One of the open-source community's most frequently heard battle calls echoed through a Wednesday panel discussion here on the benefits of embedded Linux -- "Where there's chaos, there's opportunity."
Embedded operating systems have become a hot topic lately, with vendors deciding which OS is likely to run the next generation of Internet appliances. Soon, everything from refrigerators to radios will have a processor in it -- not a full-blown computer, but a device with a small operating system that does the same thing every time it is turned on.
Because of its open-source status, many believe that Linux is ideal for a large number of Internet appliances. "Linux is a very widely used open-source operating system, so it's easy to port to different devices and support a large number of configurations," said Inder Singh, chief executive officer and president of embedded Linux company Lynuxworks Inc. "Because Linux is vendor neutral, it's quickly becoming the first system used on any device," he added.
Of course, as with most other uses of Linux, the cost, or rather lack of it, also increases the operating system's appeal. "The three trends in creating embedded devices is that the cost of hardware, network bandwidth and software are all going towards zero, but Linux already has a cost of zero," said Michael Tiemann, chief technology officer of Linux distributor Red Hat Inc.
"If you're building devices that cost (the consumer) US$50, you become really conscious of royalties," Lynuxworks' Singh added.
However, not everyone on the panel agreed that Linux is the best solution for all applications. For real-time solutions, where the operating system has to be able to respond in a short and precisely-determined time, Linux still needs work, according to Jim Ready, CEO of embedded Linux company MontaVista Software Inc. "If you migrate down to milliseconds, Linux can get a little iffy," he said.
Other panelists feel that real-time Linux has found its calling in telecommunications technology such as VoIP (voice over Internet Protocol) software. If you use Linux for VoIP and other telephony-related activities, using real-time Linux is a good idea "because if you drop packets, you lose," Red Hat's Tiemann said.
But the mass of Linux code may be overkill for some other real-time applications, for example automobile engine management systems. "Putting real-time Linux in cars is a cool idea, but the problem is already solved on 2 or 3K (bytes) of ROM, so why change it?" Tiemann asked.
In the eyes of its advocates, embedded Linux is also a natural solution for connecting devices to the Internet, since the operating system was created over the Net. "It's not just that you'll have intelligent devices, it's that they'll be connected, and that's where Linux really shines," Bryan Sparks, founder and CEO of embedded Linux company Lineo Inc. said.
MontaVista, based in Sunnyvale, California, can be reached at +1-408-328-9200 or http://www.mvista.com/. Lineo, based in Lindon, Utah, can be reached at +1-801-426-5001 or online at http://www.lineo.com/. LynuxWorks, based in San Jose, California, can be reached at +1-408-879-3900 or http://www.lynuxworks.com/. Red Hat, based in Durham, North Carolina, can be reached at +1-919-547-0012 or http://www.redhat.com/.