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Software // Enterprise Applications

Linux Gains Support In Embedded Systems

Vendors are scrambling to support the open-source operating system for devices ranging from cell phones to airplane navigation gear.

Linux is making sufficient inroads into the embedded systems market to send vendors scrambling. The latest example was Wind River Systems, which experts say has 30% of the market for the tiny operating systems that run millions of devices ranging from cellular phones to airplane navigation gear.

Wind River said this week that it has extended its professional-services division to help customers deploy Linux, either alone or with the company's own competing operating system, VxWorks. The announcement came only a week after Wind River said it had joined two prominent open-source groups, which analysts interpreted as, "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em."

Linux is a good fit for embedded systems, in part because 40% to 50% of the systems now in use are built in-house by equipment manufacturers, according to market research firm Venture Development Corp.

Linux "certainly begins to satisfy some of the requirements for these companies who traditionally developed, maintained and supported their own in-house development over the years," Venture Development embedded software analyst Stephen Balacco said. "Linux provides them with the source code, and it also provides them with the control of being able to go in there and make the kinds of changes that need to be made to satisfy their unique requirements. And it's also royalty-free."

Embedded systems can be versions of popular operating systems, such as Microsoft's Windows or Linux; or they can combine an operating system and application in one program running on a specialized microprocessor. The systems are found in automobiles, planes, trains, space vehicles, machine tools, cameras, consumer electronics, cell phones, handheld computers, robots, and toys.

Wind River has seen embedded Linux gain momentum in two of the five industries the company targets: digital consumer electronics and network infrastructure gear used in telecommunications. In these devices, Linux has proven to be a "very capable and powerful operating system," said Dave Fraser, senior VP of products at Wind River. Where the company has not seen much use of Linux is within automotive, aerospace and defense, and manufacturing. "VxWorks is used in lots of applications where Linux is many years away from handling," Fraser said.

Linux lacks the maturity, for example, to operate in real-time systems--systems that respond to input signals fast enough to keep an operation moving at its required speed. Such systems are used to control airplanes and space shuttles.

But while Linux is behind proprietary and homegrown systems in this space, the gap is closing.

"There's nothing fundamentally preventing Linux from getting into a lot of real-time applications," said Gordon Haff, an analyst at high-tech researcher Illuminata. "I don't see anything insurmountable for Linux to get there over time, but certainly that's not the low-hanging fruit today."

In general, embedded-system developers are moving away from building their own software, preferring instead to shave development time by using pre-built components. Because Linux source code is available for free, it's a natural fit for such highly skilled developers.

"We see the commercial use of Linux growing at a faster pace over our forecast, which goes out to 2007, than the overall embedded software industry," Balacco said.

Among the vendors taking advantage of this trend are MontaVista Software and TimeSys. Both companies offer Linux-based embedded software and sell services and application development tools in support of the platform.

Wind River is willing to provide the professional services and the development tools for Linux, but doesn't plan to distribute the operating system. "We don't believe there's that much value (to customers), right now, in providing a Linux distribution," Fraser said.

Wind River has joined the Open Source Development Labs, which develops and promotes Linux; and the Eclipse Consortium, which was launched by IBM to build better open-source programming tools.

Wind River will join the OSDL group building specifications for telecommunications equipment makers. Telecommunication manufacturers are the biggest customers for VxWorks, and many of those companies are using the operating system along with Linux.

For some, the shift in the embedded market to Linux and open source tools appears inevitable, and vendors will have to adapt to survive.

"The preferences of the developers really do matter a lot," said Steven Weber, an associate professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who has written extensively about open-source software models. "And a lot of developers prefer to use the open-source code; partly out of familiarity, partly because of the well-known advantages of open-source code and support from the community; and sometimes as a statement" against non-standard software.

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