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6 Posts authored by: DonD-OSM

In a December 9th, 2009 E-cast on “Point-of-Care Terminals, Lab Equipment, Diagnostic and Therapeutic Devices:  Learn How These Low-Power Medical Devices and Others Benefit from Intel® Architecture”, sponsored by the Intel® Embedded Alliance, trends and ideas in medical designs using long-life Intel embedded processors were presented by a panel of guests with a Q&A follow up.


Don Dingee, editorial director of Embedded Computing Design, moderated the event for OpenSystems Media. Panelists presenting were:

  • Lisa Miller, Market Development Manager, Intel Embedded & Communications Group
  • Joseph Chung, Product Manager, Medical Computing Products, Advantech
  • Jack London, Product Manager, Kontron Embedded Modules Division

Don opened the E-cast with ideas from a Dec ‘09 interview with Rick Cnossen, from Intel’s Digital Health Group and the Continua Health Alliance. Cnossen speaks of the trend toward connected healthcare devices and solutions, and not only among healthcare providers trying to reduce costs and improve care.  “Connected health solutions also empower individuals to play a greater role in their own health and fitness by giving them the tools, knowledge and motivation required for the success of preventive measures,” he said. Don pointed out the standards are shaping up around Ethernet, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, USB, and ZigBee as the networking technologies.


Lisa Miller of Intel identified several macro trends: a shortage of healthcare professionals, rapidly rising costs of healthcare, demographic shifts toward aging populations and those with chronic conditions, and the broader adoption of electronic health records (EHRs). “Continuous [patient] monitoring will become more prevalent, and that’s going to translate into real-time, robust, two way communication pathways between an individual and a healthcare practitioner. Devices are going to contain more intelligence, so they can scale and provide efficiency … They will also have more intelligence so they can be used by less-trained practitioners to help address that shortage.”  Lisa reinforced the point of connected, portable devices helping improve care, and how Intel Architecture processors can help build those devices.


Joseph Chung of Advantech, a Premier member of Intel® Embedded Alliance, opened by discussing how electronic health records are changing the way solutions are designed and used, with billions of dollars flowing into EHRs over the next five years. Connected devices will be critical to putting records, patients, and healthcare practitioners together. He also spoke of the trend toward more mobile solutions with wireless connectivity, including those for computerized physician order entry (CPOE), and the need for security such as called for by HIPAA to go along with this connectivity. He talked about how Advantech designs to meet IEC and FDA regulations. He then outlined examples of mobile clinical and beside devices designed by Advantech, looking at connectivity, user interface, and battery characteristics – and how these solutions are enabled by Intel technology.


Jack London of Kontron, a Premier member of the Alliance,  followed by describing the challenges in designing these new medical devices: new software requirements, higher resolution images and faster frame capture rates, long development and approval processes for devices, and security, integrity, and privacy requirements. He then outlined the digitization of healthcare, and a range of different applications emerging with more intelligent technology inside. He showed an interesting matrix of applications versus enabling Intel processor technology, and showed several proof points of those applications using Kontron modules based on Intel architecture processors.


After these overviews, the Q&A portion of the E-cast began. Following are excerpts from that session.

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DD: What’s really the better solution to deliver value into the medical market: is it bedside terminals, is it mobile clinical assistants – what are customers telling you?

LM:  I think it really depends on specifically what you are looking for. Bedside terminals offer value in being a “triple play” type of solution, where you can provide patient education, patient entertainment, as well as a clinical aspect. Mobile clinical assistants are really a personal device for a clinician to help enable EMR.

JC: Most of our customers are looking at mobile solutions, for field diagnosis and mobile in-facility applications.


DD: Most hospital or clinic IT systems are running on Intel Architecture. Ethernet and Wi-Fi can integrate hardware, but there’s more than just hardware connectivity – what are you seeing as far as integrating these devices with the rest of the hospital IT systems?

LM: A lot of the integration is based on software. Where I was coming from was if you’ve got more of a common hardware base, your validation and verification may be superior. When you have Intel Architecture, you’re going to get the same implementation of that architecture every time you see it. With Intel Architecture, you’ve got a lot of people using it, testing it, probing it – the probability of finding any issues or vulnerabilities that might exist, and finding them earlier, is higher. From a software perspective, with the common hardware architecture, your investment is somewhat lessened in terms of trying to integrate things together.


DD: Let’s let Kontron and Advantech go a little deeper into that question. We’ve got a question on ETSI compliance, and how maybe it would require recertification of a system depending on what’s going on in a specific application. How does Kontron support customers going through something like ETSI compliance?

JL: We try to pace with our customers to walk through with them and their certification process, providing information about particular modules, whether it has to do with power consumption, EMI, connectivity, whatever is needed from a system standpoint. Sometimes it can take a couple iterations, but we want to try and work with the customer to provide the maximum information for a successful certification.

DD: Advantech has a viewpoint as well …

JC: We have customers doing, for example, anesthesia, diffusion pumps, ventilators – we help them with passing ETSI approval by modifying some circuitry, and providing technical documentation. We also have solutions for EMC with FCC Class B and IEC certifications.


DD: What are you seeing as the operating system trend in medical devices?

