Embedded Linux: With friends like these, who needs enemies?

Dan O'Dowd, Green Hills Software

May 07, 2008

Dan O'Dowd, Green Hills SoftwareMay 07, 2008

Embedded Linux is the most hyped embedded operating system ever. It is promoted as inexpensive, high quality, high productivity, reliable, widely available, and well supported. It is none of these things, as two of its greatest proponents have recently pointed out. Wind River Systems and MontaVista Software, companies that each describe themselves as "the leader" in embedded Linux, have both initiated marketing campaigns touting the horrors of using embedded Linux.

In the January/February 2008 issue of Military Embedded Systems, Jim Ready, the founder and chief technology officer of MontaVista, says "a [develop-it-yourself] embedded Linux distribution [is] a significant investment (read 'big bucks') in time and money." He estimates the three-year cost of a large scale embedded Linux deployment at $19,623,750. Here are some other quotes from the article:

"To keep abreast of the changes occurring on a daily basis a developer needs to monitor the email traffic of 11 different and unsynchronized open source projects... up to 5,000 messages a day with 1,000 of these being patches that need to be evaluated and possibly applied to the source base. Simply ignoring the traffic, figuring that the system in use seems to be working well enough, can lead to disastrous consequences later.

"A recent security patch that took all of 13 lines of code to implement against an embedded Linux system would have taken more than 800k lines of source patches to implement, if the previous trail of patches had been ignored. It's a classic case of pay now or really pay later.

"If there ever were a situation where the 'software money pit' could really take hold, it's in owning 30 million lines of constantly changing source code. Even in the simplest case, the development costs are typically in the millions of dollars."

Wind River delivers the same message in a recent full-page advertisement. It asks: "Choosing Linux as your next device operating system?" It answers: "CHAOS" in large crooked letters, followed by "fatal error," "system crash," "game over," and "panic."

Even the greatest critics of embedded Linux have never been so harsh. The experts say that embedded Linux is "CHAOS" and "a money pit." With friends like these, who needs enemies?

One would expect Wind River and MontaVista to tout the advantages of their embedded Linux support, but why trash the product on which their business is based? If they are being unfair to embedded Linux, the Linux community will rise up to denounce them, destroying their embedded Linux support business.

It's more likely that Wind River and MontaVista are telling it as they see it--for marketing purposes. Marketing usually puts forward a problem (bad breath, headaches) that many potential customers will relate to, and then promises a solution. Why would Wind River and MontaVista put forward the problem of embedded Linux nightmares in marketing materials unless they think many potential customers have experienced those nightmares and need a solution? Wind River and MontaVista are certainly in a position to know how hard it is to use embedded Linux, because they are using it, supporting it, and selling it. And since their business is trying to pick up the pieces for companies that have already failed with embedded Linux, they have heard plenty of horror stories.

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