It’s not always easy to keep up with the latest and greatest technology. This is especially true for anything related to computers. Most people are quite familiar with the speed at which laptops and phones increase in overall speed. Not to mention that everything from memory to storage space tends to increase at a similar rate. Computers as a whole are developing at a rapid pace. And smaller form processors seem to be receiving even more attention than usual. As such it’s little surprise that smaller computers based on a single unified chipset are developing so quickly.
The single board computer, or SBC, aims to be a full computer on a single small chip. There is some minor variation to be found within this general idea. For example, sometimes a heat sink attached to the board might make it seem quite a bit larger than a single board design would suggest. And various capabilities might end up-regulated to secondary modules. Wireless functionality such as Bluetooth or wifi is the most common example of this particular trend.
However, in general, one should consider single board computers to offer up a collection of hardware components analogous to standard desktop computers. And this is where one can see something very interesting about the devices. A single board computer, or SBC, usually has a similar processor to what one would find inside a smartphone. Standard computers use an x86-64 based processor. While most phones use ARM-based processors. When people write computer programs they need to target and compile for a specific type of processor. This means that most desktop software works on x86-64 but not one’s phone. However, an SBC will usually use a special variant of desktop Linux operating systems.
These systems, called distros, are specially compiled for ARM rather than x86-64. By doing so one will essentially have a full desktop experience on a computer roughly the size of one’s phone. One can also take this into some very interesting directions. For example, one new trend with SBCs is called clustering.
A cluster sets up a single computer as a node within a larger collection. One can almost think of this as analogous to neurons in the human brain. Or to go for a more familiar analogy, water droplets within a larger cloud. Because this is what many SBC clusters are used for these days. They’re collected together to form cloud-based systems. An SBC is usually something similar to begin with just in terms of processor design.
There’s no standard number of processors on an SBC. But in general, one will usually find about four to eight processor cores per board. One can think of this being four to eight less powerful computers linked together into a singular whole. It makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts. But this small cluster of processors can itself link to other SBC units. This creates a full cluster of single-board computers. And in turn, this can be used for almost anything in which a normal cloud-based system might end up placed within.
The specific examples are numerous and versatile enough to be difficult to pin down. But the most common examples are web, file and database servers. The smaller data sizes make this especially attractive for people looking to leverage existing resources into a server based environment. But some people are even finding this design useful for cutting edge research. For example, as previously mentioned this core design is somewhat similar to neurons in a brain. As such it can be leveraged to AI development. There are even special SBC hardware extensions which add additional AI specific coprocessors.