LM: There’s a lot of Windows-based devices, there’s a lot of Linux, and more RTOS is coming on. When you’re talking life critical, an RTOS is probably the direction you’re going to go. When you’re talking about a very rich user interface, you may see something else. It depends on the specific application.

JC: Still the majority of our customers are using Windows Embedded, and some customers are trying to look into Windows 7 for embedded. About 30\% of our customers are using Linux, and something like Moblin or Fedora.

JL: We’re seeing a lot in Windows-based applications. We can support Linux and things like QNX as well, but the largest percentages of our customers are in the Windows environment.


DD: We know some of the big iron, like MRI machines, big expensive pieces of gear, have very, very long lifecycles – even longer than 10 years. But I imagine for the smaller mobile, lower powered gear, there is some trend toward shorter lifecycles. Talk about what you are seeing and how you are supporting those trends.

JC: Most of our customers are still looking for longevity, at least 5-7 years, and we select components including those off the Intel embedded roadmap. We do see more and more customers looking for longer lifetimes, and after 5 years we need to consider lifetime buys of components.

JL: We look at the component selections, and key off the Intel embedded roadmap to pick a processor to ensure long life. In parallel, there are other components on our boards, and we partner with other strategic suppliers, stable suppliers who have been around for a long time and also understand the medical environment and the need to support long life. We can extend the life of a product usually beyond component availability through a couple different methods: for example, through our program management, we’re able to extend life upwards of 7-10 years. It has to be a very disciplined effort to ensure long life. We are seeing a faster turnover because of the rapid pace of change in the technology, and for this reason we go with computer-on-module (COM) technology so the computer can scale with the application as the processor performance improves.

LM: There needs to be a balance for designers and manufacturers of medical devices between taking advantage of the latest technology and protecting the investment made in developing a particular device on that platform, and all the regulatory obstacles they need to overcome in getting to market. In some instances, the trend is getting longer, 10+ years. In some instances, where it may not be specifically a clinical device, like something not regulated by the FDA, you’ll see significantly shorter lifecycles.




As healthcare becomes more digital, and more and more devices become connected, the trends looked at today will become the reality of tomorrow’s low power medical devices. Designers can look to Intel and their Alliance partners for solutions and expertise in implementing these devices.


What are your ideas on this topic? We welcome comments and discussion on trends, needs, and unique applications in the medical field.



We've looked at a digital signage overview, graphics capability, and hardware maintenance and security ideas and trends. Now, we shift gears and take a look at the content presentation software side.


In simple architectural form, digital signage systems are a display powered by a media player (a dedicated computer with multimedia capability) attached to a network. They are often called on to just display information today, but these systems are increasingly becoming more interactive with a touchscreen for user input. The implementation usually includes an application which manages content on a schedule, running over a standard operating system which performs the network, display, and storage management with support for the multimedia content presentation.


Content presentation

There are three aspects related to content - creation, delivery, and presentation. Creation depends on desktop applications and toolsets, delivery involves the network, storage, and scheduling information, and once ready the content can be presented accordingly by the system. We'll look at what a digital signage system typically needs to support for content presentation, namely the display and management functions.


A flexible signage system is capable of accepting content in a wide variety of formats. Legacy formats include Microsoft PowerPoint, and jpeg formats. Modern signage systems are dealing with much more dynamic formats, such as Adobe Flash 10.1, Microsoft Silverlight, and a range of full motion formats including .avi, .mp4, .wmv, and others. After all, to be engaging to consumers, full motion multimedia formats are now the expectation based on the desktop and mobile experience.


The presentation manager software on each digital signage system should provide several common functions:


  • Network distribution of content files: As we said in part 3 of this series, digital signage systems are "edge" devices in enterprise apps. They are connected over a network to a content server. The server manages where content goes - it might go to all signs in a network, to only some, or to just one.
  • Web-based scheduling management: not only are content files distributed, but they have to be slotted into a playlist including many other pieces of content. Each player has to maintain its content storage, playlist, and player software. (This is another reason content usually isn't streamed in real-time - it's often played over and over again during its usage life. It might be streamed on the first usage, but then captured locally for replay on its schedule.) Also needed are functions to remove outdated content files, and update schedules or replace content files with newer versions.
  • Recovery and synchronization: a really important function. Let's say the player has a problem and requires maintenance, and the remedy is installation of a new computer. The tech has no way of knowing how to reload the current content set - that information is stored on the server and is completely time and location dependent. The player software needs to go out, and pull in the required current content based on its location in the physical setting of the signage network.
  • Emergency mode: many signage systems are capable of displaying urgent or emergency information which preempts regularly scheduled content.


This diagram from Intel® Embedded Alliance Premier member Advantech shows a simplified version of a signage application, and highlights that a single signage display may actually be composed of several content "zones" with video, images, and text sourced in a cohesive view. The content may also be directed to different types of players: an LCD panel, a projector, or even a mobile device.




The larger the signage application network, the more complex and important these functions become. Modern digital signage management software provides many more sophisticated functions, and there are hundreds of solutions on the market from a wide range of VARs. Embedded solutions can benefit from some enterprise-style technology, such as Intel Active Management Technology appearing in several processor families, to improve the manageability of these large distributed systems.


