April 20, 2005

Why UK's Access Devices cooked up its own embedded open source OS

Author: Tina Gasperson

Access Devices, founded in 2001, is a digital video equipment designer and manufacturer in the United Kingdom. With the help of open source software consulting company Sirius, Access moved entirely from Windows desktops to Linux and OpenOffice.org. Then, after CEO Anthony Walton discovered how far Linux and other open source software had come in terms of quality and viability, he decided to commit to open source in a different way.

Access Devices, hoping to take advantage of the rapidly growing market for digital television products in Europe and the United Kingdom, knew it had to be prepared to expand. When it was using Microsoft products, Access Devices was maintaining an IT staff of at least five people to care for its servers and networks. Too much, says Walton. "We're an engineering company, and so anybody who's not an engineer is just overhead."

On top of that, the company was working with a mish-mash of different Windows editions, and found problems, such as XP notebooks that refused to cooperate with Windows 2000 servers. Each time it bought new hardware, the IT staff found itself uninstalling XP and degrading to Windows 2000, the company standard at that time. "It was getting unmanageable with the number of staff we envisioned having within a year," Walton says.

Migrated server structure to Linux late last year

"We started thinking, 'What could we do if we moved over to an open source type of arrangement?' Of course, Linux as a server system is clearly winning the day anyway." So in December 2004, Access Devices migrated its server infrastructure to Linux, where every backup is smoother, stability and security are greater, and the "pure performance" between desktop and server is much better, according to Walton.

The next step was a desktop migration. Many of Walton's engineering staff were already on dual-boot systems to facilitate development. So the company set about designing a single system using Debian Linux and working with Sirius IT, also out of the U.K. "We tried to come up with an equivalent package to what they were using under Windows," says Walton. "We were very pleasantly surprised. OpenOffice.org's stability is high and the compatibility with Word is very high, and certainly no worse than between versions of Word."

The only challenge Walton faced was in finding a replacement for Microsoft Outlook, a widely-used mail and scheduling program. "We tried Thunderbird, which wasn't universally liked," Walton says. "It was not very integrative." The staff was used to having the ability to schedule meetings, invite people to those meetings, book a room, and reserve parking spaces, all using the same package. "Thunderbird was fine for handling mail," Walton says. "But for peripheral tasks it wasn't as integrated as Outlook. We could have pulled together two or three other packages and made it do." However, Walton was able to find an open source mail and scheduling program that fit the bill for Access Devices -- KDE's Kontact.

Access Devices is still in the process of migrating its 50 workstations to Debian Linux. Walton says by the end of 2005 he expects to have at least 100 workstations total.

Walton and his staff are happy customers of Linux and open source software, but the story doesn't end there. As a result of its internal IT success, Access Devices is making plans to "give back" to the open source software community in a big way.

Utilizes own embedded operating system

Access Devices' digital television equipment utilizes an embedded operating system. The staff engineers actually wrote their own real-time operating system, called LASCOS (Linux Application Source Compatible Operating System) that Walton says runs fast and tight -- better than the Wind River operating system they were using -- and better than embedded Linux. "There's a big community following Linux as an embedded operating system, but Linux is too big and expensive," Walton says. "It blows up the cost of my product, the footprint is too big, and it tends to be very hungry with memory when all the libraries are loaded. Digital television is very commoditized. If we make 10 percent, we're doing well."

For Access Devices, using LASCOS eliminates licensing fees while still providing a solid, mature foundation for its digital television products, protecting that slim profit margin.

Yet, Walton had been wondering what to do with the RTOs. "Do I sell it? Do I maintain it?" He wasn't sure he wanted to lose control of the direction of the software.

Walton stepped further out of the box, however, on a recent vacation. His reading material, provided by Mark Taylor of Sirius, included Under the Radar: How Red Hat Changed the Software Business by Bob Young. By Walton's own admission, he came back home thoroughly "open sourced-up" and with a new vision. That vision included freely releasing Access Devices' rtos under an open source software license.

"We are divining the waters," says Walton. "As we look across history, we see a lot of started but then abandoned projects. We need more information to understand why these projects get abandoned -- what were the problems and how can we make this work."

One thing Access Devices has done to facilitate community participation is that it has designed LASCOS so that developers can write utilities in Linux and quickly port them to the operating system -- hence the name.

"We've started talking to Apache about LASCOS. We are tidying up the documentation. We are packaging it in a way that we can publish it easily," Walton says.

New embedded OS needed?

Walton hopes the open source community will get on board with the idea of providing a specially-created embedded operating system worldwide. "They'll have their product in millions of boxes and televisions and LCDs -- that might inspire them," he says.

Walton says he has always been a fan of open source from a developer standpoint. "I was originally an engineer, but I wasn't aware of the desktop progress and the wealth of open source packages out there. I was blind to the scope of how many packages, and very good ones, are out there at large. That's what Mark Taylor brought our attention to. He really opened our minds."

He isn't worried about competitors picking up the package and using it to develop competing hardware. "We're all going to choose the same operating system anyway because the industry is consolidating. We would all be better off and the public would be better off if there was a maintained, stable, and free RTOs. The embedded operating system adds no value today. Everything about embedded is telling me that it's time there was a good RTOs. Maybe this is the time."


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