Want an application-specific RTOS? Want it now?

October 20, 2015

Max the Magnificent-October 20, 2015

One of the sessions we held at both ESC Boston and ESC Silicon Valley earlier this year was the RTOS Smackdown. Hosted and moderated by yours truly, this was a fun event comprising a series of five-minute presentations followed by a question and answer session.

We started with one industry expert explaining why one should never use an RTOS, followed by a second expert describing why one should always use an RTOS. We then had a number of RTOS vendors -- including EDA companies, chip manufacturers with internal RTOS offerings, and independent RTOS suppliers -- explaining how their offerings distinguished themselves from the herd.

We also had an outlier in the form of my chum Bob Zeidman, the founder of Zeidman Technologies. Bob's five-minute presentation, which received a lot of interest, focused on SynthOS, a free tool for automatically generating an RTOS that's optimized to one's particular application -- Bob refers to this as an ASOS (application-specific OS).


Architecture of an application-specific OS (ASOS) generated by SynthOS
(Source: Zeidman Technologies)

The reason I'm waffling on about this here is that I just heard that Zeidman Technologies has begun offering SynthOS-based embedded system development services. Bob says that if a company needs embedded firmware, the folks at Zeidman Technologies can develop it faster and less expensively because they use SynthOS to speed up the development.

Actually, this is a business model Bob has had success with in the past. Bob has been running his original company -- Zeidman Consulting -- since 1987, which is closing on 30 years as I pen these words. Originally, the company was just Bob, designing chips (ASICs and later FPGAs) for companies that needed them because they didn’t have the in-house expertise in house or they had a short-term need to design a custom chip.

Zeidman Consulting developed a great reputation and Bob started to bring other engineers onto the projects, creating small teams of two to four people as required. Zeidman Consulting also expanded into designing boards, systems, firmware, and application software.

Over time, Bob added litigation support to his repertoire. This is where he used his engineering expertise to reverse engineer hardware and software and determine who was infringing whose patents or had copied whose code or had stolen whose trade secrets.


Bob Zeidman, Digital Detective
(Source: Zeidman Technologies)

Bob says that examining code by hand was very profitable, but also incredibly tedious, so he developed a program called CodeMatch to automate the process. He also founded the Software Analysis and Forensic Engineering (SAFE) Corporation in 2007 to sell CodeMatch, which later became integrated into a suite of tools called CodeSuite.

The thing was that, although lawyers thought CodeSuite was great, they didn’t want to run it themselves; instead, they wanted someone else to do it for them. Thus, Bob scaled up Zeidman Consulting in order to provide litigation support services based on the use of CodeSuite.

All of which brings us back to SynthOS, whose conception was instigated by some consulting work Bob did for Apple on a flat-panel display. As Bob says:

The display in question had an 8-bit microcontroller to control the on-screen display, record button presses, scale the screen for the various video inputs, etc. A couple of us wrote a simple scheduler with some simple APIs. We also created rules for writing tasks to be scheduled such as checking and setting mutexes. Unfortunately, one of the developers didn’t follow the rules and so I spent a lot of time debugging deadlocks and other hazards.

After I left Apple I started thinking how I could automate the process so that developers only had to worry about their apps and not RTOS requirements like mutexes. I came up with SynthOS and started Zeidman Technologies to develop and sell it around 2002.

At that time, companies creating embedded systems thought SynthOS was cool, but they already had experienced engineers that knew RTOSes really well. Thus, although a tool to create an RTOS quickly and efficiently was a good thing, it wasn't a major requirement for these companies. Similarly, even though companies could save $0.50 to $1.00 in product costs by moving to a smaller microcontroller with less memory (an RTOS generated by SynthOS is efficient with a very small footprint), these savings weren't significant in the case of things like routers selling for thousands of dollars.

How things have changed. With the advent of the Internet of Things (IoT), suddenly people started putting microcontrollers into everything and anything, including things like light bulbs, in which case a $0.50 savings becomes pretty significant. Also, companies like light bulb manufacturers don’t tend to boast teams of RTOS experts, so a tool that can automatically generate an application-specific RTOS also becomes significant for them.

The end result is that the same thing that happened with CodeSuite is happening again with SynthOS. Although companies can use SynthOS themselves -- and many of them do -- the majority of companies who can benefit from SynthOS don’t want to spend the time learning how to use it and then using it; instead, they prefer to pay someone else to do this for them.

Over the years, Bob has pulled together crack teams of excellent, experienced engineers who can help design anything from ASICs and FPGAs to boards to entire systems. And, as was previously noted, if a company needs embedded firmware, then Bob's team can develop it quickly and affordably because they can use SynthOS to speed up the development.

I'm actually planning on using SynthOS myself to sort out the tortuous timing problems associated with my Capriciously Cunning Chronograph project, but that will have to wait until after the forthcoming ESC Minneapolis, which takes place 4-5 November 2015. Have you registered yet? If not, why not? All I can say is that you'd better sign up quickly before all the good seats are taken!

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