In its truest form, a single board computer (SBC) generally refers to a single PC board with the processor, memory, and some type of I/O that allows it to function as a computer. Today, most consumer motherboards would be considered SBCs as much of the necessary functionality exists within a single motherboard and can be expanded through add-on cards.
To understand the rise of the SBC as we know it today, we need to look back 10 years ago to Italy where a team of designers in Ivrea set out to develop a low-cost, easy-to-use, microcontroller-based development kit that would allow people of any skill level to use them in their projects. As that solution rose to prominence, the cost of microcontrollers, microprocessors, and SoCs dropped dramatically.
The rapid market acceptance of this first prototyping platform, which would come to be known as Arduino paved the way for a new breed of designers entering into the electronics market – DIYers, hobbyists, and makers – and for the commercial success of processor-based platforms that integrated more functionality into a single package.
With the Arduino platform in place and continuing to evolve in the hands of DIYers and makers, the world was about to experience one of the largest disruptions in industrial computing. It was 2006, and a group based in the University of Cambridge’s Computer Laboratory decided to develop a solution that would let kids learn to program without the need for a full-fledged home PC. The end result was a $35 SBC named Raspberry Pi that launched in February 2012 and would soon be picked up by makers, designers, and even professional engineers around the world.
The next major development in the rise of the modern SBC occurred on July 28, 2008, with the birth of the nonprofit BeagleBoard.org. BeagleBone brought modern microprocessor development to engineers via a low-cost, open source community-supported development board known as the BeagleBoard.
While SBCs can be used for most any purpose, many have originally been designed for a specific purpose or application. Raspberry Pi and BeagleBone are two perfect examples of tools that were developed to help encourage and strengthen programming skills, as well as promote open source hardware and embedded computing software.
Numerous other SBCs have been developed in the past few years, including Atmel’s SAMA5D3 Xplained, designed for rapid prototyping development, and the RIoTboard, dedicated to enabling the development of the Internet of Things. Other popular boards include the PandaBoard, OlinuXino, and a host of Allwinner ARM SoC-based SBCs.
Today, SBCs can be grouped into two main categories – proprietary and open source. Proprietary SBCs are generally designed for use in end applications or as a reference to be evaluated. Often, they’re industrialized designs that have gone through the same type of testing that an end product requires and are integrated into end-product designs or installed in a rack-mount configuration. Open source SBCs, on the other hand, offer users access to both hardware design and layout, as well as access to the source code used on the board.
For those who want to easily understand how the software and hardware operates, adopt the design to meet their end design requirements or simply learn how a piece of hardware or software works, this type of SBC is ideal.
Current SBCs come with a wide variety of processor types, most with GPUs on board. These processors range from X86-based processors within the traditional PC space (AMD and Intel) to ARM processors used in the industrial and (more recently) mobile spaces. Linux and its numerous derivations, like Android, Ubuntu, Fedora, Debian, Arch Linux, FreeBSD, and Windows CE, are the most prevalent forms of software used on SBCs.
The long-term success of an SBC, like most other products, relies heavily on the performance-to-price ratio. What also weighs just as heavily, however, is the amount of available support for a particular board or range of boards. Some rely on a dedicated supplier or secondary support entity, but most open-source SBCs are supported by a community of developers, communities who provide software updates, project showcases, and accessories that expand the board’s functionality.
Many of today’s SBCs have become so powerful that they boast the same capabilities of modern-day PCs and tablets. This trend will continue as more powerful processors make their way into the embedded computing market and as more manufacturers support open-source hardware and software for both makers and professional engineers alike.
Another trend that will continue is the adoption of these SBCs into lower volume end products. Many of today’s SBCs are as close to fully vetted designs as those that are developed specifically for end product usage, thanks to continuous global design review, and support and updates from the design and programming communities – not to mention high-quality manufacturing firms like AVID or Embest Technologies designing and testing these boards for quality control and certification.
SBCs provide entrepreneurs and small companies with an ideal opportunity to quickly bring their designs to market without the overhead needed to develop new hardware. Instead, those companies can focus on software innovation that has already inspired the electronics industry and opened up the design process for more and more engineers. As SBCs continue to leave their mark on the history of the electronics industry, they will only continue to become more sophisticated, responsive and accessible to both professionals and hobbyists.
Cliff Ortmeyer is the Global Head of Solutions Development for Newark element14, a division of Premier Farnell. He has over 20 years’ experience in the semiconductor and electronics design industry in various capacities including FAE, Market Development, and Technical Marketing. Cliff also holds multiple patents in both analog and digital design.