Net-centric issues hit OS designer's hot buttons
Net-centric issues hit OS designer's hot buttons
By Bernard Cole, EE Times
April 6, 2001 (2:09 p.m. EST)
The Embedded Systems Conference is usually a good barometer of the activity under way in the industry itself. And this week's event in San Francisco is no exception, as vendors of embedded operating systems, tools and hardware all attempt to determine the needs of the designers and to respond accordingly.
| Monta Vista's Jim Ready wonders if Wind River's security features will weather the changing landscape of RTOS design. |
If the blizzard of papers and the activity on the exhibit floor are an indicator of what's going on in the industry as a whole, then developers have got their eyes on four or five main issues. As in previous years, interest is keen in subjects such as making Java more real-time and deterministic, develo ping more efficient ways to program embedded systems in C and C++, and increasing code reliability through more efficient debugging.
But some new hot buttons are being pushed: adapting wireless technology to embedded systems; using new DSPs to enable more connectivity; creating an appropriate embedded middleware infrastructure to support increasingly net-centric controller applications; and making use of new system-on-chip and FPGA technologies to more easily and quickly adapt designs to specific applications.
Beneath the surface, like an underground river, is one fundamental question facing developers and the software vendors who supply their tools and operating systems: How will these activities and their increasingly net-centric nature change the underlying OSes, the way they are used and the tools that will be necessary to use them?
Consider the fact that the largest single contingent of new classes at ESC deals with real-time operating-system issues: a total of 14 sessions. Refle cting this interest will be activity on the exhibit floor, where most of the major proprietary-RTOS vendors will be describing new features, even as the suppliers of tools, services and support for a variety of Linux derivatives detail increased tools support for that open-source OS.
The most apparent reason for the increased OS activity is the recent introduction by Wind River Systems Inc. of its newest RTOS implementation. After announcing the technology upon which it was based, Wind River has just released production versions of VxWorks Advanced Edition (AE). In addition to demonstrating the OS and its new protection-domain features at ESC, Wind River will be launching a number of tools in its Tornado Development Environment to support it.
The new RTOS has its critics. Jim Ready, president and chief executive officer of Monta Vista Software Inc., said he welcomes Wind River to the "memory-protection club." For almost the entire history of the embedded market, he said, Wind River has been notable among the major software vendors with no memory-protected RTOS.
"Given the importance of the telecom/datacom/network infrastructure to the embedded market, and the growing need for some method of ensuring the reliable operation of the variety of net-centric computing devices, it was something they had to do if they were going to remain a viable player," Ready said. "The difference is that while the rest of us-including Microsoft-use protection mechanisms and concepts that derive from Unix and are well-known and tested, Wind River's approach is totally new and untested."
Nevertheless, Wind River's introduction of AE has triggered RTOS vendors, both proprietary and open-source Linux, to aggressively push new extensions and tools at the ESC. Of the 14 papers devoted to operating systems, half are given over to Linux-installing it, optimizing it for real-time applications and adapting it to small-footprint embedded and net-centric computing and control devices .
If Linux is much on the mind of those attending ESC, so is Microsoft's presence in the embedded world. The number of competitors arrayed against Microsoft, already large, grows even larger if Posix compatibility is factored in, said Kevin M. Obenland, an adjunct faculty member at George Mason University, who later in this report evaluates various off-the-shelf RTOSes for their real-time capabilities using the Posix standard as the template.
Meanwhile, Michael Tiemann, chief technical officer at Linux vendor Red Hat Systems Inc., and his cohorts are working to enhance compatibility among the various Linux variants with a proposal for a common application programming interface that they hope will gain wide acceptance.
The details of the open proposal-called Embedded Linux based on Posix, or EL/IX-are presented in Tiemann's article in this report.
The success of EL/IX would make Microsoft even more isolated in the embedded market than it already is, said Robert Morris, vice pre sident of marketing at LynuxWorks Inc. (San Jose, Calif.). Based as it is on the desktop Win32 API, Windows CE 3.0 has no Posix compatibility. And while Windows NT and Windows NT/Embedded have a minimal Posix subsystem, it is a bare-bones implementation-just enough to clear the company for sales to the government. It is unclear whether Whistler, a modular follow-on to NT/Embedded, or Talisker, the hard real-time follow-on to CE 3.0, will incorporate even minimal Posix compatibility.
