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Small Form Factor Rugged PCs | SFF Rugged Computers | Information & Buying Guide (Industrial Grade)

small-form-factor-rugged-pcs-sff-computers

Deploying a small form factor rugged computer does not necessarily mean that you’re sacrificing performance for a compact industrial computing solution. This post will give you everything you need to know about how to choose the right small form factor rugged PC that is suitable for your workloads. We will explain everything you need to know about small form factor (SFF) rugged computers as well as providing you with the best source to buy them from.

What is a Small Form Factor Rugged PC?

Small form factor rugged computers are, as the name suggests, small ruggedized industrial computers that take up less space than regular desktop PCs. Small form factor rugged PCs are engineered and built with ruggedness in mind, able to survive deployment in the world’s harshest and most volatile environments. The ruggedization of small factors PCs allows them to withstand frequent exposure to shocks, vibrations, extreme temperatures, dust, debris, and water.

Additionally, the defining feature of small form factor rugged PCs is their compact sizes, which makes deploying them in small, space-constrained environments possible. SFF rugged computers can be deployed in environments that cannot fit regular desktop PCs. In the past, deploying an SFF PC meant sacrificing performance; however, as processor technology advanced, you can achieve the same performance from a small form factor computing solution as you can from a full-fledged desktop computer, but in a smaller footprint.

What Qualifies as a Small Form Factor Rugged Computer?

Small form factor (SFF) is a term that refers to smaller devices within a given field. Small form factor devices tend to have a much smaller footprint than regular, full-size devices. There is no specific rule defining what constitutes SFF rugged computer. That said, rugged small form factors PCs are much smaller in size than the average desktop PC.

Simply stated, they are miniaturized versions of desktop computers that have been ruggedized for deployment in volatile environments that are unfriendly to regular desktop computers. Although rugged small form factor PCs are smaller than their desktop counterparts, they do not sacrifice performance or functionality. Premio offers the BCO-1000 Series of rugged SFF PCs that come in sizes so small that they can fit in the palm of your hand, coming in at 140MM (W) x 101MM (D) x 30MM (H).

small-form-facter-bco1000

How to Choose a Small Form Factor Rugged PC?

Here are some tips to assist you with choosing the best small form factor rugged computer:

1. Choosing the Right Processor (CPU)

The CPU is the main component that goes into every small form factor rugged computer as it is responsible for performing all of the computational tasks of a computer system. It is vital to select a processor capable of handling the workloads and tasks that you want it to perform.

cpu

Many OEMs cut corners when equipping small form factor PCs with processors because it reduces the cost of systems. However, when a PC is equipped with a processor that is not powerful enough for the tasks that the end-user wants to perform, it will result in sluggish performance, slowing down the end-users workflow, often resulting in detrimental downtime.

Workloads

To choose the right CPU for your workload and tasks, you should first consider how you plan on using the system. Suppose you want it to perform tasks, such as data telemetry and remote monitoring of vehicles. In that case, you can get away with equipping the system with a low-powered yet efficient processor, such as the Intel® Celeron® J1900 CPU. However, suppose you need a system that can perform complex and demanding workloads such as inference analysis and AI edge computing. In that case, you will need to choose a more powerful and robust option, such as the Intel® Core® i3, i5, and i7 processors, which are extremely powerful.

intel-processors-i3-i5-i7

SoC (System on Chip) vs. Socket PCs

For those who require low-powered small PCs, they should consider SoC (system-on-chip) PCs, which combine all of the components of a computer on a single substrate. For example, you will find SoCs equipped with CPU core and integrated graphics GPU all on a single chip. SoCs tend to be low-powered, making them ideal for entry-level, simple workloads that do not require much compute power. SoCs ensure a balance of power consumption and performance. For example, many small form factor computers use  SoC processors that range from 7 to 15W  TDP, offering incredible performance in a small silicon package.