Operating systems

Digital signage content management applications are of course based on an operating system, running on the signage system's computer.


One choice is from Microsoft, an Intel Embedded Alliance Associate member. Microsoft Windows Embedded is an easy choice for a digital signage system, because it contains several pieces of needed infrastructure.  Windows Embedded in its various forms obviously supports the required networking, whether it be wired Ethernet, Wi-Fi, or WiMAX. It supports the necessary playback formats, including legacy formats like Microsoft PowerPoint and new advanced formats such as Silverlight and Adobe Flash 10. Interactivity, power management, and rich traffic management are some of the additional attributes that are essential for a digital signage media player. Windows Embedded is well suited to offer these capabilities. There is also the possible need to deploy content on both fixed devices running Windows Embedded, and mobile devices running Windows CE Embedded or Windows Mobile. Intel works closely with Microsoft, building on applications from the enterprise side for embedded applications as well.


With the portability of Adobe Flash, Linux is also a possible choice especially at the entry level, from providers like Intel® Embedded Alliance Affiliate member LynuxWorks and Associate members MontaVista and Wind River. Linux offers similar networking benefits, and with more and more open source applications there are a range of solutions emerging. Intel's experience with projects like Moblin is driving some of this new development.


The next choice

Digital signage is no different than any other application development and deployment choice. The system architecture, development methods, installation requirements, licensing, performance, and many other factors need to be considered to arrive at the right choice.


As we wrap up this series, we've touched on many ideas in developing hardware and software for these systems. To finish up our discussion, we'd like your thoughts: What is the right operating system for today's digital signage systems? What features do you look for in a content management system for a digital signage player? What are you looking for in terms of networking, storage, or display capability at the player to help with performance or quality? Ideas welcome.



Don Dingee
OpenSystems Media®, by special arrangement with Intel® Embedded Alliance


We've looked at an overview of digital signage computing platforms and integrated graphics capability supporting signage displays, and we're ready to take a closer look at the physical characteristics of a system, including maintenance and security. These aspects will help identify what I think are the trends coming into play soon.


Digital signage systems are in public places, by definition - they are meant for information or advertising content. This means physical mounting and security are more of a concern than the average embedded system. The units can't dislodge easily for operational and safety reasons and they have to be tamper and theft proof. They are often mounted either out of reach or in some type of secure cabinet.




But at the same time, two other design challenges exist. Digital signage systems are usually networked in order to deliver regularly updated content to them for use, so they can't be totally isolated to provide physical security. Additionally, they have to be maintainable in case the display or the compute electronics fail or need upgrading, to avoid huge lifecycle costs.


How does a designer tackle this problem set, and what are some key trends to watch for? Let's break this down into the main parts of the hardware implementation.



The packaging of the computer complex (or media player as it is typically referred to in the industry) attached to a digital signage system is important. It takes into account three primary aspects related to maintenance and physical security:


  • cooling, which drives reliability,
  • cabling, which drives reliability, ease of installation, and maintenance,
  • mounting, which also drives installation, maintenance, and physical security,


Small digital signage systems can be constructed by OEMs using small computer boards (like COM Express modules or Mini-ITX boards) or custom small form factor systems, similar to what we showed in part 2 of this series . Larger systems can use larger form factors depending on performance and functionality needs, space, cooling, and power permitting.


As digital signage systems are moving to deployments with more systems involved, like the Beijing airport example  cited in part 1, most digital signage OEMs/VARs are looking for an integrated solution: an external box or signage "appliance" of some type that is self-contained, attached to the display, and can be installed and changed out quickly. By integrating into a single box, cooling and reliability can be tested, cabling can be simplified into a unified I/O area, and mounting can be made very secure as a box can be fastened by its flanges to a signage display.


As with many embedded computing applications, people are debating the pros and cons of a box approach versus a pluggable form factor approach. Pluggable form factors would have benefits of faster maintenance without potentially having to dismount the entire digital signage display for repair. For instance, Intel® Embedded Alliance Associate member Axiomtek is innovating with their slot in PC design for signage applications. Other Alliance members working on pluggable solutions are congatec and Winmate. The tradeoffs involved with compute boxes versus pluggable solutions is a trend to watch.



Obviously the choice for a networking protocol of almost any "edge" device, embedded or enterprise, today is TCP/IP. Digital signage systems operate like endpoints in an enterprise network, and need to connect quickly and easily. Operating systems which support TCP/IP are plentiful. The driving question: is the medium wired Ethernet, Wi-Fi, or WiMAX?


While there's something to be said for the ease of setting up a single wired Ethernet system, personally I'd be leaning toward a wireless implementation for the future. Pulling cables for 600 systems isn't cheap. Keeping cables secure, especially Ethernet cables with RJ-45 connectors, is a bit of a concern in a public area if the system is exposed. Digital signage systems don't usually move once installed, so any issues of signal coverage and integrity can be handled.


