January 3, 2002

Embedded Linux cheaper, more flexible for heavy-duty industrial controller company

Author: JT Smith

- By Grant Gross -

SIXNET, a hardware company that for 25 years has been making industrial automation controllers designed to function in harsh environments ranging from dusty assembly lines to outdoor pumps, is changing most of its product line from running on proprietary software to embedded Linux.

SIXNET, based in Clifton Park, N.Y., will release its first Linux-powered product, the VersaTRAK IPm remote terminal unit (RTU), this spring. Steve Schoenburg, director of marketing for SIXNET, describes an RTU as a "box you put someplace else to get information and bring it back to a central place."

The RTU is rated to use in temperatures ranging from -30 to 70 degrees Celsius (-22 to 158 degrees F, and Schoenburg says it can be used in temperatures even colder than that), and the unit can be used to monitor water treatment, air quality, pipelines, and also in business situations such as inventory tracking inside of holding tanks.

The VersaTRAK IPm will be just the tip of the Linux iceberg for SIXNET, long known for its industrial ethernet and I/O controllers. Schoenburg calls the highly configurable controller "our first, second, 10th and 20th (Linux) product. You have a box with so many sensors and actuators ... so you can read temperatures, you can turn on motors, you can read serial ports and ethernet ports, read data and talk to radios and telephones. You pick the right collection of pieces to make a system, and then with the right Linux application added to it, it's anything you want it to be."

But SIXNET won't stop there with its Linux adoption. The company is moving its entire programmable product line to its customized embedded Linux based on Red Hat, Schoenburg says. "All the programmable products we have that are built on proprietary things or other operating systems categorically are going completely obsolete the day we ship the first Linux product," he adds. "Part of the power of Linux is we've taken the application that's in our RTU and ported it to be a Linux application. Day one, our customers will be able to take their current applications on our most sophisticated versions of our other products and just load it into the Linux box and throw out the other box.

"You can buy a Linux box for the same money you can buy the legacy product, have it instantly, and run it as if it was transparent, and then have a future with it," Schoenburg says. "{The Linux box} is physically smaller, it costs less, it does more, and it is absolutely compatible."

SIXNET's customers include both end users and OEMs, which build upon the company's hardware to create specialty products. For end users, the change to Linux is no worse than unnoticeable, Schoenburg says, except that the product has shrunk from 30 square inches to 5 square inches and users don't have to pay software licensing fees. "Having Linux inside ... gives us the path of creating a very capable product that we can keep modern, keep putting features in, keep delighting the end users, but the fact that the Linux is in there is really transparent to them."

The real advantage for SIXNET comes with its OEM partners. Linux allows OEMs to tweak SIXNET boxes easier than they could with Windows software, Schoenburg says, instead of his company trying to keep up with customer requests. Basically, the more open the system, the more uses OEM customers can get out of SIXNET's products.

"We can tell the OEMs, 'Here's the source code -- control your own destiny,'" Schoenburg says. "(When) things can be open and shared and other people develop software that can run on our platform, everybody benefits. Other vendors will develop products and the users can mix and match."

The switch to Linux helps his company reverse a trend of committing more resources to software development, he adds. "It's an interesting new model, because the more open we get, the better our revenue streams become," he says. "We spent about 70 percent of our engineering resources on software, and we're a hardware company. We were on a path of doubling that, because our customers needed more and more. We're doing more what our expectations were going to be, and we're going to do it with less effort on our part because of the Open Source."

Because of the open software, interested developers will be able to start working with the new RTU months before SIXNET releases it, Schoenburg says. SIXNET is meeting with interested developers Jan. 7 to start the applications ball rolling.

"Ordinarily, you put out generation one of a product, customers come back with feedback, and you say, 'I wish I'd done that,'" Schoenburg says. "We're going to have the unbelievable opportunity to have customers thoughtfully working with the product for three or four months before we deliver the first one to them. The first product out the door can best be thought of as generation two."

Schoenburg says his company is excited about the possibilities that Linux is presenting, and he hopes the Open Source community can find value and new uses for SIXNET controllers.

"The Linux world has done us a major favor by bringing us software that helps deliver our hardware. We're going to turn the favor around: We're giving the software people a rugged, industrial platform," he says. "We've got controllers -40 to -80 degrees rated -- that's a completely different thing than running on a Pentium. Our boxes can put up water-pumping stations in the Arctic. We're putting boxes out in the desert, up on the roof of buildings. Right here in town, there's a water tower with a box on it and a radio hooked on it. It gets damned cold and windy up there."


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