December 14, 2005

LynuxWorks: A case study in combat-ready Linux

Author: Corinne McKay

As open source, especially Linux, makes its way into nearly every sector of the economy, one of the final frontiers is the military and aerospace market, where new applications must clear hurdles such as the FAA's rigorous DO-178B certification for aviation software. California-based LynuxWorks, developer of the LynxOS real time operating system and BlueCat Linux embedded distribution, has staked its future on the idea that open source and the military/aerospace market can not only coexist, but thrive together.

LynuxWorks, formerly known as Lynx Real-Time Systems, released its first operating system, LynxOS 1.0, in 1989, originally offering it on Motorola's VME boards and PCs with the Intel 386 processor. In March 2003, LynuxWorks' LynxOS-178 became the first DO-178B-certifiable, POSIX-compliant real-time operating system.

LynuxWorks' founders credit some of their success to a hunch that Linux would become the operating system of choice for embedded uses. CEO and chairman Dr. Inder Singh says, "While most of the initial interest in Linux was in the desktop and the server areas, we recognized its potential in the embedded markets. We believed that while POSIX had been the official open Unix standard, Linux had the potential to become the de-facto standard which would provide the platform around which a large base of applications software would emerge." To fill this niche, LynuxWorks quickly released BlueCat Linux, followed by Linux binary compatibility for its LynxOS RTOS and LynxOS-178, targeted to safety critical military and aerospace applications that require certification such as the DO-178B.

Today, LynuxWorks is confident that its hunch about Linux was right. Singh says, "Linux as an emerging open standard platform is just as important as its open source nature. Developers do not like to get locked in to one supplier. In fact, Linux has turned out to be the missing standard platform in the fragmented embedded operating systems world. In the absence of such a platform, developers have been developing much of their software from scratch instead of building off-the-shelf software."

LynuxWorks' two Linux distributions are quite different from each other. BlueCat Linux targets embedded applications in general, while LynxOS and LynxOS-178 serve as hard real-time operating systems for tasks such as missile guidance and flight control systems. CEO Singh says, "Despite the differences in these two products, the fact that they are based upon an open standard platform defined by the Linux software interfaces delivers some common attributes. First, this open standards-based software platform provides access to a growing ecosystem of layered software and tools. Second, customers can take comfort in knowing that there is no single supplier on which the future depends and no single commercial entity pushing its own business strategy over the interest of customers. Lastly, customers are not shackled to every strategic decision a supplier makes. If a supplier's support fees become exorbitant, you can get support from elsewhere."

When asked to identify a major turning point in the success of the business, Singh names LynuxWorks' selection, in 1989, to supply LynxOS to the Space Station Freedom (later resurrected as the International Space Station) program. Singh calls this win "a huge success for us at a time when we only had about 10 people in the company." The project involved working together with NASA and IBM Federal Systems and required LynuxWorks to, as Singh explains, "implement an in-house Quality Assurance (QA) program that could meet NASA requirements for 'man-rated' missions, which then became the foundation of what is now the strongest such program in the embedded operating systems industry. We also developed the first implementation of the real-time POSIX standards, which were still in their infancy." Starting with this project, military contracts were a cornerstone of LynuxWorks' business plan, especially after "the Internet bubble burst and the telecom and communications market went flat. The military continued to invest in leading edge programs that involved increasing amounts of embedded software."

Today, embedded systems for the military are an important source of income for LynuxWorks, and the company has grown from its modest origins to become an important presence in Silicon Valley, with about 150 employees and expecting substantial growth in 2006. The company recently won a contract as the primary embedded systems provider for the Army's Future Combat System (FCS) program.

When asked to identify some issues that characterize the military market's software needs, Singh says, "The main issues are quality, reliability, documentation, and technical support. We put our products through exhaustive testing and QA procedures, more so than any other embedded OS vendor. In fact, we have made significant investments in automating our build and test environments and assembling comprehensive test suites. In addition, we have a unique technical approach to security that allows you to run an open source Linux product within a partition on a very secure separation kernel, while providing the highest level of security in the overall system."

As a privately held corporation, LynuxWorks does not release revenue figures, but Singh does say that in 2004, it experienced 21% year-over-year growth in revenue along with increased profitability and cash flow. "Moreover, we saw a 165% growth in new design wins, particularly in the military and aerospace market."

When asked if he sees a conflict between the ideals of the open source community and those of the military and defense industry, Singh responds, "Open source has a place in the military, but it will have to coexist with proprietary software. For the right application, it's a perfect fit. For others, it's not appropriate. Increasingly, all scientists in the military work with Linux, and most initial designs and prototyping are based on a Linux-based platform. So everyone is familiar and comfortable with Linux. In the past, such R&D work was often done on Solaris, but Linux has largely taken over this role."

LynuxWorks seems to have gambled twice -- first on Linux, then on the military -- and won.


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