"At this point I doubt that Microsoft will make any more moves than it has toward Posix compliance, even though that would help them considerably in the telecom switch and network router segments, where such compliance is the cost of membership for commercial OSes," Morris said. "The only way they would agree to such a standard was if it was their standard, or one they had a chance to bend to their advantage."
Even without such compliance, Megan Kidd, product manager for the embedded and applia nce platform group at Microsoft Corp. (Redmond, Wash.), said the embedded market will be pleased with what they will see in Whistler and Talisker. Developers will hear more about both at the Embedded Systems Conference.
"I think we have come much closer to what embedded developers want in an embedded OS with Win CE 3.0, and these new offerings will fill out the embedded spectrum," Kidd said.
She described Whistler as targeting much the same networked-computing-device market a number of soft real-time embedded Linuxes are aiming at-a spot where some degree of determinism is useful but not always required, and where an OS requiring a few megabytes of memory is acceptable. Talisker, she said, is expected to take Windows CE much more in the direction of the hard real-time offerings of Wind River's VxWorks, Microware's OS-9 and some of the harder versions of Linux.
But to get there will take some doing, according to Robert Monkman, director of core technology and tools at Enea OS E Inc. (San Jose). From what he has seen, Monkman said, Microsoft still does not understand what the embedded or even the softer-edged net-centric computing market is all about in terms of OS requirements.
"Microsoft has done its homework, focusing all of its energies on the concerns at the boundaries-the things that everyone talks about and is always concerned about, such as determinism and nesting," Monkman said. "And as a result it has come up with a credible offering. But what is missing or not as well developed are those dozen or so things that 'go without saying' between developers and customers, but which are assumed as part of a common understanding."
According to Red Hat's Tiemann, Microsoft is somewhat like a person for whom English is a second language: They can write and speak well enough to be understood. But their use of the language is awkward, and they add flourishes that may be natural in their native tongue but strike an odd, even irritating, note for the ir English-speaking listeners. A credible OS
"For Microsoft, embedded is not a first language, though [the company] has learned enough to produce a credible embedded OS," Tiemann said. "Windows CE 3.0 does OK in deterministic environments, but the way things are organized-and what is required from the embedded programmer-is odd, out of step with the way RTOSes are normally built."
Another topic of debate that is likely to raise its head at ESC is the issue of open-source vs. proprietary OSes. Microsoft executives, said Tiemann, have been flat out opposed to the open-source trend, equating the movement with the devil's handiwork. But even so, he said, the software giant is showing signs of moderation after feeling the heat from some of the largest corporate customers for Windows.
Indeed, Microsoft has formalized a promised expansion of its Windows source-code sharing program, giving about 1,000 of its large corporate users an opportunity to view the closely guar ded code. Users can view the code but won't be allowed to modify it in any way.
Not included on the list are any of the embedded variations. But, said Tiemann, it is only a matter of time before the company allows developers in general to modify-or have a say in how Microsoft modifies-the code. "It is like being halfway in the door," he said. "Once the process is started it is hard to find a middle ground."
According to Tiemann, Microsoft executives fear that open-source will fragment the software market and drive out any incentives for innovation. "From all of the activity I see in the open-source movement I don't see any lack of innovation-maybe too much," he said. "As to fragmentation, the industry, through the Posix and EL/IX specifications, is attempting to control that. In any case, the market will impose its own control mechanisms. If a vendor modifies [an open-source OS] too much, applications written to it won't be interoperable and customers will n ot buy them. If it is modified too much, it will be difficult to find trained people and enough generally available tools to support it."Making a profit
What Microsoft and other proprietary vendors fear most, said Ready of Monta Vista, is the price marketing model, and that they won't know how to make a profit. "But there are a lot of us out here in the open-source market making profits through services, tools and support, and licensing arrangements," he said. "It is just a much leaner profit margin, and you actually have to work for it."
The new net-centric reality may seem a challenge to proprietary OS vendors, but at the same time the Internet is brewing new business models.
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