By George T. Hilliard
In my last blog, Arm or x86? Future-Proofing Your Industrial SBC Figures Prominently, Part 1, I looked at the first two of four considerations when determining whether your path toward an industrial single-board computer (SBC) should guide you towards the Intel x86 camp or toward an Arm-based processor. There, I covered efficiency versus performance and connectivity in an industrial setting.
Now, I’ll tackle the next two considerations: software and operating system support and overall cost. While there are obviously more than four areas you need to be concerned with, considering these four will set you down a path toward a robust and future-proofed system.
Perhaps the biggest, and most impactful consideration when evaluating Arm versus x86 industrial PC (IPC) solutions is the software ecosystem. This was one of the key reasons for x86’s quick adoption in industrial computing markets, as it already supported operating systems (OSs) like Microsoft DOS, Windows and, eventually, Linux.
General-purpose OSs are still largely the domain of x86 processors. Mobile OSs like Android and other Linux derivatives are commonly ported to Arm platforms. Hardware support for real-time operating systems (RTOSs) varies by RTOS provider.
Today, there’s certainly crossover between architectures and OSs, as OSs like Windows 10 IoT Core have been designed to support Arm platforms just as Android-x86 is enabled for Intel processors. By and large, however, designers choose to keep their OS and hardware ecosystems consistent.
This brings us to the heart of the software discussion. As long as the hardware target meets the performance, power, cost, and feature requirements of the application, developers will opt for the software ecosystem they are most comfortable with if the appropriate board support package (BSP) or drivers are available.
In addition to an engineering team’s familiarity with specific languages and programming paradigms (RISC versus CISC programming, in this case), most engineering organizations already have a significant amount of time and money invested in particular toolchains.
For its part, WINSYSTEMS provides software and driver support for Windows and Linux.
The first three considerations I’ve discussed have a direct effect on the overall cost of an industrial system design, and most organizations can quickly qualify what selecting a given hardware-plus-software development suite will do to their bottom line. But it’s also important to look beyond the face-value finances of engineering an Industrial IoT system, as costs can run deeper than you think.
Be sure to ask yourself the following questions before embarking on your next IPC system design.
- How quickly will my software and firmware engineers be able to adapt to a new architecture and tools? Today’s embedded systems are increasingly driven by firmware and software engineering, which means the largest and most unpredictable cost for most companies is development hours. In addition to the expense of new tools, the learning curve of adapting to a new ecosystem could quickly bring ROI into question.
- How will this design integrate with my installed base of solutions? Heterogeneous architectures can be advantageous, but may require additional integration work if the overall technology stack isn’t designed to support it. Re-engineering or retrofitting existing systems can cost as much if not more than a system that’s well thought out from its inception, and often sacrifice critical features/capabilities.
- Will our chosen technology ecosystem be supported for the long haul? Because many industrial, medical, and commercial systems are deployed for many years or even decades, support is essential for any hardware-plus-software technology stack. This is one of the many reasons embedded development lags behind consumer technology, as bringing support for legacy devices in-house is a costly proposition that subtracts from the bottom line.
In conclusion, choosing an Arm or x86-based IPC solution depends more on your organization than anything.
If you have nuanced concerns or are looking for advice on the best way to proceed with a given design, WINSYSTEMS FAEs can advise on the best solution stack for your project, company, and long-term objectives.