SAN JOSE, Calif. Linux double-timed its march into the mainstream of embedded computing this past week amid a clutch of new alliances, startling market share gains and vigorous debate over the open-source software model.
At the Embedded Systems Conference here, several business announcements trumpeted the upstart operating system's increased acceptance and pushed commercial vendors of real-time operating systems to mount a vigorous defense of their own, proprietary approaches.
Motorola Inc., through its subsidiary Metrowerks, announced that it will acquire 3 million shares of Lineo Inc. (Lindon, Utah), which makes embedded Linux products. Samsung Electronics and Samsung Electro-Mechanics announced the formation of joint ventures in Korea with Lineo. And Samsung's System LSI Business said that it has awarded a million-dollar contract to Red Hat Inc. (Durham, N.C.) to port Linux-based embedded-development tools to Samsung's line of low-power processors.
Those moves come at a time when Linux vendors are taking pains to tie themselves to the mainstream of computing software. LynuxWorks Inc. (San Jose, Calif.), for example, announced this past week that it has integrated Microsoft's Visual C++ integrated development environment (IDE) with its own Linux-based development tools. The company said it was the first embedded firm to weave traditional software tools with a Linux-based system.
"Linux is gaining popularity and has a lot of momentum," said Laurie F. Balch, an industry analyst for Dataquest Inc. (San Jose).
Until now, many industry players have viewed the Linux operating system as more of a desktop phenomenon than an embedded one. But the presence of power players like Motorola and Samsung casts doubt on the notion that Linux is a flash in the pan, or that it is limited to the desktop market.
The question within the embedded-systems market is whether the flurry of activity is a sign of bigger things to come for Linux.
Originally developed as an alternative to Unix, Linux didn't reach prominence as a desktop OS until the end of 1999. Before that, usage was so small that research firms didn't even bother to gather statistics on Linux. But recent growth in the desktop market has been explosive, experts say. Dell Computer, for example, now employs Linux on nearly 4 percent of its desktop products, a figure that matches all of Apple Computer's Macintosh numbers.
An embedded-systems study by Beacon Research for EE Times, released this past week, revealed that use of embedded Linux tool platforms jumped from 1 percent in 1999 to 14 percent in 2000. The same study also said that planned usage of embedded Linux tool platforms is 33 percent.
Part of the reason for Linux's recent success is that it's royalty free. That's key in the fragmented, small-margin world of embedded design.
"If you want to cost-reduce your product, what's the first thing you always take out?" asked John Smolucha, director of marketing for embedded products at Metrowerks (Austin, Texas). "The royalty fee might not be much, but the difference between success and failure of a commodity item is usually measured in pennies."
Equally important for many users is the open-source nature of Linux. That's particularly crucial for manufacturing enterprises, which can lose thousands of dollars per minute when an automated machine goes down. "With Linux, if you know something isn't working you can easily go in and fix the code," Smolucha said. "The code is more accessible than it would be for a proprietary kernel."
Engineers from Motorola and Metrowerks believe that the current wave of interest in Linux could carry the OS to greater prominence. Many Linux backers, they say, have an almost-evangelical passion for the operating system. And that enthusiasm, they say, could lead to the creation of hundreds of software applications tailored to the Linux platform.
"Linux has the capability to harness the energy of the embedded community," Smolucha said.
Motorola recently underscored its belief in Linux by announcing it would acquire 3 million shares of Lineo stock about $22.5 million worth which represents roughly 8 percent of the company. Some analysts believe that if Linux takes off, Motorola might even consider acquiring Lineo. "It's not unheard of for a semiconductor company to do that," said Daya Nadamuni, a senior analyst with Dataquest.
The three companies Motorola, Lineo and Metrowerks say that the strategic partnership will result in a wide variety of joint products. Lineo and Metrowerks say they will work together to combine Lineo's embedded Linux solution, called Embedix, with Metrowerks' CodeWarrior IDE. Their new product, called CodeWarrior for Embedix, will support Motorola's PowerPC, ColdFire, M-Core and 68000 line of processor architectures.
Bigger tool chain
Similarly, Lineo has announced that it will work with Samsung to form a new company, based in Seoul, South Korea, which is as yet unnamed. Lineo representatives see the startup as a procurement vehicle for Samsung products to receive embedded Linux from Lineo.
Although Lineo executives believe most of the targeted products would be made by Samsung, they also foresee a limited number of outside companies working with the firm to embed Linux in their products too.
