You hear the term “small form factor” a lot in the world of industrial computing and it has become one of those phrases used to describe a huge range of products. I’ve been working with Logic Supply for over 5 years, and small form factor standards have certainly evolved over time. With the ever-changing nature of the computer industry as a whole, the idea of what constitutes a small form factor device continues to evolve as well. So, what exactly is the definition of small form factor, and where might the industry be headed in the coming years?
One staple PC form factor that has remained extremely popular is Mini-ITX. First developed by VIA in 2001 as a concept to showcase their processors, Mini-ITX took off and became the go-to solution for small form factor system builders. Much of it’s success can be attributed to the fact that Mini-ITX stuck close to the width of your standard tower computer but lopped off the excess length, meaning that you could achieve the same I/O within a small footprint. Mini-ITX offers a compact alternative to full size ATX systems, but without sacrificing much in the way of connectivity and capabilities.
I like to parallel this trend in the tech industry to the mobile phone industry, and the way phones continued to get smaller and smaller to the point that they were irritating and straining to use. Mini-ITX strikes a perfect balance of form and function which makes it ideal for embedded applications in both size and flexibility.
Nano-ITX and Pico-ITX Computers
Nano-ITX and Pico-ITX motherboards were released shortly after the Mini-ITX platform debuted, but did not take off in large part due to a lack of the same careful balance that Mini-ITX was able to maintain; the smaller the platform becomes the less I/O and features it can support. We are finally getting to a point of discontinuing our last Pico-ITX motherboard because our customers find that all of the pin headers needed to enable additional I/O can shake loose in industrial applications.
Intel NUC Computers – The Next Unit of Computing
Recently released by Intel, the Intel NUC was initially launched with a multitude of digital I/O that made it ideal for both consumer (e.g. HTPC) and commercial (e.g. Digital Signage) use. We’ve since seen both Intel and other motherboard manufacturers produce boards that include up to two LAN ports which have opened the doors to other applications such as networking and data acquisition.
Not to toot our own horn, but Logic Supply has really helped progress this form factor to the next level by working closely with Intel to engineer designs such as the ML300, and more recently the ML100, which can incorporate UPS power supplies and COM ports, making them ideal for industrial environments.
With Intel leading the charge we’ve seen simple, plug-and-play computers, or compute sticks, gaining popularity in the last year. However, particularly among our clients, we’ve found that this form factor has some inherent flaws. With it’s small size, it can easy be removed from a direct-plug application which makes it a vulnerability for digital signage applications. Compute sticks also feature limited I/O, drastically inhibiting their connectivity. We’ve also found that these systems are still in the early stages of development and have not been able to maintain the thermal performance that would allow them to withstand challenging computing environments, at least not the type that many of our clients face.
Proprietary Form Factors and Other Standards
Every year we find new proprietary form factors being released. In many cases by integrated solution providers who make their boards unique to their enclosure. These are great if you want to have an off the shelf computer that meets your specifications, but it does significantly limit the amount of customization you can make to the I/O. There are also a growing number of Single Board Computer (SBC) on the market, which often make for a solid development platform but frequently lack the long-term support and revision control that many of our clients require.
The Future of Small Form Factor
As far as I’m concerned, until we all become cyborgs, Mini-ITX will continue to be the leading small form factor for industrial environments.
We’ve been fortunate to have a number of in-depth conversations with manufacturing professionals all over the world who are using thin clients to help optimize every aspect of their production facilities. We had an overwhelming number of requests to add a 4-5 independent display system to our ThinManager-Ready lineup to act as a centralized, control room management device that would allow operators to monitor their entire line from one location.
We took the feedback and created a multi-display thin client system specifically designed with control room applications in mind. The new TM600 Industrial Five Display Thin Client, which has been certified ThinManager® Ready by ACP, is a dependable, easy to install thin client designed for the specific needs of manufacturing pros. Here is what they asked for:
Reliability – When you’re monitoring and controlling your entire operation from one room, it’s imperative that vital performance information, video feeds and analytics are available and easy to access at all times. Industrial components and an all metal enclosure are must-haves in any control room computer.
Small Form Factor – While a control room environment generally offers a bit more installation space to work with than the terminals on the production floor, it’s clear that space is at a premium in every part of a production facility. The hulking towers of old are simply aren’t suited for the modern control room.
Multi-Display – Monitoring multiple applications, or virtualizing multiple desktops from a single thin client that’s able to support 4 or more independent displays simultaneously, is the key feature for control room applications. With the number of large, high resolution panels and monitors available, it’s a natural question to ask “why not use 2 large monitors instead of 4-5 smaller ones?”. The answer: failures and flexibility. If one smaller panel fails, it’s much easier to replace quickly with minimal impact. Multiple smaller displays allow users to organize the monitors in a variety of configurations to best suit their needs. Multiple displays give control room operators the flexibility to view and manage whatever data they need and multi-task effectively.
The team at ACP recently wrote about the industry need for multi-display thin client systems, detailing the benefits they offer for users implementing ThinManager software.