Until recently, content wasn't usually streamed on-demand for playback on a digital signage system. It's usually been delivered as a multimedia content file that is to be stored and played in some type of recurring schedule. This means the network bandwidth demands haven't been huge. Content files can be transferred prior to use, and as long as they get there in time for the intended use that's sufficient. If there was real-time content, it was usually smaller information types like weather, stock quotes, and the like that is relatively quick and easy to transfer.


That moderate bandwidth need made Wi-Fi a viable option for many installations, and in many cases it still is. If there's a Wi-Fi infrastructure already in place, connecting a point-of-sale or inventory control system in the vicinity, piggybacking a signage system on it makes sense. Wi-Fi scales relatively inexpensively and supports the necessary bandwidth. It also supports encryption which can keep content secure. 802.11n improves the available bandwidth and keeps Wi-Fi a viable option for many applications.


There is a growing demand for more streaming content, and corresponding higher bandwidth. While 802.11n is a big improvement over earlier implementations of Wi-Fi, WiMAX (802.16) brings 75 Mbps of bandwidth to the network.


WiMAX also provides much stronger security than Wi-Fi, supporting AES and 3DES today, and Intel is pushing for even stronger additions to 802.16 such as EAP and AES with up to 256bit keys. The bottom line is WiMAX will be very secure for distributed applications.


As WiMAX rollouts are beginning on a larger and larger scale, it's becoming a more attractive option because of the combination of bandwidth and coverage. WiMAX networks operated by service providers cover large geographic territories, and the infrastructure is set up and maintained by the service provider.


With all this in mind, WiMAX will probably become an easier and easier choice for distributed digital signage networks. Even without integrated chipset capability on a motherboard, WiMAX can be added today via Intel WiMAX modules or third-party ExpressCards easily. Integrated chipset capability isn't far off.





The "sign" part

Care should be given to selecting a screen that has the right reliability and environmental characteristics for the application - in most cases, a commercial grade LCD screen will be the best choice. The good news is that whether a commercial grade or consumer grade LCD is selected, driving the display is probably the easy part of a digital signage design. Most systems today are driven in a standard HD format, over an interface like HDMI or DVI.


Once the challenges of mounting the computer and networking the system are solved, it's really about mounting the display to keep it secure and safe from the elements. There are a wide range of wall, ceiling, and cabinet mounting options to look at - too many to explore here.


With a strong implementation accounting for physical security, reliability and maintenance, and secure and fast networking, a digital signage system can be implemented and kept in operation more cost effectively than ever before.


In the next installment of this series, we'll take a look at software side of a digital signage system, but we'd like to hear your thoughts on this post. What do you feel is the best approach to packaging a computer for digital signage? Which networking strategy wins: cabled Ethernet, Wi-Fi, or WiMAX? What considerations are there in selecting a display best suited for signage? Discussion welcomed.




Don Dingee
OpenSystems Media®, by special arrangement with Intel® Embedded Alliance


In part 1 of this series, we quickly named the elements of a digital signage system. We're ready to take a closer look at the graphics and multimedia capability a system needs.


"Signage" pretty much implies the graphics capability has to be good, because it's all the viewer really sees of a digital signage system, even though there is much more behind the scenes. The focus should be on content displayed crisply and vibrantly with rich media blending capability, but not necessarily at ultra high frame rates or polygonal fill rates found in say the latest video games. The media may include video, graphics, animation, text, and tickers displayed in different windows on a display. Also, we recall that size and power aren't unlimited - many of these systems are relatively compact and operate without a fan, so implementing a high end GPU on a standalone card with lots of memory and its own cooling often isn't feasible. Integrated graphics technology often fits the bill in digital signage apps.


There are also other considerations, such as:


  • Interface: Many solutions aren't running an XGA LCD panel "computer monitor", but they are actually driving a large format LCD HDTV. Interfaces like HDMI, LVDS, and DVI are becoming more important.


  • Codecs: We're talking about presenting both static images and multimedia with full motion video, and hardware assist for video is a must. MPEG-2 and H.264 are good examples of basic codecs needed, and higher end solutions can deal with codecs like VC-1 for higher quality HD video playback.


  • Operating system drivers: The choice of Windows Embedded, embedded Linux, or an embedded RTOS can be interesting, and we'll look at that in a future installment, but the main consideration now is how available and how good are the available drivers for the graphics chipset.


  • High-level programming: Support for DirectX, OpenGL, shader models and other features come at a price of hardware support and power consumption, but can increase the visual experience.


These are items well addressed by the range of integrated graphics technology offered by Intel. If you haven't investigated Intel Graphics Technology yet, you can see the full range of offerings at . Rather than try to recap the entire range of chipset technology available which you can see, I thought we'd play this the other way and look at a couple examples of Intel® Embedded Alliance member company implementations in their latest digital signage system level solutions and how those selections address the challenge.


At the very low power end, the Intel Atom Z5xx processor can combine with the US15W chipset to make something tiny like the Portwell WEBS-1010. This system takes in an Ethernet or Wi-Fi connection and drives a DVI output.





With a bit more power and room, vendors are selecting the Intel 945GSE chipset with Intel Atom N270 processors. The 945GSE can do many graphics tasks at a low power consumption level of around 7 W. This graphics chipset family handles MPEG-2 in hardware but relies on software to handle more advanced codecs. This solution often appears on a COM Express module - one of the more recent ones I've seen is from ADLINK, the Express-ATR.




The 945GSE is also the core of a new Mini-ITX system from DFI-ITOX and Systium, the Model 132 "mini" . Based on the DFI-ITOX NP101-D16C board, the system presents an 18-bit LVDS interface and a VGA interface to drive an LCD panel. The Model 132 runs from a 12V wall AC adapter and consumes around 15W total.




Breaking out of the very low power space, and tossing some considerations of lifecycle aside to be able to select from the most advanced Intel Graphics Technology solutions available now, there are much higher performance solutions. Some of these are even directly integrated with a display, such as the Axiomtek DS01-46 . Driven by an Intel GM45 chipset and a Intel Core 2 Duo T9400 processor at 2.53 GHz, this is a fully integrated signage platform with a 46" display using what Axiomtek calls a "slot in PC" for easy system configuration and maintenance. The G45 is one of the latest chipsets and brings enhanced HD support in hardware along with Intel Clear Video Technology for sharper image playback, clarity, and color. While these are cutting edge now, the GM45 and G45 devices will be mainstream for digital signage apps shortly as they offer rich processing and blending of content.


Just from these samples, the range of digital signage hardware solutions using integrated graphics technology is seen to be significantly wide. Designers can go very compact, go with a bit more performance and still small, or go to very high performance consuming more power and space - all with graphics integrated directly on the chipset and closely coupled with the Intel Architecture processor.


Note: Portwell, Adlink, DFI-ITOX and Axiomtek are Associate members of the Alliance.


In the next installment of this series, we'll take a look at the maintenance and security considerations for a digital signage system, but we'd like to hear your thoughts on this post. What's a novel digital signage solution powered by Intel processors and graphics that you've seen? What do you see as the pros and cons of integrated graphics over PCI Express add in graphics solutions? Discussion welcomed.


Don Dingee
OpenSystems Media®, by special arrangement with Intel® Embedded Alliance


In a November 4th, 2009 e-cast on "Open Standards Based Platforms Ideal for Military/Aerospace/and Government Applications", sponsored by the Intel® Embedded Alliance, the issues around standards-based platforms using long-life Intel embedded processors were explored by a panel of experts.


Chris Ciufo, editorial director of Military Embedded Systems, moderated the event for OpenSystems Media. Panelists presenting were:

  • Peter Carlston, Platform Architect, Intel Embedded Computing Division
  • James Doyle, Congressional Affairs Liaison, Emerson Network Power (with Rob Persons, Field Applications Engineer, during Q&A)
  • John Long, Product Line Manager, RadiSys Corporation (with Lorraine Orcino, Product Marketing Manager, during Q&A)

Chris opened the e-cast with brief comments about the network centric warfare vision of "MAG" applications requiring interoperability between both legacy systems and new systems with advanced features. One way to achieve that is using open standards based, Commercial Off the Shelf (COTS) products.  Chris then posed the guiding question for the event: Can you really meet strict requirements and deliver better products faster, and at a lower cost, using open standards? The short answer is "yes", but the panel was asked to prove that.


Peter Carlston then presented a couple of key ideas, starting with the idea of COTS products operating in one network - a really large network, with a lot of pieces, but nonetheless one network. The idea of long-term availability is important, with all products on the Intel embedded roadmap having 7 to 10 year availability. He also mentioned hardware virtualization and secure boot enhancements, features also supported in Intel Architecture processors. Peter cited Nehalem as an example of a cutting-edge processor targeting the types of signal processing algorithms often found in MAG applications, and other Intel Architecture processors fitting lower TDP points with good performance.


James Doyle commented on the fit of open systems platforms in C4ISR, networking, and situational awareness applications for the warfighter. He cited a quite example of the potential: "Recently in Afghanistan, there was a situation where the first person on a scene literally wrote a blog in his HMMWV. Within 7 minutes, that information was directly in front of the President, who was able to make a decision and act on that intelligence." He positioned SWaP - Size, Weight, and Power - as an important criteria supported by open standards platforms. Standards he mentioned prominently were AdvancedTCA and VME.


John Long commented on the mapping of COM Express to smaller, handheld applications, while AdvancedTCA maps well to larger C4ISR applications requiring higher performance. AdvancedTCA offers the high performance of larger Intel Architecture processors combined with 40GbE and other high performance I/O. COM Express fits a mobile warfighter need, in small, battery powered designs, or in small platforms like UAVs.


After these overviews, the Q&A portion of the e-cast began with extended panel discussion of questions submitted by attendees. Following are excerpts from that session.


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CC: Why is Intel's embedded group focusing on the military again? Didn't you get out of the mil-spec business?

PC:  Yes, we did, but with the renewed emphasis on commercial off the shelf silicon and systems built with that silicon by our partners such as Emerson and RadiSys, we decided the time was right to focus again on the military. We now have very power efficient processors which can go into a large number of form factors including small and very small form factors, and we're getting a lot of traction .... We believe we have the right product, the right support mechanisms, and we're able to enable our partners to be successful in MAG applications.