A welter of tools have emerged to pave the way for embedding Linux among them VisualLynux, apparently the first product to integrate the Microsoft Visual C++ integrated development environment with Linux development tools. That means experienced Windows-based developers can use the familiar Visual C++ environment to create applications targeting Linux.
"It allows the programmer to use mainstream tools to work on their applications," said Inder Singh, chief executive officer of creator LynuxWorks.
LynuxWorks believes that products like VisualLynux could bring Linux closer to embedded computing's mainstream than ever before. Between 70 percent and 80 percent of programmers are familiar with Visual C++, the company said, whereas far less than 10 percent are intimately familiar with Linux. LynuxWorks said it is targeting Linux-based end products ranging from telecommunications devices to handheld computers and Internet appliances.
Elsewhere at the Embedded Systems Conference, Red Hat announced an Internet-based service for deploying and managing open-source platforms, using Linux. The company sees the service as the glue to link complete end-to-end solutions, from Web pad to server, with a common set of application programming interfaces.
The Red Hat Network technology, which will be a part of all Red Hat service offerings beginning in December, includes customizable update-management services along with security evaluation, notification and analysis services to help system administrators maintain the security of their networks. Executives said the goal is to ease the process of maintaining and doing software updates to Internet appliances.
Linux backers at the Embedded Systems Conference seemed invigorated by the gains the OS has made in the embedded world. Red Hat's chief technology officer, Michael Tiemann, waved the Linux flag vigorously during a panel debate on the open-source software model.
"Open-source is intrinsic to the success of the Internet," he said.
The next great task, in Tiemann's view, is putting the Internet into Internet appliances. "It's going to be difficult to sell Internet appliances that don't contain true Internet technologies, which require open-source technologies for security, availability, scalability, maintainability, etc.," he said. "This is needed if you're going to put millions of devices out there."
Freelance developer Bill Gatliff took a shot at commercial vendors' arguments that theirs is the only reliable approach to developing a system.
"You've heard it said many times that proprietary closed-source tools vendors are the only places you can go to find somebody to take care of you. But most of the companies making these statements have their selfish interests at heart," Gatliff said. "They'll take your money and provide the services, but eventually they decide that continuing to support your version of their closed-source product is no longer profitable, so they stop supporting it."
He dismissed the notion of the benevolent tools vendor working in the interests of the developer. "The only person who can decide what's right for my system is me," Gatliff said.
But another panelist, Steve Stolper, system software manager for Silicon Spice Inc., pointed out that the picture is not black and white. "My [open-source] motto is 'Use the best, lose the rest,' " Stolper said. "If you're going to use open-source, you have to keep your eyes open. There are some successes, but there are also some miserable failures."
While acknowledging that Wind River Systems Inc. has supported open-source contributing to the GNU debugger and GNU cross-compiler John Fogelin, Wind River's vice president of technology, questioned whether the model can support diverse processor architectures and system needs.
"I think there's a real question as to [whether] open-source can find a home here in the embedded market, because of the lack of commonality and therefore the lack of common goals for the open-source community to rally around," Fogelin said.
Another issue is licensing, he said. A key question and one, Fogelin said, that has dogged the embedded market from day one is whether aspects of the intellectual property are better supported by a vendor or a user community.
"The embedded market is inherently fragmented, and therefore does not lend itself to being supported by a community-based open-source development process," he said. "One way or another, in the embedded market you really must invest in unique technology, because the needs are truly individualized. Innovation really does cost money, [whether] people do it themselves [or] vendors develop it for them."
But Red Hat's Tiemann said the open-source community invariably rallies when there's a software issue. He pointed to a performance problem that Linux creator Linus Torvalds felt he couldn't solve. Thanks to the open nature of Linux, a programmer in Turkey took it on and solved it, he said.
"Never underestimate the intellectual capability of the entire world," said Tiemann. "The key is to think of it as 'How can I best take advantage of the competency of tens of thousands of competent programmers?' rather than 'How can I protect my individual core competency?' "
For all the sound and fury, analysts said Linux is no shoo-in in embedded. "Traditionally, Motorola has always had a strategy of hedging its bets," said Nadamuni of Dataquest. "Since no one knows which operating system will be the long-term winner, it makes perfect sense for companies like Motorola to take a foothold in the RTOS market."
Nadamuni pointed out that Motorola and Intel both recently invested in LynuxWorks. The difference this time around for Motorola, she said, is that Lineo offers a Linux RTOS, whereas LynuxWorks did not. Development of a competitive RTOS has been the recent focus of many in the embedded-systems community.