On the other hand, if your workload requires more power, you should explore the option of a socket CPU system. Socket CPU systems offer more performance than SoC because such processors tend to have more cores with higher speeds and are therefore able to operate at a much higher temperature than SoC PCs. But when choosing a socket type processor, naturally, the power consumption increases and requires a robust passive or active cooling solution. Nevertheless, SoCs have a place for industrial workloads thanks to their compact size and efficient power consumption, offering flexibility for industrial applications and IoT deployments that require little power consumption.

Once you know what tasks and workloads you want your small form factor PC to perform, you should arm yourself with some knowledge about how processors affect your system’s performance. Knowing how clock speed and core count affect the performance of your system is vital to choose the appropriate small form factor rugged computer.

system-on-chip-soc-socket-type

CPU Core Count

Modern processors usually come equipped with multiple cores. Each CPU core functions as an additional processor, allowing the CPU to simultaneously process multiple instructions. Some industrial applications are able to utilize more cores than others. Core count can really boost the performance of applications that are able to utilize multiple cores at once. For example, machine learning and deep learning algorithms often benefit from increased core count, allowing computer systems with more cores to finish CPU intensive workloads much faster.

When choosing a processor for your small form factor PC, you should consider the frequency of the processor you want to use in your system. CPU frequency or clock speeds refer to the number of cycles a CPU can execute per second; the higher the frequency, the faster your computer system will perform. Modern processors are able to execute billions of cycles per second, and so processors clock speed is measured in GHz (gigahertz). Generally, you want the clock speed to be higher because it means that system will be faster and perform better.

Features Offered by Intel Processors

Here are some features that can be found on small form factored rugged computers equipped with Intel® Core® Processors:

Intel Turbo Boost Technology

Intel Turbo Boost technology allows processors to increase the frequency on one or all cores to boost the performance of the CPU in single and multi-threaded applications.

Intel Hyperthreading Technology

Intel Hyperthreading Technology is Intel’s own multi-threading technology, which improves computations’ parallelization, allowing the processor to perform more computations with every clock cycle.

Intel vPro Management

Intel Core i3, i5, and i7 processors come equipped with Intel vPro, which allows organizations to manage systems equipped with these processors remotely regardless of whether the system is on/off or has an operating system installed on it. vPro allows organizations to install software updates and troubleshoot systems without physically going to the system’s location.

intel-vpro-management

(Credit: Intel)

2. Consider The Environment

When choosing an industrial computer for deployment, you should consider the environment in which it will be placed. If the environment in which you are deploying a computer experiences frequent exposure to shocks, vibration, dust, dirt, and/or extreme temperatures, you should consider deploying small form factor rugged computers. Small form factor rugged PCs are engineered and built for deployment in these volatile conditions. Regular desktop computers, on the other hand, are not built to withstand deployment in such environments.

Rugged small form factor PCs are able to withstand deployment in volatile environments because they utilize a rugged cableless and fanless design. By eliminating fans and ventilation holes from rugged small form factor computers, industrial PC manufacturers have eliminated dust and debris’ ability to enter the system, causing damage to sensitive internal components.

Additionally, the removal of all cables from industrial computing systems eliminates the possibility that a cable comes loose from its connection, rendering the system inoperable. As such, the fanless and cableless designs results in a more reliable and durable small form factor computing solution.  

Furthermore, small form factor rugged computers are able to survive in extreme environments thanks to their outer enclosure, which is made from aluminum and steel, providing protection to sensitive internal components. Additionally, the outer enclosure makes cleaning the computer’s outer portion easy while preventing the system from corroding and deteriorating if exposed to water and dirt.

That said, small form factor rugged PCs come with different levels of dust and water protection. For example, Premio rugged small factors PCs come with some degree of dust protection. However, for users who require an extra level of dust and water protection, Premio offers a number of small form factor computing solutions that come with IP65 and IP69K ratings, such as the WCO Series.