How was the show? What’s the market looking for? Is our focus on rugged, in-vehicle Network Video Recorders justified? These are just some of the questions I bombarded our Logic Supply security team with when they got back from ASIS International 2015 in Anaheim California last week. Once they had a moment to catch their breath, and wade through the sea of business cards they collected, they were happy to provide a full rundown of the lessons they took from one of the world’s largest security technology shows. Here’s just a bit of what they saw and learned.
Surveillance Has Gone Mobile
Logic Supply’s longstanding focus on fanless, wide-temp hardware is paying off. It’s clear that as the physical security market matures, its moving beyond cctv and the office park into more challenging environments: construction sites, offshore drilling rigs, remote locations, and — especially — transportation. The 2015 ASIS team, which consisted of VP of Sales Brett Mancini, Security Hardware Specialist Steve Winn, West Coast Account Executive Marc Girard and Head of our Partnerships Program Beth Hill, spoke with fleet owners and bus companies, as well as train systems and public transit professionals from all over the world. Here’s what those industry pros told us they were looking for in a surveillance hardware solution:
- Multi Camera – It should go without saying, but almost every surveillance application in today’s world requires more than one camera. This makes it crucial that surveillance computers include support for at least 2 camera feeds. Ideally, one data connection per camera should be sought, which means dual Ethernet/PoE per computer. While systems like our Milestone Certified MX1000 can support up to 25 HD camera feeds, many of the installers and integrators the team spoke with are looking for a system that can handle between 2 and 6 simultaneous camera streams.
- Fanless, Solid State, & Vibration Resistant – When installing surveillance equipment in locations prone to vibration like trains, automobiles or construction equipment you need to look for a computer that can handle the shock and vibration they’ll encounter. By having a solid state computer with no moving parts, you eliminate points of failure typical in standard computers like fans and spinning storage media. Also, certifications like EN50155 ensure a computer has been rated for all the perils of railway and automotive applications including vibration, humidity and shock.
- Power Over Ethernet – When wiring cameras in tight spots, extra cabling can mean more work for installation and can cause issues that lead to unreliable operation. PoE offers up to 25 watts of power and Gigabit data over a single port, reducing cables and increasing reliability and ease of installation.
- Hot Swappable Storage – When retrieving or backing up data in the field, easy access to the storage media is ideal. Hot Swap allows for easy removal of hard drives no matter where the system is located, with locking features available to prevent theft or vandalism. 2.5” drive support often means more drives of smaller capacities while 3.5” drives offer higher max storage size but are limited by large physical specifications.
- Wide Temp – Increasingly, today’s surveillance equipment is being installed in harsh locations. Having a computer that can handle extreme temperatures ensures reliability and gives peace of mind. While not all security hardware needs to operate in extreme temps, if a computer will be exposed to the elements, -10°C to 60°C should be the minimum rating to look for in all your equipment. Remembering that the temperature of a system is only as good as the weakest component can prevent surprise failures in the field.
- Automotive Ignition Sensing Power – When installing surveillance equipment in an automotive setting, power is often the biggest hurdle. You need computers that can sense when the automobile is turned off, ensuring the computer doesn’t drain the battery and cause damage to other electrical components. Automotive computers have special intelligent functions enabling the system to turn on and off with the rest of the internal components, ensuring the reliability of the computer and the vehicle.
- High Performance – As footage resolutions and frame rates increase, and the number of cameras required also goes up, the need for high performance computers is crucial. Intel’s Core i7 processing is ideal for this and is becoming a popular choice in the surveillance industry. Also, high performance storage media also ensures smooth and reliable recording. SSD’s offer high performance and solid state operation while traditional drives offer high storage capacities at affordable prices.
What Do Security Integrators Need?
The security integrators we talked to told us loud and clear that they are interested in a rugged lineup of hardware that would help them penetrate new, big markets like urban transit and fleet security. They also wanted service options that would support their business: a clear product line architecture (good, better, best); net terms; VMS software imaging and licensing; quick ship times, a spare the air program, and rock solid technical support.
VMS and surveillance solution providers who we talked to, by contrast, were interested in heat dissipation (thermal performance of our units) and our OEM services: industrial design and branding to help them stand out, combined with an off the shelf approach to system development that would limit from-scratch development costs.
What’s In a Name: NVR vs Edge Device vs Edge Server
The other thing we noticed in Anaheim? There is little standardization about what the market calls our products. Some refer to our systems as rugged or mobile NVRs (in contrast to HVRs and DVRs), others talk about them as Edge Devices, Edge Storage, or Edge Servers. This difference in nomenclature probably has to do with the particular ecosystem the integrator or end user is working with, and really doesn’t make a lot of material difference to us. That said, it drives our marketing team nuts!
As a whole our experience at ASIS 2015 was incredibly positive. In addition to our own booth we were part of the Milestone Systems Partner Pod program, which gave us the opportunity to be part of their ASIS display, show off our MX1000 rugged mobile NVR and chat with integrators utilizing Milestone’s class-leading XProtect® VMS software. We learned a great deal about how XProtect is being used and what Milestone users are looking for in a hardware platform (more to come on that in the near future). The Logic Supply security team is already hard at work following up with some of the folks we met in Anaheim and we’re excited to help them create the perfect surveillance solution for their trains, buses, unmanned vehicles, taxis and trucking fleets.