JD: We are seeing a growing change in prime contractors and the DoD with interest in Intel silicon. As things move forward, we see greater adoption for commercially available silicon that operates in all different temps and in different platforms [for these MAG applications]. We think it's a great time for Intel to come back to this marketplace.

JL: We've also seen the adoption of Intel Architecture processors in MAG applications. They have lower power, high performance processors, and also higher performance parts. This allows a lot of applications to move to more standard form factors, and also we're seeing movement to more standard operating systems.


CC: 7 to 10 years historically hasn't been enough support time. My opinion is ... this is what we get with COTS; a component supplier offering a 7 year life cycle is as good as you'll get from any component supplier with only a handful of exceptions. What do you think?

PC: I agree. There are many military programs that equipment is being sold into for much longer than 7 to 10 years. That's where a commercial company such as Intel has to rely on our partners to manage the supply chain. We give along early advance notice of last time buys to help our partners.


CC: What is the future of warfare, and how do you see the embedded computing industry supporting it?

JD: Let me try to wrap this around situational awareness. Our view is the collaboration of technology and the warfighter will continually enhance our capability to be able to operate in multiple theaters, not just US forces but forces around the world. Being able to use COTS technology allows us to collaborate with our partners, to be able to share information to do different missions ... We see technology at the forefront of allowing us to have a "more aware" battlefield which will keep our troops safer.

RP: I agree with you in general. I think that having a variety of form factors, not just traditional VME, fits a variety of applications. Because we have all these different open standards all using similar silicon, I think we can address a variety of different applications but have a lot more overlap in software.


CC: Does Emerson support any other open standards besides AdvancedTCA?

RP: Our entire product portfolio really centers around open standards.  This includes AdvancedTCA, VME, CompactPCI, and even some newer ones including AMC and MicroTCA.


CC: For RadiSys, where can COM Express and AdvancedTCA be used in the MAG market?

JL: There are two areas. COM Express is really good for mobile applications. We've seen adoption in computer display units where you can easily pull them out of a vehicle, in the man-wearable devices, and in smaller UAVs. AdvancedTCA is a much larger form factor and is probably not viable for a tank or fighter plane, but in a large aircraft and ground stations it's ideal. When we look at all the different form factors out there, they all fit in different segments and are all viable in the long run. Some are better for different applications than others.


CC: For Intel, what is Intel doing to address the need for much higher performance with the smallest SWaP envelope possible?

PC: Intel as a corporation is very focused on SWaP. It's no secret that in the past there was a need for more and more performance, and in the desktop space you could just add bigger fans and more ducting and that sort thing. Those days are over. With the move to multicore processors we've really enhanced our technology such as fine-grain power management where we shut off parts of the core and parts of the "uncore" when they're not being used, and microseconds or even nanoseconds ahead of when they need to be used they're switched back on. There's a lot of technology going into making our processors more power efficient ... In the Nehalem microarchitecture, we've quadrupled memory bandwidth with memory access times down to 4 or 5 nanoseconds, and that's made a big difference in the performance of a number of algorithms. In a high end radar algorithm, between an unthreaded application and a multithreaded application we've increased performance 38 times by running on a new Nehalem family processor.


CC: For Emerson, what are the chief concerns being raised that inhibit the adoption of COTS technology in MAG applications?

JD: One of the concerns is certainly lifecycle. Understanding the supply chain management and how we continue to support these programs for 15 to 25 years depending on the program is important. The other areas for COTS really come down to Congress, and understanding the acquisition cycle, and the way you need to get to the left of an RFP, and help the customers and the users  understand what is available. I ask people to write their congressman, and ask them to change one phrase - please make sure that in next resolution it says "shall be open standard" instead of "should be open standard".


CC: For RadiSys, how important are middleware standards for high availability, such as SAF, to the success of AdvancedTCA in MAG?

JL: Middleware is critical and open standards are very important. Open standards provide some vendor independence and allow taking the same base product and moving it to multiple applications. Open standards build on each other get you cost effective COTS products.


CC: Would anyone like to comment on VITA's new OpenVPX initiative and how it addresses high availability?

RP: OpenVPX is definitely going to benefit from the work already done in the AdvancedTCA world, but the systems will be treated differently. We'll unlikely see hot swapping capabilities in OpenVPX, but having an internal view of the system and being able to provision a variety of different boards within a chassis will be very strong. At least a subset of the OpenSAF architectures will bleed into OpenVPX systems management.

JL: I'd agree, the use of the same management strategy is good. It allows reuse of technology. One of the things I hope to see in the long run is this will allow folks to easily scale from VPX to AdvancedTCA by reusing a lot of stuff already developed.


CC: Do you think that's a likely scenario? That someone would scale from a 3U VPX system to a rackmounted AdvancedTCA implementation?

JL: I look at large companies addressing different applications; a lot of the base middleware and technology from the software perspective can be reused across different platforms. That's where the value of the SAF standards is.

RP: I agree, and I think that it's very much like you see with Linux deployed in a lot more areas - having that common software thread that can be reused, whether in a hardened environment or not-so-hardened. The same set of software can be used in a variety of different platform styles.


CC: For Intel, how does virtualization affect the MAG market?

