Linux lends a hand to Sun engineers

Sun Microsystems Inc. is rolling out a critical customer service application on an operating system that's almost completely untried for handheld devices - Linux.

Why Linux? Sun says the open source operating system has shown itself to be reliable, adept at handling multiple applications and inexpensive. Sun rejected far more prevalent handheld operating systems, such as Windows CE and Palm OS, for a variety of ideological and technical reasons.

Sun's multimillion-dollar project could prove to be a showcase for handheld Linux in an enterprise network. But don't expect Linux appliances to be as ubiquitous or as interoperable as stereo components any time soon. The Sun project has been a year in the making, entailing a lot of custom software and hardware development, and requiring close cooperation among vendors.

Going with Linux was a "gut-wrenching" decision for Greg Richards, senior manager of Sun's global operations unit, who says his main concern was that Sun field engineers embraced the handheld systems. "The last thing I wanted to do was to be a pioneer," he says.

The new device needed a reliable, full-blown operating system to cache lots of data locally and run big applications at the same time, along with a Java Virtual Machine (JVM), a Web browser and personal information management applications. But, equally important, the final combination of hardware and software had to be such that the 3,500 field engineers could put it to work quickly and easily.

In the end, Sun worked closely with a team of vendors to create a rugged, PDA-sized handheld, packed with memory, running a compact version of Linux and a suite of applications ported to it. The initial test group of 50 engineers has taken readily to the handheld, called the Field Information Appliance.

Richards expects the project, which he says has a price tag of less than US$10 million, to pay for itself in about six months.

Engineers with Red Hat Inc. did most of the work tailoring the Linux kernel for the handheld, while Sun's engineers fine-tuned a JVM for Linux. Symbol Technologies adapted one of its existing wireless handhelds, which usually runs Palm OS or Microsoft PocketPC software, for Sun. The device incorporates a bar code scanner and a wireless modem. Aether Systems Inc. coordinated the wireless carrier contracts and forged a message-based middleware link with Sun's corporate servers. And Interlink wrote a Java field service application for the device.

The new Linux appliance is expected to let engineers visit more jobs, record customer information more accurately and continuously update Sun's database for identifying and fixing support problems. Until now, engineers lugged around two-way pagers to get alerts on their assignments and basic customer contact information, cell phones to keep in touch with supervisors, laptops to run access and download troubleshooting data, and paper forms that had to be filled out and filed for each job.

Initially, the Linux device in many cases will be one more piece of equipment to carry around, although Richards expects it to quickly replace several, and maybe even all, other devices.

About a year ago, Richards' group began examining Sun's paper-based system used to manage the information flow for equipment failures, replacement parts and service calls. "I wanted to be able to ask any question of any field engineer anywhere," Richards says. Another concern was getting more current updates on the status of engineers' job assignments to schedule them more efficiently. In the past, this information was usually at least two hours old.

With the new handheld, solutions to problems get to the database faster, and can be distributed to the field engineers more speedily. For example, Sun previously had discovered that memory chips in its servers were overheating because the airflow in the servers was blocked when they were packed in with other server brands. The new application will be able to key a set of information to the particular job that an engineer is working on. So for a given memory chip replacement job, the database will download a form to the handheld that alerts the engineer to check the server's airflow.

Richards says his team looked at nearly 50 devices, everything from laptops to cell phones with browsers based on the Wireless Application Protocol. They finally decided to go with a PDA-sized device, compact and almost instantly usable when switched on. It had to have enough processing power and memory to run applications and store fairly large files. A wireless modem would let it periodically synchronize with corporate servers.

Windows CE was ruled out fairly early, partly, Richards acknowledges, for ideological reasons at a company where Unix rules. But Sun also went with the Linux device because of the results of a prototype test.

"The very first time we ran Java on Windows CE, the boot time was 10 minutes," he says. "With our current device, it's 7 seconds. WinCE takes a lot of memory, CPU cycles and other resources."

Other handhelds were discounted because of a lack of expandability, short battery life, or bad ergonomic design.

Despite his own bias in favor of Palm OS, Richards concluded the software had various internal memory limits that made it unsuitable for Sun's needs. In the end, Symbol agreed to work with Red Hat to build a custom device, based on the Symbol 2700 handheld, that could run Linux. The device has a 60-MHz MIPS processor, 16M bytes of RAM, 12M bytes of flash RAM, Symbol's custom snap-on keyboard, built-in bar code scanner, a serial port with cable to connect to a Sun server as a diagnostic console, and Red Hat Linux 7.0.

The device eventually will be upgraded to use an Intel StrongARM microprocessor and carry 32M bytes of RAM.

Besides choosing Linux, the other major decision was implementing wireless access for the engineers. "I thought, 'My God, I'm going to get bills from 50 wireless carriers all over the world, and I'll have to support these devices,' " Richards recalls.

He turned those headaches over to Aether, which negotiates the deals with the carriers, making use of widely available Cellular Digital Packet Data nets in North America, and GSM nets, or whatever is available, overseas. Data calls from the engineers route through the carrier nets to Aether's network operations center, and from there, via a secure link to Sun's corporate network. The handheld runs the client program for Aether's message-oriented middleware, which encrypts the entire transmission from handhelds to a corporate proxy server.

Sun's experience shows that Linux can be a key part of extending critical enterprise applications to mobile computing devices. But it also shows that doing so requires extensive, and expensive, custom programming, and a closely supervised relationship among a group of hardware and software vendors, as Richards himself alludes to with an ironic comment.

"Aside from the fact this was custom development, with a brand-new version of Java and Linux, and brand-new applications, it wasn't that hard," he says.

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