspection and predictive maintenance purposes, but for enabling a whole array of previously unimagined applications such as those appearing in power plants, oil and gas fields, wind and solar farms, agriculture, healthcare, smart cities…you name it!
All of this is making it absolutely essential that the motherboard, as the computer’s central ‘nervous system’, can be depended upon to ensure continuous availability and rock solid reliability. Even small errors and failures will most likely cause large and expensive damage.
OK, so what’s the difference?
Well, on general quality, thanks to modern sophisticated design and production processes and the use of high-quality parts and components, perhaps there’s not a great deal to choose between a leading PC brand product and one from a specialist embedded provider like Kontron.
But it’s important to look carefully at the application in hand and the physical environments concerned. Only then, do the special "embedded" challenges from the harsh, sometimes extreme, conditions found in modern industrial computing environments become clearer.
For one, the motherboard must be suitable for permanent use in critical environments perhaps where there are extended temperature ranges of up to 60 ° C, not to mention exposure to dust, vibration and moisture. This calls for an unprecedented degree of robustness in order to withstand such harsh and hostile forces.
It’s also worth remembering that while existing standard PC motherboard designs can be upgraded relatively easily, by additional measures such as varnish and coating or more elaborate housings, the protective measures for insensitivity to shock and vibration must have been established at the initial design phase.
Furthermore, depending on the specific application, embedded motherboards will also require a Real Time Clock, additional serial interfaces / GPIOs, and optional remote maintenance connections. There are also often additional security features necessary such as Trusted Platform Module (TPM). And if special interfaces are to be implemented on the motherboard or via a plug-in card, then the software and integration know-how of the manufacturer is a further consideration.
Here’s another. The quality of support over the entire operating period must not be taken for granted. Let’s face it, the typical business models of the IT industry are not geared up to the consulting and support-intensive businesses of the system integrators and manufacturers found in mechanical engineering. IT manufacturers can often lack the necessary understanding of the special requirements of the harsh environments found in industrial production.
Purpose-designed embedded motherboards have their own rules of the game
This is especially the case when it comes to their design for use in harsh industrial environments. Even so, you still can’t count on all of them being exactly the same when it comes to features and functionality.
As you might expect, with over 30 years’ industry experience, Kontron embedded motherboards are highly robust and designed for the harshest of environments. They’re ‘Plug and Play’ as the hardware is designed to be easily adapted and customized. For example, factory pre-integrations include Windows / embedded and selected Linux distributions by default. And the RTC, additional serial Interfaces/ GPIOs, optional remote diagnosis ports and additional safety and security features such as Approtect come ‘as standard’.
At the same time, firmware adjustments are available, such as customized UEFI / Bios, along with additional services, such as the implementation of special display adjustments, fieldbus interfaces or communication stacks. A wide supply voltage range is also supported, from 12 to 24 Volts, and flexible cooling concepts (active/passive) which can be adapted to the demands of harsh industrial use in higher ambient temperatures.
Worth the risk?
While at first sight purpose-designed embedded motherboards may appear slightly more expensive than the others, they will pay back major dividends through system performance, flexibility, reliability, and security. Crucially, their long term availability will result in low Total Cost of Ownership (TCO).
Here’s the bottom line: Taking a gamble on using PC brand motherboards, especially in harsh environments, just to save a little on the initial hardware purchase, could seriously risk the outcome of mission critical IIoT projects worth maybe tens of thousands of Euros.
With so much at stake who still wants to play Russian roulette?
For more information about Kontron’s range of industrial-strength embedded motherboards visit: