What is an embedded computer?

Author: Ben Jervis

An embedded computer is a dedicated computer system that forms an integral part of a larger machine or system. In contrast to an ordinary desktop computer, an embedded computer is generally designed or purposed for a single purpose. Where enterprise IT equipment in a manufacturing environment may process multiple different tasks at any given time, timesheets in excel spreadsheets, MRP software for production planning and stock management, an embedded computer is used to process a single task, perhaps designed to sit inside a kiosk or digital signage unit, or actually connected directly to one of those machines on the factory floor.
Embedded computers in everyday life

Embedded computers in everyday life

Picture yourself on a coach. You relax and interact with the onboard entertainment on the seat directly ahead of you. You play a few games, maybe watch a movie. What you don’t see is the embedded computer that is serving your onboard entertainment along with everyone else’s on the coach. Furthermore, the embedded computer ensures all entertainment data and firmware is updated automatically from the operator's central system before leaving the station. As the coach makes its way through town, you pass a lamppost, on which is attached an embedded computer in a waterproof housing, which is analysing traffic patterns and transmitting the information back to the central control room via a cellular connection. An inconspicuous box a little further down the road houses another embedded computer, which is taking data from the control room, and using that information to control a variable message sign warning of stationary traffic or poor visibility up ahead. The coach passes a speed camera, inside which sits an embedded computer connected to a radar sensor which analyses the speed of moving vehicles and chooses whether to activate the camera and the flash. Heading onto the motorway, the coach is overtaken by a car in which the driver is relaxing, reading a newspaper. A self-driving car, connected to a multitude of motion and Lidar sensors, uses GPUs to analyse data from those sensors and provide a safe autonomous driving experience — a system designed and developed using the power of an embedded computer mounted in test vehicles. At the end of the trip, as the coach ignition is switched off, an onboard embedded computer safely shuts down the entertainment systems, before intelligently powering itself down after a set number of minutes.

This short journey is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to applications using embedded computers. When you receive your delivery from Amazon, the package you hold in your hand has encountered countless machines and systems which use embedded computers, from warehouse stock-checking systems, autonomous picking machines and trolleys, through to GPS tracking systems for delivery drivers, and vehicle-mounted CCTV systems.

Whether or not the term ‘embedded computer’ is new to you, it’s almost certain that you have come into contact with an embedded computer at some point – maybe even today. They exist everywhere and are the anonymous centre of everyday electronic devices we see and use in our daily lives, from cash machines to advertising boards, roadwork signs to passenger information systems on a railway platform.

Whether we see them or not, or even know they are there, embedded computers are the hidden heart of the automated space and provide much of the luxuries we enjoy in the modern technological world.
A Microbox PC, the precursor to the embedded PC, first available in the mid to late 90'sA Microbox PC, the precursor to the embedded PC, first available in the mid to late 90's

A brief history of embedded computers

We all know that the speed of evolution when it comes to technology is often a case of ‘blink-and-you’ll-miss-it’ fast. No sooner is a new CPU platform released than another is set to supersede it, but the speed in which embedded computers hit the market in the early 2000s, at least the iteration of the embedded computer as we know it today, was mind blowing.

Applied computers, a term which describes a computer designed or used for a single process or task, have been around since the 1960s. We’ve likely all seen black and white photos from those days, of computers the size of a room, and it is these applied computers which could be seen as the ancestor of the modern embedded computer – not necessarily in its technology, but in the applied nature of its usage.

In the 1990s, these applied computers had been shrunk to around the size of a tower PC, and came in the form of a Microbox — a backplane system with an x86-based embedded SBC plugged into it, with expansion slots, all packaged inside a single chassis. As we look back on the evolution of the modern embedded computer, we see the Microbox as the “fish-with-legs” — the piece of the jigsaw that sits between the rack or desktop PCs of the 80s and 90s, and the fanless embedded computers on the market today. The Microbox chassis wasn’t fanless, as the technology simply didn’t exist, and although solid-state technology was around at the time it wasn’t readily available, nor was it commercially viable, so these systems weren’t shock and vibration proof like most of the modern embedded computers, but they did function as an applied computer and served many an industrial application, predominantly in industrial automation.

What happened in the mid 2000s changed the face of applied computing. With the release of AMD's LX800 and VIA's C3 processors — small, powerful CPUs which needed nothing other than a heatsink attached to it to provide enough heat dissipation — the dawn of high-performance, fanless computing had arrived. As soon as the first fanless single board computers were developed, a small number of Taiwanese manufacturers quickly identified the possibility of developing a rugged, fanless embedded computer to replace the expensive, less-ruggedised Microboxes. These new, embedded computers would be off-the-shelf solutions, entirely contained in a rugged, fanless chassis, and for the time providing fairly high performance straight out of the box.  The Intel Atom processor family arrived a few years later in 2009 which further pushed the development in embedded computing with faster processing and more I/O connectivity all with ultra low power consumption specifications.

Craig Wright, Impulse Managing Director says of this time, “We’d been selling Microbox PCs and embedded systems from the early 90s, but as soon as the first fanless embedded computers came onto the market, they just exploded. Within twelve months of their release, Impulse had sold 1500 of them. The year after we’d sold five times that.”

Once the first modern iteration of the embedded computer appeared on the market, all major computing manufacturers quickly adopted the format, and released a range of fanless embedded computers themselves. This catapulted the embedded computer into the mainstream and put them at the forefront of industrial and commercial computing project design.

To look at these early embedded computers, perhaps Aaeon Technology's AEC-6810, you perhaps wouldn’t notice much difference to what you see in today’s embedded PCs. Visually they haven’t changed much, but what they lack in aesthetic evolution they more than make up for in technology. Early iterations of embedded computers had an abundance of cabling, which was a common point of failure. There was no room for expansion, and with just USB and perhaps a LAN port, I/O was limited. Modern day embedded computers can cater for much more. Despite their increased sophistication, their cableless design has been simplified and streamlined, reducing costs and potential failure points. Expansion slots are available in some versions, and the level of I/O has been expanded to include multiple LAN, CANbus, fieldbus, wireless antennas, multiple USB and more. 

As you would expect, the processing technology also evolved quickly. With Reduced Instruction Set Computers (RISC) becoming more prevalent, embedded computers became less power-hungry, and more compact. This drove down prices, and the introduction of cellular technology allowed for low-cost, low-power gateways to come into the mainstream.

Another shift happened around the early 2010s. Where embedded computers had featured strongly in factory automation applications, the advent of certified embedded computers expanded their potential massively. No longer were they limited to factory installations, but they could be certified for rail, marine, and oil & gas applications offering fully deployabel solutions straight out of the box with no need for further compliance.

The evolution of the fanless embedded computer can be tracked to the 1960s and has been driven by improvements in chipset technology and innovation from Taiwanese manufacturers like Aaeon Technology, Advantech, Axiomtek and iEi. We are likely to see these embedded computers evolve even more over the coming years and continue to be the staple of applied computing for decades to come.
Key features of embedded computers

Key features of embedded computers

Embedded computers are rugged in design, for the most part. They are often fanless – a stark difference to a regular desktop or industrial computer. Embedded computers are most often found operating in harsh or rugged applications, sometimes in environments where temperatures can sink to -40°C or lower, or soar to higher than +80°C or more. And the temperature demands don’t just depend on the weather – the embedded computer could be located deep inside a metal chassis, which in turn is buried deep inside an operating piece of machinery where air flow is at a minimum. The absence of an in-built fan in computers could seem like an odd design feature, but there is method behind the madness. In industrial environments, there is often dirt and dust, perhaps moisture or particles in the air that could interfere with the internal components of the embedded computer. A fan would suck in this dust and particulate matter and coat the insides of the PC with material which could be hazardous to its operation. To solve this problem, the aluminium exterior of an embedded computer — often adorned with fins (or gills) — acts as a heat sink, dispersing heat generated by the unit without the need for a problematic fan design. An additional bonus of this fanless design is that it eradicates the problem of moving parts – one of the main sources of failures and maintenance requirements in industrial applications.

Despite embedded computers being designed or purposed specifically for single tasks, they share many of the components that a regular desktop or industrial computer have inside their chassis. CPU, RAM, graphics cards, storage – these are all common elements to computing systems, but it is in their design that they differ. For instance, if an embedded computer is destined to live in the Antarctic, processing information from an atmospheric Lidar station and storing it on removable storage devices for later analysis, it isn’t just the main components of the PC, such as the CPU and PCB, that need to withstand the sub-zero temperatures of the PC’s location. Every component inside that embedded computer must be tested and rated to be able to cope with the environment — after all, if one component fails, the whole system fails.
Why would I need an embedded computer?

Why would I need an embedded computer?

Embedded computers can be used in a multitude of applications and environments. They act as a simple processing unit with varying levels of I/O, and can compute the most complex information, such as analysing products on a production line as part of a vision automation system, which requires a high level of computing power and connectivity, down to a simple digital signage installation, which needs nothing more than low power consumption, a little processing power and the ability to output 4k resolution video.

Whether an embedded computer is right for you depends on a few factors, which can be summed up by asking yourself a simple question:

“Will the device be integrated into an OEM device, or perform a single task as part of a larger machine or system in a harsh or dusty environment?”

If the answer to this question is yes, then it is likely that an embedded computer is what your application needs. Embedded computers are used by OEMs so readily because of their longevity, size, power usage and footprint, so if you are an OEM, or have a similar requirement where you need to integrate some form of computing power into a larger system, then an embedded computer is a neat and cost-effective way to achieve just that.

Space limitations are also a good sign that you need an embedded computer. Some environments may not allow the space for a tower system or rack PC, and if there isn’t a need for the potentially huge processing power that can be delivered by these types of system, an embedded computer could provide the computing power your application requires while taking up no more room than a paper weight. Of course, with increased processing power comes increased footprint, but there are many embedded computers on the market that can fit in the palm of your hand while still providing the latest processing power from the likes of Intel, AMD and ARM.
Why are embedded computers good for OEMs and machine builders?