PC: There is a lot of interest in virtualization, starting with information assurance platforms. These are platforms where you have to protect vital information from software-based attacks, viruses, root kits, all that sort of thing. It's also about running multiple levels of security at the same time on the same platform. Intel's virtualization technology implemented in our processors allows building very high performance, multiple levels of security. We have other technology that aids in secure booting. In other types of applications, like shipboard computing, reducing racks of equipment with more power efficient servers - more like a data center - is a model for virtualization.


CC: For Emerson, can technology in COTS systems and applications be leveraged and reused across multiple systems and form factors without sacrificing security?

JD: Security is an abstract of an organization, its technology, its management, its value chain from beginning to end, including people. It comes down to people, process, and the way technology is utilized. A president of a major prime contractor said: "I'm convinced that we have six non-national spies within our organization, today." Depending on how you look at your organization, how you manage it, and how you deploy systems, security is a critical aspect.

RP: We're seeing a lot of the software that runs on these systems taking advantage of closing a lot of those security gaps. It's a concerted effort between how you deploy systems, and who you allow to access them, along with some of the underlying software technology that will be a very strong solution.


CC: For RadiSys, is AdvancedTCA viable for airborne operations?

JL: Yes, it is, especially in larger aircraft. There are customers deploying AdvancedTCA in applications such as surveillance.  It is very viable and the challenge in airborne is hardening boards enough to handle high frequency vibration and any unique cooling requirements.


CC:  For Intel, is multiprocessor debugging technology progressing with multicore use in embedded systems?

PC: Obviously, you can't just keep the application the same and rely on processors running ever faster. There's a lot of work going on to enable customers; there's not very much understanding of multithreading, there's not a lot of experience with it , and yet the performance requirements are just not going to be met without a lot of multithreading going on. Intel is putting a lot of effort into our multithreading tools. We have thread checking tools, we have debugging tools, we have a lot of things running on Linux, and we're working real-time operating systems vendors to improve their tools. It's happening, but maybe not as fast as I'd like to see just yet - that's just my opinion.

RP: In the case of utilization, that's where virtualization will become very important. We see it especially in the telecom space where some of these AdvancedTCA blades can have up to eight, heading toward twelve cores - being able to use all those cores is going to be very difficult without virtualization. It's going to be important to take advantage of all the power we're producing on a board.


CC: For RadiSys, an audience member asks: "We've had interest in a 2 slot AMC system for the military for mobile applications. How could COM Express compete with the number of AMCs already out there?"

LO: The selection of COM Express versus AMC is driven by the application requirements.  We are seeing deployments with COM Express in these mobile MAG applications.


CC: As a follow on, how does VPX compare to AdvancedTCA?

JL: We're excited that VPX has been adopted as a standard, and we think it fits a good niche in the mission computing role. The differences? AdvancedTCA supplies more input power, higher processing compute power, and has been around longer - a lot of the bugs have been worked out. There are applications where VPX is a better fit.

JD: The big difference from our view is really the deployment. AdvancedTCA is great for "benign" systems - it's a large platform that is designed for communication applications. OpenVPX is for much more rugged environments, in 3U and 6U form factors.


CC: For Intel, which OS will dominate - Windows, Linux, VxWorks, or others?

PC: Well, it's all speculation. We're seeing increasing adoption of Linux, even in some surprising applications that previously have used an RTOS. On the other hand, there are certain applications that are going to need a true real-time operating system forever. I think it's going to be a mix. There's a lot of work going on for small devices with things like Moblin.


CC: For Intel, with shrinking geometries cause more errors due to single event upsets (radiation)?

PC: It's a question I get all the time. Some of the literature says this is going to happen, while other says there are some mitigating circumstances going on. As geometries get smaller, the jury is still out. We are paying a lot of attention in our packaging, our material science, to mitigate these kinds of effects.


CC: For Intel, what products are currently available to support high throughput signal processing?

PC: With our dual socket and quad socket processors on bladed form factors, we support FPGA plug-in modules that attach to the processor bus - tightly coupling the FPGA with the general purpose CPU. They share the same memory, they have cache coherency, all that. We've licensed our RTL to both Altera and Xilinx for this purpose. Another part of this is what we call the acceleration abstraction layer, which allows abstracting those hardware resources in a service oriented architecture layer so the system can publish what's available and the application can take advantage of the best acceleration technology that it needs to at that moment. Also, as our customers move from Freescale AltiVec to Intel SSE, we have tools available to automate that conversion.


CC: Really? Tools available to cross compile from AltiVec to SSE?

PC: For the digital signal and image processing portions, yes. For example, there's one tool that takes VSIPL libraries for Intel Architecture and performs very well, and there's another one that has an altivec.h header file for Intel Architecture which can be linked in. Both of these take care of things like byte swapping.


CC: For Intel, what types of feedback are you getting from the MAG market?

PC: There's a lot around our graphics processor called Larrabee. I can't discuss details or schedules ... What we're seeing are very difficult compute problems from our customers.  GPUs are getting incredibly capable, with huge amounts of data coming in. Many core processors, 80 to 100 cores in our research, are looking at some of these very high end workloads. It'll be more of a hybrid system, putting CPUs and GPUs together to get the best solutions.





