Choosing the best edge computer can be hard. This guide on how to find an edge computer will help you find the best solution, fast.
All Edge Computers are Not the Same
Finding the right edge computer is not always easy. Every application has unique requirements. This requires thoughtful planning, especially large scale deployments.
With so many factors and options to think about, where do you start? This primer series provides tools to find the right hardware quickly, saving you time and money.
Pick the Best Edge Computer for your Environment
Hardware specifications are important. But, take a step back and look at the big picture. The environment a computer lives in has a big impact on its performance and reliability.
A computer in a very hot environment will throttle its processor to prevent overheating. This can make your Core i7 processor perform like an i3, carrying a notable difference in price without the performance.
Adding expansion cards, like Wi-Fi, cellular connectivity, or vision processing units add another layer to the thermal challenge. It’s important to think through and test the entire configuration identify potential roadblocks before deployment.
Installing a computer in a vehicle presents a different set of factors. In this case, you need a system that reliably accepts automotive power, resists shock, vibration, and temperatures at both extremes. It must also resist high levels of static charge developed as air travels over external peripherals, like cameras, sensors, or LIDAR.
The key takeaway is to match the type of computer with the environment it’s operating in. Then, work backward to identify and address challenges along the way. Next, we’ll describe the types of edge computers and what environments they’re built for to help with this.
The Three Types of Edge Computers
There is so much variance between deployment environments and technical requirements. Classifying edge computers into fan-cooled, fanless, and rugged categories simplifies things.
Understanding the differences and overlap between these categories helps you figure out what computer will meet your application’s needs and external factors.
Fan-cooled edge computers
Fan-cooled edge computers describe systems that are more capable and reliable than consumer-grade products. Like a consumer PC, it uses a vented chassis and fans for cooling.
Unlike consumer-grade hardware, these computers are built to the highest mechanical engineering standards and wrapped in an all-metal chassis. They use components selected and tested for their reliability. However, they do not offer protection from dirt, dust, particulates, impact forces, and vibration their rugged siblings offer.
The MagLev type fans used in these computers use quiet sealed motor elements with bearings suspended by a magnetic field to extend their life. The fans have tachometers to let motherboards with stall detection to know when it stopped and signal the event to an operator.
These systems come in a range of configuration options, including different graphics and networking cards. They work best in climate-controlled environments relatively free of contaminants.
Fan-cooled computers are the least costly of the three categories of edge computers and they make great gateways, media players, hardened workstations with legacy connections, thin clients, edge servers, firewalls, or networking appliances.
They can also be the brains inside indoor kiosks or entertainment installations. You can configure these computers easily with off-the-shelf components. They come in a range of sizes, from palm-sized NUCs to larger GPU-capable and rackmount systems.
These fanless computers feature a durable metal enclosure that protects sensitive internal components and dissipating heat. This allows for operation in environments ranging from 0 ~ 50 C (32 – 122 F) depending on the system and configuration. Using solid-state components and no moving parts makes these systems extremely reliable with high meantime between failures.
Sturdy and resistant to dust and debris, they lack the vibration, shock, wide temperature tolerances, and ruggedized components that come standard with rugged devices. Because of the internal rigidity of these fanless systems, they offer some protection from an occasional bump.
These systems generally have a small footprint, making them perfect for installing on a DIN rail, VESA mount, or inside a NEMA enclosure. High-performance or expandable models have a larger footprint to make room for extra components and provide the surface area needed for system cooling.
Fanless edge computers meet common regulatory compliance and certifications. Look for FCC, CE, RoHS, and UL configurations to make sure your system checks the regulatory boxes you need and provides real-world protection for the system and its operators.
Rugged edge computers
A rugged edge computer provides the highest level of protection for computing in extreme environments, such as in vehicles, railways, manufacturing plants, or outdoor applications.
This protection comes from a combination of factors. Using durable metal chassis, fanless design, and shock-absorbing mounting give strong physical protection. In addition, wide temperature and solid-state components, cableless design, and high immunity to electrostatic discharge (ESD) provide resistance to environmental factors.
This lets rugged computers operate in environments from -40 to 70 C (-40 – 158 F), tolerate frequent vibration and impact forces up to 50G’s, and accept variable power without flinching, depending on the system’s configuration.
Rugged edge computers come in a range of sizes and performance options. From efficient palm-sized units to powerful Xeon and GPU-enabled systems, these systems have the interface and mounting options tailored to match the tough environments they work in.
These durable edge PCs solve a lot of technical hurdles. Look to rugged computers when you need a system with CAN bus, automotive power, ignition sensing, programmable DIO, and specialty I/O.
There are other benefits to rugged PCs. For instance, thanks to the extensive testing done to ruggedize these systems, they will usually carry UL, CB Scheme, and other regulatory certifications. Selecting systems that meet these standards will save you time and money on lengthy certification processes.
The ruggedization, durable componentry, testing, and regulatory certification means the cost of rugged systems is higher. However, over the life of the system they end up costing far less than replacing hardware not designed for tough environments. As a result, it’s important to know the level of protection you need.
Where to go from here with Edge Computers
Understanding where your hardware will live narrows the type of edge computer you need. However, it isn’t the only factor affecting system selection. Check out our post Choosing the Best Edge Computing Hardware where we take a deeper dive into the six characteristics of these three types of edge computers and how they impact the selection process.
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Rodney is the Senior Engineer and founding member of the team at OnLogic. He works as a peer mentor for the mechanical, electrical, and regulatory teams (when he's not writing fun blogs with Marketing). He has expertise in design and certification of medical, automation and control, robotics, and RF devices. He also spends a lot of time in EMC and Safety labs qualifying products for global markets. Rodney loves to talk shop on all levels about all things and enjoys telling the world why OnLogic computers are right for them. Rodney is a lover of morse code communication using homemade single transistor radios built into Altoid tins.