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How to Choose the Best Industrial Computer

By ·Categories: Industrial IoT·Published On: January 14th, 2022·12 min read·

Since joining OnLogic in 2017, I have helped hundreds if not thousands of customers answer the important question: “How do I choose the best industrial computer for my project?”

I’ve learned over time, that no matter how unique or innovative a project, choosing the best industrial computer requires the same set of basic questions. I have a 12 step process that I use to help customers pick the best industrial or rugged hardware solution to meet their project goals.  

Here’s all the things to consider when selecting an industrial computer: 

  1. Processor
  2. RAM
  3. Storage
  4. I/O
  5. Network connection (wired/wireless/4G, etc.)
  6. Temperature range
  7. Power
  8. Form factor
  9. Mounting
  10. Lifecycle
  11. Regulatory
  12. Budget

Let’s look at them step by step.

Step 1: How much processing power do you need?

If you are working to replace or upgrade an existing computer, the process becomes fairly easy. Find out what processor you have now, and how it is handling the workload. Most operating systems will allow you to view details about your computer through the settings menu. Your system monitor will show you how your current CPU is handling the task. Then plug in your model number into a benchmarking siteBenchmarking sites will help you to practically compare processors from different generations, with differing TDP (thermal design power). Or when comparing processors from AMD® vs. Intel®. 

Despite what you might see on a software requirement, not all i7s are created equal. As a quick example, I took a look at PassMark score and compared the Ivy Bridge i7-3612QM CPU @ 2.10GHz to the newer Comet Lake i7-10700T @ 2.00GHz. I got scores of 4,364 and 12,425 respectively. That is almost triple the performance with the latest gen i7. Even the Comet Lake i3-10100T would give you nearly twice the computing power of the older gen i7.  

For customers who were running programs that were easily handled by the older hardware, they should think about going with a lower tier modern processor to help save cost and reduce unnecessary overhead.

No Existing PC to Benchmark?

What should you do if you don’t have an existing PC to use as a benchmark? The best we can do is check the hardware requirements listed by your software provider. Then we can make an educated guess based on the features you will use, when the software was written and what processors would have been “modern” at the time that they called for an i5 or better. This is why leaving ample time in your project timeline for prototyping is so important. We recommend over-specing for the prototype and scaling back when you go to mass production. If you have a volume project, you may qualify for a risk free 30-day prototype through our “TryLogic” program.

Step 2: How much RAM do you need?

Similar to step 1, start by looking at what you have now, and how it performs. That is your best bet to find the optimal configuration. If you are going in without an existing solution we also use the same method to help set up a prototype. Check the hardware requirements set by your software company and when in doubt, look to slightly over spec the prototype. 

The other things to consider are memory speed and single channel vs dual-channel. Unless you have specific requirements, in the world of embedded computing, this rarely makes much of a difference. And most customers will make their decision based on availability and cost. For example, if you see that the 8GB RAM module is on backorder, go with two 4GB modules. Since all our costs are based on market pricing for components it can sometimes be the economical choice to go with two 16GB modules instead of a 32GB module. 

ECC (error-correcting code) is another type of RAM. ECC is commonly required in server applications and typically has a higher cost. Not all motherboards support ECC, but it is often a good choice for rugged systems or mission critical applications.

Photo of ECC memory chip

Step 3: How much storage do you need?

There are many different types of storage, and each has their place. In industrial and rugged computers, solid state is almost always the most reliable. For most applications, there is little difference in the real world performance between any modern SSD available on our website. If  you have large capacity bulk storage needs, a HDD may be a prudent choice to keep costs down when shock, vibe and overly high temperatures are not a concern. For more specific applications, high speed NVMe or surveillance specific drives may be required. However, these situations are less common.

If you are installing Windows 10, our recommended minimum storage capacity is 64GB. Microsoft lists the minimum storage requirements to host the OS as 20GB. However, in practice, updates and regular use cause the actual storage footprint to be greater. With advanced settings, we have a number of customers who are able to use 32GB, but for most customers, going with at least 64GB is a better choice. 

As has been the case with your CPU and RAM selection, deferring back to your existing solution or the requirements set by your software provider is the best option to determine what you need.     

Step 4: Identify your I/O requirements.

To identify your I/O requirements, start with creating an inventory of all of the devices that you need to connect to your PC. Make a list of the different types of connections you will need. In the industrial space, our computers often control and collect data from legacy systems. Understanding the protocols in use and the existing infrastructure is essential in order to choose the hardware option that can be integrated most effectively. 

For this step it is usually helpful to draw out an architecture map to help visualize your project. Once you create a rough draft of your architecture map, reach out to us and we can help you fill it in with the optimal hardware configurations for each layer. 

Computer showing many I/O

Step 5: Will you need a wireless network connection? 

Most of our systems can be configured with WiFi/BlueTooth or 4G. And, configuring the system to run both simultaneously is also an option.  Industry 4.0 solutions demand wireless communication because of their constant need to be connected. Furthermore, with hardware being deployed in ever more remote locations, having a wireless 4G solution delivers many benefits.   

Step 6: What is the ambient temperature of the environment where this will be installed?

In other words, where will this device live?

First you need to consider the ambient temperature. Our systems are all rated to operate within a specific temperature range.

