PC platforms blend off-the-shelf building blocks with customized options

August 1, 2008 OpenSystems Media

The build versus buy decision is critical for embedded system designers faced with time-to-market and budgetary pressures. Matt explores the new technologies shaping the embedded PC market and explains how an embedded PC platform blends standardized off-the-shelf building blocks with customized options to meet the challenges of demanding applications such as next-generation Electronic Medical Record (EMR) systems.

Across many industries, embedded system designers are frequently confronted with the build versus buy predicament when choosing the right computing platform for their particular applications. This important decision can be overwhelming for designers trying to tackle time-to-market and budget pressures. Because each approach has its own set of advantages and disadvantages, a number of application-specific factors should be taken into consideration.

This dilemma presents substantial problems for medical applications designers facing stringent industry requirements for high reliability that meets regulatory approvals, longevity up to and beyond 10 years, and high performance to quickly transfer large amounts of data for analysis. And with the increasing need for mobility within hospital environments, added requirements include more compact form factors for use in space-constrained applications as well as enhanced power efficiency. Specific design requirements can include the need for specialized I/O, increased computing power density, a fanless system, strict revision control, fixed or frozen Bill Of Materials (BOMs), or customized enclosures. All the while, service and long-term support for the overall system remain imperative due to the critical nature of these applications.

Designers are noticing a definite trend within the embedded market: the shift toward PC-compatible systems. This makes sense, considering the benefits embedded PC boards can offer, from both a performance and time-to-market standpoint. When carefully selected, embedded PC boards can reduce design cycle time and improve system performance, resulting in enhanced, feature-rich products that get to market faster than ever before.

The ever-changing embedded PC market

Just like the desktop PC market, the market for embedded PCs is constantly transforming. However, embedded PCs are typically deployed in complex applications that require longer life cycles of 10-15 years, as opposed to a desktop PC’s expected 5-year or less life span. In addition, embedded PCs are expected to perform flawlessly around the clock given the nature of the environments in which they are deployed. This puts strain on designers, as trends in the embedded PC market continually change and technologies evolve.

Several emerging trends are affecting the embedded PC market. The advent of multicore technology provides an attractive way to scale components and add features within embedded form factors without dramatically affecting such energy variables as thermal output and power consumption. This has enabled performance to increase exponentially, allowing for vastly improved functionality.

Shrinking component geometries have also allowed the number of features on a motherboard to increase significantly, making it possible to pack more functionality into smaller form factors.

Medical records go paperless

The need for portability and instant communication in the health care industry has spurred the development of Electronic Medical Records (EMRs). EMR systems allow health care professionals to access real-time patient records, medication schedules, radiological images, and physician orders from multiple points, including the patient’s bedside, emergency room, or operation room. EMR systems save administrative time and costs, providing a more efficient way than using paper to store and handle records. What’s even more important, EMR systems improve patient care by providing a safer, more efficient, and convenient health care system.

Despite these advantages, the health care industry has been slow to adopt EMR and other medical information technologies. According to the 2007 Survey of Electronic Medical Record Trends and Usage conducted by the Medical Records Institute, several barriers are curtailing EMR system implementation. These roadblocks include lack of adequate funding or resources, anticipated problems in switching to an EMR system, difficulty in creating a migration plan from paper, and the inability to find an EMR system at an affordable cost.

To increase EMR system adoption, the technology must be cost efficient, perform to expectations, and offer a path for seamless integration. In addition, the technology must meet many other design challenges. Medical records such as physician orders and test reports are legal documents that must be kept in unaltered form and authenticated by the creator. Therefore, the data processing system must be extremely reliable. These types of systems also tend to require very long technology life cycles and frozen BOMs to achieve the necessary regulatory approvals. Even the smallest changes in a system can require an engineering change notice and lead to further certification agency testing. In the hospital environment, the equipment must also be portable, compact, and rugged.

Besides the core requirements inherent in health care applications, each medical practice also has its own needs, and systems require a certain amount of customization. These custom specifications might include extra I/O, a customized enclosure, branding, or mechanical modifications.

Developing a complete customized system from the ground up is not practical in this instance because of cost constraints, not to mention time-to-market and validation issues. A more viable approach is an embedded PC platform that merges standards-based functionality with customized features that can be integrated to meet the particular application’s unique requirements.