At Premio, we understand that downtime can cost businesses a ton of money, especially when small form factor industrial PCs are deployed in manufacturing facilities that run around the clock. So, deploy small factor rugged computers that are guaranteed to run reliably 24/7, causing minimal downtime. All systems are stress-tested before being shipped to customers, ensuring that they will operate reliably out of the box.  

temperature-range-sff-computers

3. Selecting the Appropriate Cooling Solution

The smaller computers get, the more difficult it becomes to cool them down. Small form factor rugged PCs are passively cooled via the use of heatsinks. Fans have been entirely eliminated from the system. Instead, heatsinks are used to move heat away from the internal heat-generating components to the PC’s outer enclosure, which then dissipates the heat into the air surrounding the system. The system’s external enclosure is equipped with fins, which increase the surface area of the device, offering more cooling capabilities. Heatsinks are able to cool down the internal components via a process known as thermal conductivity whereby heat is transferred away from the heat-generating components to the cooler portions of the PC’s enclosure, which then dissipates the heat into the air around the system.  

heatsink-fanless-computers

4. Choosing the Appropriate Amount of RAM

RAM (random access memory) is a key requirement for any small form factor rugged PC. The more RAM you add to a system, the more responsive the system will become. RAM is used by small form factor PCs for short term data storage. However, RAM is different than hard drives or solid-state drives in that RAM resets every time the system is turned off, whereas data on HDDs or SSDs can be stored indefinitely. Random-access memory is volatile, meaning it can only store data when it is powered on; as soon as power is cut off to it, the data is wiped out.

RAM

The primary purpose of RAM is to store data that your PC needs quick access to. For example, if you’re running an application, the application is loaded onto RAM so that the computer system can quickly retrieve the data that it needs from it. Industrial applications can read and write data to RAM because it is extremely faster than accessing the data from an SSD or HDD. The more RAM you add to a system, the more data that can be stored by applications onto RAM and the more applications that you can run simultaneously. So, if you want to run multiple applications, you will benefit from adding more RAM memory to your small form factor computing solution.

5. Consider the Storage Device

Small form factor rugged PCs can be equipped with either HDDs (hard drives) and/or SSDs (solid-state drives). Additionally, SFF rugged PCs can be configured with NVMe SSDs, which are extremely fast storage devices, capable of read speeds of up to 3,500 MB/s and write speeds of up to 2,500 MB/s. Suppose you want to create an ultra-rugged small form factor PC. In that case, you should configure your system using SSDs because they store data on silicon chips, which offer magnitudes of reliability over hard drives, which store data on spinning metal platters. That said, we understand that some may want to configure their systems with hard drives because HDDs often cost less than SSDs and offer more storage space. That said, for the most rugged PC, you should configure your system with SSDs for improved reliability and ruggedness.

nvme-ssds

6. Wired & Wireless Connectivity

Small form factor rugged computing solutions come equipped with a variety of wired and wireless connectivity options. For wired connectivity, rugged computers come equipped with a minimum of 2x GbE RJ45 with support for Wake-on-LAN and PXE. Additionally, some models of small form factor rugged computers can be expanded with additional RJ45 and M12 connector ethernet ports with support for PoE+ (IEEE 802.3at) for power and ethernet over a single cable.

Additionally, in the event that wired connectivity is not available, small form factor rugged computers come equipped with Wi-Fi and cellular connectivity options. Wi-Fi 6 delivers ultra-reliable, low latency communications. Also, it offers configuration flexibility, allowing users to adjust the range and power consumption of Wi-Fi according to their specific requirements. Wi-Fi delivers the performance that is closest to wired LAN when it comes to latency and bandwidth. Wi-Fi 6 is the latest standard, and it’s capable of providing 40% greater data transfer speeds than the outgoing Wi-Fi 5 standard.

In the event that Wi-Fi connectivity is not available, small form factor rugged PCs can still connect to the internet because they are equipped with cellular connectivity options that include 4G, LTE, and 5G. 4G tops out at a theoretical speed of 100 Mbps, whereas 5G tops out at a theoretical speed of 10 Gbps, offering blazing-fast data transfer speeds. Cellular connectivity is extremely important for remote deployments where stable internet connectivity is not always available.