Why are embedded computers good for OEMs and machine builders?

OEMs and machine builders have long used embedded computers in their systems for several reasons. Unlike their commercial counterparts, components used in embedded computers are given a long lifetime, wrapped up in a well-defined roadmap. OEMs and machine builders must trust that any component they are designing into a system will be available for a number of years, so manufacturers of embedded computers ensure that this roadmap is visible and adhered to as closely as possible.

Form, fit and function is another reason OEMs and machine builders turn to embedded computers. Let’s say an OEM machine containing an embedded computer has been on a factory floor for a number of years, and the chipset needs upgrading to accommodate a company wide rollout of a new operating system. If all the I/O is expanded to the outside of the case, it is important to be able to find a direct replacement for embedded computer which will accommodate the same I/O and housing requirements. This also applies to new iterations of an OEM machine, where perhaps the look is modernised and technology upgraded, but the I/O is to remain the same. A more modern embedded computer with the same footprint or form factor can be sourced, reducing R&D time and overall cost.

Many aspects of embedded computers are standardised across ranges. For instance, mounting options common to embedded computers but non-existent in their desktop or commercial equivalents, like DIN-rail and VESA mount, allow for more flexible installations in control cabinets, or inside machinery.

Older expansion options are also more available in embedded computers, such as PCI, allowing OEMs and machine builders to accommodate older expansion cards where needed. In the same vein, older display outputs are also often supported, with VGA still being prevalent in industrial and embedded applications partly due to the robustness of the connector and the prevalence of older display terminals.

As an embedded computer can be installed deep inside an OEM system, remote on/off is another feature sometimes found in embedded computers, allowing the cycling of power without having to open up control panels, or turn of the system power completely. And on the subject of power, embedded computers designed for industrial envrionments offer wide D/C input on terminal blocks, rare in commercial PCs, which opens the door to having a single power supply in a control cabinet, powering everything from the embedded computer to all the peripheral devices, such as industrial routers, Ethernet switches and I/O.
The DS-082 - an ultra-slimline multi-media embedded computer from AdvantechThe DS-082 - an ultra-slimline multi-media embedded computer from Advantech

What are some examples of the types of embedded computer?

There are far too many iterations of embedded computer to list here, but when it comes to requirements for specific applications, key features of modern embedded computers can define which applications they are suited for:

GPU accelerated embedded computers
GPU accelerated embedded computers are geared up for intelligent video analytics, and heavy processing and graphics-intensive applications on the edge. For instance, if you have an A.I.-based system which captures high-definition video and analyses it (let’s say facial recognition), to farm these terabytes of video data and send it all up to the cloud would be costly and inefficient. GPU accelerated embedded computers can capture and analyse that information right on the edge, and send just the relevant information, maybe only kilobytes, up to the cloud for alerts and reporting.

Multi-media players
Classed as ‘light-industrial’, multi-media embedded computers are typically used in a more benign environment. They still maintain all the industrial principles, but don’t require wide temperature capabilities or a multitude of I/O. More high resolution display outputs is the key, and a slimline footprint is often desirable in order for the system to fit behind digital signage screens.

In-vehicle embedded computers
Shock, vibration and wide voltage tolerance are important attributes for in-vehicle embedded computers. With certified embedded computers installed in railway rolling-stock, acting as data gateways communicating with the wayside, to wide temperature embedded PCs in haulage and transport vehicles, capturing and storing CCTV images or transmitting GPS and driver behaviour information to a control centre, in-vehicle embedded computers are as varied as they are rugged. With most in-vehicle applications, power can fluctuate, so embedded computers designed for in-vehicle applications allow for this variance to ensure steady operation.

Industrial IoT gateways
Industrial IoT gateways sit on the edge and provide device connectivity and northbound data while accelerating integration and simplifying overall management of industrial IoT network devices. With focus on connectivity and processing, these specialised devices are ideal for applications on the edge that require a little computing power, IT and OT protocol compatibility, and a WAN connection, often via cellular or Wi-Fi.

How can I find an embedded computer that fits my needs?

Impulse Embedded has been supplying and supporting embedded computing applications since 1994. From early Microbox PCs to the latest fanless embedded computers with 10th generation Intel Core i chipsets, our System Engineers have a wealth of experience in selecting an embedded computer to fit the most rugged and critical applications.

We have a wide range of embedded computers available on our website, and access to even more via our long-established relationships with global manufacturers who sit at the spearhead of embedded computing design.

Need certification? Many of our embedded computers are rail, marine and oil & gas certified straight out of the box, and we even the ability to certify general purpose products to specific industry standards, allowing us to help you to develop your embedded system without compromise.

For more information, or to chat about your next embedded computer project, feel free to get in touch on +44(0)1782 337 800, or click here to send us an enquiry.
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