Benefits of the blend

Reducing time to market is one of the biggest reasons designers turn to off-the-shelf embedded PC platforms. In the past, adding custom circuitry was viewed as a showstopper because doing so significantly slowed the design process. Today, the ability to add new and advanced features on a prevalidated platform has become yet another solid reason for designers to utilize embedded PC platforms for their applications.

To provide medical designers the best possible embedded PC platform to meet their specific needs, it has become necessary to combine standardized off-the-shelf building blocks with customized options. For example, as shown in Figure 1, Kontron incorporated an ETX embedded computing platform into its embedded PC to enable a smaller and more flexible platform that can be easily upgraded with faster processors by simply switching out the ETX module. Standard board form factors like ETX are structures to which designers can add advanced capabilities, such as full-color graphical interfaces or specialized I/O that is uniquely relevant to their applications.

Figure 1

Proven PC hardware and software standards also provide embedded systems designers with a foundation to utilize development tools, components, peripherals, and application software, which helps them reduce development costs and hasten time to market.

Evaluating an embedded PC platform for EMR

One case study involving an EMR application that evaluated whether to transition from an off-the-shelf white box PC to an embedded PC model illustrates the advantages of blending standard building blocks with customized features. In this situation, the customer, one of the largest hospital chains in North America, was in the process of upgrading its older, monochrome dumb terminal systems running text-based interfaces.

The new system needed to run a few key applications, including custom software to manage medical records, but not the latest and greatest office applications. This meant that it did not require a tremendous amount of computing power. However, the system needed to be small enough to be inconspicuous as well as reliable and rugged to endure a bustling hospital environment. Future design considerations included wireless networking capability, which would enable the units to be added to mobile nursing stations that could run from batteries rather than tethered to a wall-mount plug. Total system cost was also a critical factor.

This customer’s IT group considered two approaches to achieve their goal: either upgrade to an off-the-shelf PC system or switch to an embedded system. The off-the-shelf PC option limited the customer to processor and other features that were available at the time of the evaluation. In this particular case, the embedded system required less computing power than the power-hungry desktop systems on the market. Consequently, the embedded system could use a lower-power processor, which better suited the mobility requirements.

Another critical yet less obvious consideration was the customer’s desire to move away from the look of a traditional PC. The customer’s rationale was that if the system looked less like an ordinary PC, then patients and visitors would be less inclined to interfere with it. The customer wanted to design a unit that was small and flexible enough to be mounted in a variety of situations, such as the back of a display, a mobile station, or in a cabinet.

To address the need for reliability and ruggedness, the customer considered developing a unit that was completely solid state with no moving parts. This involved using a CompactFlash storage card or a solid-state drive priced at a point that met the cost constraints. An embedded system made more sense given these requirements. Two embedded computing platforms were evaluated: a Mini-ITX motherboard and an ETX Computer-On-Module (COM). Both options were fanless; however the customer selected the ETX board because it was smaller, more versatile, and could meet future enhancements such as possible processor upgrades. Designed to be inconspicuous with flexible mounting options, this embedded PC platform from Kontron (see Figure 2) met the requirements for EMR applications while offering simplified implementation for quick and easy deployment right out of the box.

Figure 2

The system incorporated an LCD plus an embedded computer preassembled in the box. This allowed the customer to simply pull out the unit, plug in the mouse and keyboard, power up, and start running in a matter of minutes. With a white box system, cables would have been individually wrapped and taken significantly longer to assemble, particularly for installations with several units. This quicker deployment saved time and ultimately, money. Furthermore, because embedded computer companies often can handle smaller, more customized system shipment, this system offered custom operating system installations and branding options including a custom splash screen.

As demonstrated by this example, having a degree of customization available through off-the-shelf building blocks makes it possible to quickly address specific application needs while still meeting cost expectations.

Matt Wieborg is a product manager for custom/configurable systems at Kontron America, based in Poway, California, where he defines custom embedded computer hardware for OEM and key strategic accounts. Prior to this role, Matt spent time as a field application and technical support engineer. He holds a BS in Computer Science from San Diego State University.

Kontron America

Matt Wieborg (Kontron America)
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