Furthermore, rugged small form factor computers come configured with Bluetooth connectivity, which is a lightweight technology that offers quick and straightforward connectivity for low-powered devices. Although Bluetooth does not provide the speed and range that Wi-Fi offers, it does provide reliable one-to-one and many-to-many connectivity.

7. Wide Voltage & Power Protection

Rugged small form factors PCs come equipped with a wide input voltage, allowing rugged computer systems to run on power that ranges from 9 to 50 VDC, adding compatibility with different power input scenarios. In addition to being compatible with different power input scenarios, rugged small form factors PCs come equipped with overvoltage protection, power surge protection, and reverse polarity protection.

The overvoltage protection feature cuts off the system’s power whenever the system senses that the voltage exceeds a predetermined level to protect the sensitive internal components.

The power surge protection feature protects the computer system from power surges. Whenever the system detects a surge in power, the system diverts electricity into the ground to avoid damage to the sensitive electronics onboard the device.

Finally, small form factor rugged PCs come equipped with reverse polarity protection that ensures that the system is not damaged if power supply polarity is reversed. When the system detects a reverse in polarity, it cuts off the power to the system to prevent sensitive components from sustaining damage.

All of these features are unique to industrial-grade computing solutions that demand reliability and performance in mission-critical enterprise deployments.  

8. Flexible I/O

Small form factor rugged PCs are equipped with rich I/O as well as flexible PCIe expansion capabilities. Rich I/O ports offer support for new technologies and IoT devices, as well as support for legacy technologies that utilize COM and Serial Ports. For example, rugged SFF PCs come equipped with USB 3.1 Gen 2 ports that are capable of data transfer speeds up to 10Gbs, COM Ports, and RJ45 Ethernet ports. For organizations and businesses that need additional ports, SFF rugged PCs can be equipped with daughterboards that will increase the number of ethernet ports up to six ethernet port for IoT deployments that require ethernet connection in multiple RJ45 and M12 locking connectors. Both RJ45 and M12 locking connectors can provide PoE+ (IEEE 802.3at) for data and power through a single ethernet cable. The Rich I/O of small rugged computers great for applications such as smart vending machines, kiosk machines, smart agriculture, security, surveillance, and edge IoT.

industrial-io-ports

9. Operating System (OS)

When choosing a small form factor rugged computer, the OS is often overlooked in the process and is almost always thought of after the customer receives the system. However, it is extremely important to test all of the parts of an SFF rugged system to ensure that they can work together without causing any compatibility problems. As such, we work very diligently with our customers to ensure that the PCs work flawlessly straight out of the box.

Think Small

Just because small factor rugged computers are smaller in size than regular, consumer-grade desktop PCs does not mean that you’re compromising on performance or features. SFF rugged computers are equipped with all of the latest technologies, including the latest processors that Intel has to offer, as well as the newest SSD solutions, enabling blazing fast performance all in a small footprint.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

1. What does small form factor rugged PC mean?

The term small form factor rugged PC is used to refer to mini rugged industrial-grade computers that are small enough to fit in tight and compact spaces. SSF rugged computers are complete industrial-grade computers that operate and perform as well as full-sized desktop PCs. Small rugged PCs are passively cooled using heatsinks. Passive cooling technology is what enables companies such as Premio to engineer and build small compact PCs.

2. Where can I buy a small form factor rugged computer?

You can buy a small form factor rugged PC from companies like Premio. Premio has been designing and building industrial-grade small PCs for over 30 years in the United States.

3. How are SFF rugged PCs cooled?

SFF Rugged PCs are cooled via heatsinks, which are used to move heat away from the internal heat-generating components to the PC's outer enclosure, which in turn dissipates the heat into the air surrounding the PC. Additionally, fins are added to the case of the PC to increases the surface area from which heat is dissipated.

4. Can GPUs be installed in SFF rugged computers?

Yes, some SFF rugged PCs can be fitted with GPUs; however, the systems are split into two compartments, one for the CPU and other internal components and another compartment for the GPU that provides air cooling since GPUs tend to produce too much heat to be passively cooled.