  • Most of our industrial line: 0°C to 50°C
  • Most of our rugged line: -40°C to 70°C 
  • Panel PCs: -20°C to 70°C for
  • Server line: varies from 0°C to 50°C to 10°C to 35°C

We test our systems to run at 100% CPU utilization without thermal throttling to their rated temperature. If you are building one of our rugged PCs and trying to get the maximum operating range, make sure to choose wide-temp RAM and storage. Otherwise your system will not be rated for the full temp range.

What about dust and dirt? If there is airborne particulate, you will definitely want to look at our industrial fanless line. These systems are not only fanless, but they are also ventless to make sure no unwanted dust, dirt or even insects or other creatures make their way into the computer chassis. If you need a computer with a high powered graphics card in an industrial environment, you can also consider our fanless hybrid solution.

Finally consider if the computer will be subject to vibration. If so, you should consider a completely solid state computer with no moving parts. If the vibrations are a little more extreme, it would be good to explore our Rugged Line for systems with enhanced vibration resistance.

Step 7: What do you have available to power the PC?

Clean power should be your number one goal when engineering an environment to maximize the reliability of your PC. There are a number of ways to do it. You can provide AC power and utilize one of our standard power adapters. Another option is to wire in a direct industrial DC power source. Once you know what type of power you are working with, you will want to consult the Technical Specs Table found on each product page to find a solution to match. It is sometimes far easier to choose an industrial PC that can plug right into your 24VDC DIN rail power supply rather than stepping down to 12VDC. In-vehicle computers represent a unique situation where the incoming power may fluctuate due to the changes in charge inherent when drawing from a vehicle’s battery. For these applications it is always recommended to use one of the PCs from our rugged line. Specifically one that supports ignition sensing. That way it will fire up when you turn on the car and safely shut itself down once the vehicle is turned off.    

Step 8: What is your target form factor?

While there are standard sizes such as Mini-ITX, NUC, Pico-ITX, 1U half depth, 4U full depth, etc., the world of industrial and rugged PCs utilize many custom board and layout designs. Before you plan your cabinet layout, or embed one of our products into your solution, it is important to consult the technical specs for the particular system. The technical specs list out the exact physical dimensions of the system along with other important information. You can find the technical spec tables at the bottom of all of our product pages. 

If your goal is to futureproof your design, and you think you may need to scale up your computing power in the future, it would be important to leave yourself some wiggle room in your design to accommodate a potentially larger system. As a general rule, more powerful processors generate more heat, and more heat means that we need to design a larger heatsink which can sometimes mean a larger chassis. 

In addition to contemplating the dimensions of the unit itself, it is also important to think about the different ports you will use and whether your design will provide adequate access. It would be very frustrating to install your new PC and then realize that you didn’t provide enough room to connect your chunky DB9 connector. This discussion on form factor segues perfectly into our next step.

Step 9: What mounting hardware do you need?      

Our hardware has four mounting optionsVESA, wall mounting, DIN Rail or rackmount. 

  • VESA: A flat display mounting interface that is common on modern flat screen televisions and computer monitors. The standard is defined by 4 holes in a square pattern in two sizes, 75x75mm or 100x100mm.
  • Wall mounting brackets: Attach to the bottom of the PC for almost all of our computers – except those intended for vertical DIN Rail mounting.
  • DIN Rail: A metal rail of a standard type widely used for mounting circuit breakers and industrial control equipment inside equipment racks and industrial environments. 
  • Rackmount: Most commonly used for servers, rackmount mountable systems allow you to use your existing rackmount cages. Many of our low profile IPCs can be mounted in a rackmount chassis with our rackmount adapter.

One of the best industrial PCs the CL210 Security Gateway mounted on a DIN Rail

Step 10: Lifecycle vs reliability

Customers will often mix up expected product lifecycle and meantime between failure or reliability. Lifecycle actually has very little to do with how long a system will perform in the field. Instead, the lifecycle of a product describes the length of time that the product will be manufactured and available for sale. This product feature is most important for customers that are very sensitive to revisions. This is not the most important product feature for a customer that just needs a reliable PC and doesn’t care if they have to choose something slightly different the next time they purchase a computer. 

Step 11: Regulatory Requirements

Often overlooked, regulatory requirements are something that if not considered at the start of your product selection process can derail a project down the line. Sometimes, this sorts out quickly by adjusting your configuration. However, if new testing and certifications are required, expect significant delays, and in most cases significant upfront engineering cost and volume commitments to get the listing you need. 

UL Listed Power Supply from OnLogic showing certifications

Here are the three most common situations where regulatory requirements come up for our customers:

  1. If you are embedding one of our PCs into a machine that you then sell to your customers, and the full solution has some type of safety mark such as UL, it can sometimes be required that the computer inside have a UL mark as well. In the case of UL standard 508A, it is only required that the power supply be UL listed. If you know your solution has one of these listings, please let us know up front. That way, we can help identify the best option.
  2. Most countries have some type of safety standard/requirements to allow you to import a computer. Some examples include: CE, RCM, VCCI, CCC and NOM. If you plan to ship out computers internationally, please let us know up front. That way we can help make you aware of any potential challenges and how we might be able to address them.  
  3. Medical devices have their own set of safety requirements. Making a healthcare device? Work with our technical sales team to ensure you have the correct certifications in place. 

Step 12: Budget