The digital signage market is constantly pushing for solutions with lower cost. Today the focus of cost-reduction efforts focuses heavily on up-front hardware costs. While up-front costs are certainly important, they represent only a portion of a system’s total cost of ownership (TCO). To minimize TCO, signage developers and end customers alike must consider a system’s reliability, longevity, and manageability. In this blog we’ll explain how these factors impact cost and show how solutions based on the Intel® Core™ 2 Duo help keep costs down. We will also preview upcoming systems based on the new Intel® Core™ i7, Intel® Core™ i5, and Intel® Core™ i3 processors.
Let’s start by looking at reliability and longevity. Today designers often control costs by using consumer-grade PCs to power their signage. Although this approach can minimize up-front costs, it can lead to large expenses down the road. Consumer-grade solutions are not designed for 24x7x365 operation, and fan failures and board failures are common. Consumer-grade solutions are particularly vulnerable in harsh environments with heat or vibration issues.
Replacing failed components is expensive. In addition to the hardware replacement costs, component failures lead to expensive field service. Hardware failures can also lead to complications on the software side. Consumer-grade solutions become obsolete at a frightening pace, so when a component fails it may not be possible to find an exact replacement. Changing the components in a system means changing the drivers—and there is no guarantee that the new drivers will work smoothly. Hardware changes are particularly risky if the system depends on specific hardware features, such as a specific HD video accelerator.
Hardware changes also mean that it is no longer possible maintain a single hardware build across locations. Instead, locations with the original hardware will use one build, while locations with the new hardware will use a different build. Maintaining multiple builds is a headache, and it adds to maintenance costs.
It’s also important to remember that digital signage drives revenue through ad sales, increased impulse purchases, etc. An out-of-service sign cannot drive these transactions, so hardware failures impact revenues as well as costs.
One way to avoid these problems is to use embedded signage solutions based on the Intel® Core™ 2 Duo. These embedded solutions are designed for 24x7x365 operation, and are far more robust than consumer-oriented PCs. For example, embedded solutions are typically fanless, eliminating a key source of hardware failures. (Example fanless solutions include the AAEON AEC-6860 and the Nexcom NDiS 161 shown in Figure 1.) If the hardware does fail, direct replacement is easy—embedded solutions are commonly available for 3 years or more.
Figure 1. The AAEON AEC-6860 is a fanless digital signage solution based on the Intel Core 2 Duo processor.
Embedded signage solutions are also able to go into environments that consumer-grade PCs cannot handle. Many embedded signage solutions are rated for extended temperature ranges and high humidity levels. These rugged solutions allow digital signage to be installed outdoors and other locations that lack air conditioning. For example, the Advantech ARK-1382-S2 is rated for operation at temperatures of 0-50 C and humidity levels up to 95\% (Figure 2).
Figure 2. The Advantech ARK-1382 is rated for extreme temperature and humidity.
Some embedded signage solutions are also designed to withstand shock and vibration. These solutions allow digital signage to operate reliably inside trains, buses, boats, and other vehicles, as well as in vibration-prone locations like train platforms. The Nexcom PDSV 6110 (Figure 3) is typical of these vibration- and shock resistant solutions. This solution is designed specifically for in-vehicle applications.
Figure 3. The Nexcom PDSV 6110 is designed specifically for in-vehicle applications.
Now let’s turn our attention to manageability. Embedded solutions that incorporate Intel® vPro™ technology—and in particular Intel® Active Management Technology (Intel® AMT)—can significantly reduce maintenance and management costs. Intel AMT provides an out of band (OOB) communications channel. This channel lets system administrators remotely diagnose, repair, and manage the signage—even when the signage is powered down.
Remote management provides a number of cost-saving benefits. First, the diagnosis capabilities allow the system administrator to ensure that the signage is operating properly. For example, Intel AMT can alert the system administrator if any of the required software is not running. This capability ensures that the customer does not lose revenue from unnoticed malfunctions.
When problems do occur, Intel AMT gives the system administrator powerful recovery tools. The system administrator can correct problem at the BIOS, OS, or application level, and can remotely reboot the system to a known-good state. By addressing these issues remotely, Intel AMT reduces the need for expensive field service. Intel AMT also reduces the need for field service by enabling remote updates of application software, OS, and BIOS firmware. This feature also helps the sys admin maintain tight version control, ensuring consistent operation across installations.
Intel AMT also makes it possible to turn a signage installation on and off remotely. This leads to considerable power savings—and thus cost savings—by ensuring that the displays are turned off after trading hours.
Remote management has a secondary benefit: By minimizing time spent traveling to deal with local issues, Intel AMT helps technical staff use their time more efficiently. This in turn reduces the number of technical staff needed to maintain the signage. For more information on Intel AMT and its benefits, I highly recommend the article Cut Power and Improve Manageability in Point-of-Sale Terminals and Kiosks.
To take advantage of Intel AMT, you must have Intel AMT-enabled hardware and software. Intel AMT is supported in Intel Core 2 Duo signage solutions from vendors including Advantech and AOpen, while Intel AMT-enabled signage software is available from vendors like Ryarc.
Intel AMT will also be available in signage solutions based on the Intel Core i7, Intel Core i5, and Intel Core i3 processors. The first of these solutions will be available this quarter from vendors like Advantech. This hardware will offer lower significant improvements in graphics and CPU performance, while simultaneously reducing power consumption. The performance improvements include dual-stream HD video decoding (as compared to single-stream decoding in the Intel Core 2 Duo chipset) as well as significantly better 3D graphics performance. For more details, see my earlier blog on Intel Core graphics performance.
While we are waiting to see what’s next, I want to hear from you. What strategies have you used to minimize costs? Have you taken advantage of Intel AMT. If so, how has it benefitted you?
Advantech is a Premier member of the Intel® Embedded Alliance. AAEON and Nexcom are Associate members of the Alliance.
Roving Reporter (Intel Contractor)
Intel® Embedded Alliance
Embedded Innovator magazine