Innovation at the Embedded Systems Conference--Boston

October 31, 2007

Jack Ganssle-October 31, 2007

That innovative products aren't rare in the embedded systems industry is a testament to our engineering and inventive skills.

If you read as much marketing literature as I do you're probably sick of the stock phrases that infest the press kits produced by so many companies. "Disruptive technology" is the latest PR-speak, but defines "disruptive" as "characterized by unrest or disorder or insubordination," none of which sounds all that great to me. "Innovative" is another adjective favored by marketers every time their company simply supports yet another obscure variant of some microprocessor family.

Innovation in our industry carries a cachet of cool, of something fundamentally new and truly remarkable. That innovative products aren't rare is a testament to our engineering and inventive skills. But it diminishes the descriptive power of that adjective to use it in every mediocre press release.

At the Embedded Systems Conference in Boston (held this past September in conjunction with SD Best Practices and RFID World), I was dazzled by a number of truly innovative products.

After 25 years of integrated development environments and an even longer history of real-time operating systems, it's pretty hard to get excited about yet another operating system or compiler vendor. But Green Hills Software (GHS) has become one of the most consistently innovative companies in the embedded space. Who else has built a static analyzer, one that finds execution-time bugs like buffer overflows, into the compile-time checks? How many companies couple that sort of development environment to operating systems that can be certified to the highest of safety-critical standards?

While security issues have practically melted down the PC business, we embedded folks have managed to remain mostly blissfully unaware about these issues in our domain. Even the furor over recent voting machine debacles have left most of us unconcerned about firmware security. Yet, our products control factories that mix medicines, expedite rapid funds transfers, manage credit-card transactions, and much more. I believe most of us have mixed up "security" and "reliability." Although related, these are very different topics that require different solutions.

At the show, GHS showed their virtualization technology, which can now take advantage of the vPro features in some Intel processors. vPro is a marketing buzzword that encompasses a number of hardware and software features that Intel is pushing into the security fray. It includes Intel Virtualization Technology, which is composed of ten Virtual Machine Extension instructions that let a monitor launch guest operating systems that run completely independently from each other.

GHS's new version of their Integrity operating system can supervise this virtualization. The company demonstrated Integrity running on a PC. I want to call this a Windows machine, but it isn't; it's an Integrity machine that boots into that operating system's own limited GUI. From that desktop one can launch other operating systems, like Windows or Linux.

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