December 21, 2000

Embedded Linux to shine in 2001

Author: JT Smith

- By Dan Berkes -

Is 2001 the breakout year for embedded Linux? While it's true that the migration of Linux from the desktop to just about everywhere else has been reported and reviewed since the dawn of Slashdot and other advocacy sites, the first year of the 21st century may be embedded Linux's time to shine.Efforts at creating embedded Linux distributions have been ongoing for quite some time, but as little as eight months ago, precious few outside of the hardcore sector of the Open Source community were aware of it. When the corporate world discovered embedded Linux, however, things took off in a big way.

Large companies, always mindful of the bottom line, immediately saw the advantages to embracing embedded Linux for the next generation of appliances, cell phones, handheld devices, and other gadgets. What's not to like about a freely available Open Source operating system that might save a few megabucks in the always-costly realm of research and development?

To foster the adoption of this new iteration of Linux, more than 50 companies met in March to create the Embedded Linux Consortium (ELC). According to a press release announcing its formation, the consortium's goal is to "amplify the depth, breadth, and speed of Linux adoption in the enormous embedded computer market."

Today, the ELC boasts well over 75 members including industry giants Red Hat, IBM, and Motorola.

Much of the success of embedded Linux has to do with being in the right place at the right time. In a recent article, Rick Lehrbaum, ELC's interim chairman and editor of Linux wrote: "It's important to understand that the embedded market would be going through a major transition, right now, with or without Linux."

Thanks to perfect timing combined with low-cost Open Source technology, Linux may indeed become one of the first popular, consistent, and transparent operating systems to be used widely during the next century.

Tux for the masses

Some of the most visible uses of embedded Linux have already arrived, or on final approach for the consumer market. Gateway is now taking orders for its consumer-friendly Connected Touch Pad, offering America Online's familiar interface accessible from a 10-inch color touch screen or through a wireless keyboard.

Under the hood, you'll find a 400MHz Transmeta 3200 microprocessor powered by Mobile Linux, a distribution optimized for that company's line of Crusoe's processors. The browser is based on the Netscape Gecko engine, and the user interface is courtesy of the Open Source XFree86.

Most Web appliances have forced users to resort to poky dialup connections, a major obstacle to adoption, especially in households with existing broadband connections. In addition to its Open Source innards, Gateway's new baby includes a feature that just might make it the first widely successful device of its kind: an Ethernet port for easy integration into an existing LAN.

Linux is no stranger to the world of personal digital assistants -- there are quite a few projects, HOWTOs, and distributions available that enable users to transform their Palm and Windows CE devices into handheld Linux machines. One distribution -- Linux VR -- is slated to make its first appearance in a commercially available product next year.

The curvy Agenda VR3 series of handhelds will most likely have the distinction of being the first massively available portable devices to run Linux right out of the box. Running the Linux VR distribution, this lightweight (less than four ounces) PDA will offer most of the functionality of a full-blown Linux distribution -- you can even telnet to it.

The Agenda VR3 series offers three models, with the major difference being the amount of memory storage offered. On the low end of the spectrum is the VR3 with 2MB of storage space, followed by the VR3+ with 4MB, and then the VR3s with 8MB. Available in the first quarter of 2001, the VR3 will have a suggested retail price of $149. Prices have not been set for other models at this time.

Behind the scenes

When talking about embedded Linux, it's impossible not to reference in related technology to enhance its potential. Combine the power of an embedded distribution with the revolutionary Bluetooth short-range wireless protocol could result in an almost fully transparent computing environment.

In one of the most blue sky (but quite believable) scenarios, simply toting a handheld device sporting the Bluetooth protocols could adjust lighting and environmental comfort settings as you move about your home, compile shopping and delivery lists as you remove items from your refrigerator, or even activate the alarm system should you ever choose to leave your domestic paradise.

Bluetooth is the technology that is slated to make much of that fantasy a delicious reality over the next decade, and many of the developers working to deliver these applications want Linux.

San Jose, Calif., based Rappore Technologies initially figured that the ideal embedded platform for their Bluetooth development tools would be NT-Embedded and Windows CE. It didn't take long for Rappore to figure out that Bluetooth developers demanded embedded Linux support, so the company quickly changed its focus.

Rappore will offer a Bluetooth Software Development Kit and protocol stack. The SDK will enable developers to write configuration and management software for Bluetooth; and the protocol stack will enable communication between Bluetooth and varying computer hardware. Release is scheduled for January 2001. If the products prove to be successful, support for additional distributions will likely follow.

Talk softly, and carry a big penguin

Increasing and maintaining military might has always been a major factory in the advancement of technology. NASA refined and vastly expanded upon missile-delivery technology conceived in Germany during WWII. The building blocks of a computer network that eventually produced the Internet were formed thanks to a contract from the U.S. Department of Defense.

Traditionally, the advantages of such technology development have trickled down from the military and into the civilian realm. This time around, Linux is leading the way for the U.S. Army -- embedded Linux, that is.

On December 13, Rymic Systems announced that it had chosen Red Hat's embedded uClinux as the operating system of choice for a prototype of its vehicle-monitoring device. The device will be integrated into the Bradley series fighting vehicles, offering vehicular diagnostics and failure analysis services.

So, why did Rymic choose Red Hat for a military-grade deployment?

"We've tried more traditional PC operating systems in the past for similar embedded appliances, but they were prone to instability, high power requirements and heat dissipation problems," said Steve May, Rymic president. "Red Hat's uClinux provides us with an inherently stable solution that monitors vehicles' performances in real time; because uClinux is open source software, costly per-unit license fees are eliminated."

There you have it: Embedded Linux, whether it's used for military might or portable MP3 players, has the magic combination of stability, scalability, and most important of all, affordability that corporations are looking for.

It might be one of the few times where a company's cost-cutting move could be considered a benefit for everyone involved.

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