From the Q&A session, you can see that the interest in this application space is rather intense, and the innovation coming from Intel and the Intel Embedded Alliance is beginning to produce ideas that are shaping the future direction of military compute applications.


What are your thoughts on the ideas discussed during this event? What do you see as the driving issues for MAG applications and how they are being approached? What would you like to see next on this topic?

Digital signage is showing up in all kinds of public and corporate applications: information signage and billboards, retail displays with advertising and promotions, and self-service kiosks which combine transactions with advertising. Anywhere a consumer can be found trying to gain information or make a transaction is by a broad definition an opportunity for a digital signage application.


In a recent deployment, a digital signage app is now seen prominently at the busiest airport in Asia. The Beijing airport hosts 600 digital signage appliances to deliver dynamic, quickly updatable advertising content shown on 82" and 108" displays to the over-150,000 travelers who pass through the airport every day.




Digital signage offers much faster time-to-consumer benefits than conventional printed signage. Content can be updated quickly, and made dynamic and creative to engage consumers. Content can also be distributed and controlled over a network, allowing synchronized messages to be shown on a local, regional, or global basis.


In this four-part series, we're going to look at how digital signage comes alive from an embedded computing perspective. Here, we'll discuss what goes into a compact digital signage system and what Intel® Embedded Alliance members said are make or break points. In future installments, we'll look at the graphics and multimedia processing needs in more detail, a typical system and its maintenance and security details, and the software approaches to creating and displaying content.


Digital signage elements

Most digital signage systems consist of several key elements:


  • Processor - in some applications a very fast processor can be used, but in others a fast processor with lower power consumption for fanless operation is called for. Small size and low power is often a consideration as well, which can drive choices of chipset packaging and integration.


  • Graphics - digital signage drives a rich, full motion LCD display, so graphics processing and interfaces like HDMI and DVI are important.


  • Multimedia - content can include full motion video and audio, so multimedia codecs are an integral part of the designs, as is a robust software environment to create and drive the content in creative ways.


  • Networking - most digital signage systems update dynamically from a server, so fast networking such as Gigabit Ethernet is needed, and many clients are equipped with Wi-Fi as well.


  • Storage - most digital signage platforms are really thin clients by design, but some storage such as flash, SSD, or a small hard drive is needed to boot an operating system and locally store content for display.


  • Security and maintenance - systems may be in locations where they can be compromised, but they can't be so secure as to be unmaintainable; a balance between the two is required.



The hardware and software work together to provide a total experience, such as Microsoft researches in a 20,000 sq ft "retail experience center" where they test digital signage and point of sale concepts.





Make or break

To gain a better perspective, I asked several Intel® Embedded Alliance member companies to comment on one question and show an example of their digital signage player products.


"What one technological point makes or breaks a digital signage application, and why?"


Vivian Chen, marketing manager for NEXCOM, an Associate member of the Alliance, said: "Flexibility, built on the integration of superb graphic performance, multiple display interfaces and powerful computing capability, is the tipping point to fit diversified application requirements in the digital signage world." They offer the NDiS 163 as an example of a powerful Intel Core 2 Duo Processor P8400-based system.


Jack Lam, senior product marketing manager for Associate Alliance member American Portwell Technology, says: "Systems need to be power efficient while supporting advanced graphics, high definition video decoding, and image processing." A product like the WEBS-1010 shows a small, fanless system based on an Intel Atom Z530 or Z510 Processor.


Tim Taberner, UK Sales Lead for Eurotech, points out: "Digital signage solutions must have the ability to deliver content in a variety of current and future formats so delivery mechanisms and device management are data format-agnostic, to allow deployment of code updates to all remotes - for example, to support new codecs."  Single board computers like the ISIS, again based on an Intel Atom processor, can form the core of a digital signage application. Eurotech is an Associate member of the Alliance.


Clay Fazio, senior product manager for Advantech, a Premier member of the Alliance, first says it depends on the application, but "... the two critical components that dictate a solution for a particular market would be the environment and the content.  Both play a large part in the technology required for the application to be successful." As part of the environment, he cites thermal design as something that is impacting new digital signage applications.


Sean Langdon, VP of business development for Associate Alliance member Axiomtek, says that the business model is changing: "The Digital Signage space has evolved from inception into infancy, but now faces the daunting task of gaining the maturity needed to deliver value under the new fiscal ROI models of banks, property owners, and media buyers alike.  Hidden, soft, or unplanned expenses can sink an otherwise solid business plan since they directly impact the total cost of ownership."  This implies things like maintenance are very important, a point also raised by Tom Spurlock, regional sales manager for Axiomtek: "The inability to easily remove the player engine from the sign to service or upgrade after the sign is mounted in place is often a show stopper on larger signs, 36" and higher."


As you can see, the make or break proposition hits on most of the elements of a system pointed out earlier. We'll tackle graphics and multimedia in our next segment. In the meantime, what do you see as the needs now for digital signage systems? How would you answer the make or break question based on your experience?


Don Dingee
OpenSystems Media®, by special arrangement with Intel® Embedded Alliance


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