Linux extends reach with real-time capabilities - Embedded.com

Linux extends reach with real-time capabilities

PARK RIDGE, Ill. — On its continuing march to the mainstream, Linux is now approaching the frontier of real-time computing. Linux vendors last week forged partnerships and rolled out products that move the open-source operating system into new territory.

TimeSys Corp. (Pittsburgh), a maker of embedded-Linux operating systems and tools, announced that it has partnered with Motorola Computer Group (Tempe, Ariz.) to deliver its Linux-based RTOS to a new VMEbus single-board computer. Similarly, LynuxWorks Inc. (San Jose, Calif.) today will launch a public beta testing program for the latest version of its embedded-Linux operating system, based on the Linux 2.6 kernel, which for the first time incorporates real-time components. Those introductions followed on the heels of a recent announcement by FSMLabs Inc. (Socorro, N.M.) that it is plugging its real-time operating system into two high-speed networks in hopes of moving Linux into a new breed of factory automation and aerospace applications.

The corporate moves were part of an effort to convince developers that the real-time application arena, once seen as inherently non-Linux, is now ripe for infiltration by the open-source operating system.

Although analysts said they aren't yet seeing a blip in demand for real-time, software vendors claim it already has begun.

“A large percentage of our customers tell us they didn't see Linux as a viable solution in the past,” said Larry Weidman, TimeSys chief executive officer. “But now that they see it can perform like a true RTOS, they've changed their minds.”

Up until recently, such proclamations about real-time capabilities would have been considered little more than marketing hype. But Linux proponents say that the new 2.6 version of the Linux kernel adequately addresses the real-time situation.

“It's true that standard Linux was not a real-time product, all the way up through Linux version 2.4,” said Inder Singh, president and chief executive officer of LynuxWorks. “But now it's preemptible and has a better scheduler, and so it has much better real-time response than normal Linux.”

Having incorporated the new 2.6 Linux kernel in its BlueCat Linux 5.0 beta version, LynuxWorks executives said that they are already hearing from interested developers.

“We're seeing several military programs that are saying they want to use Linux,” said Bob Morris, vice president of sales and marketing for LynuxWorks. “They realize that they have real-time tasking in applications like automated combat vehicles, and they're looking for openness, too.”

Analysts say that such scenarios represent a stark departure from the current status quo in real-time applications.

“In a mission-critical application, the actual mission-critical part is typically done by a real-time operating system that is not open-source, and the nonreal-time part is offloaded to Linux,” said Daya Nadamuni, senior analyst for Gartner Dataquest (San Jose, Calif.). “But if you have true real-time Linux, then you don't have to do those kinds of dual-OS scenarios.”

Seeing the potential of such systems, board makers have jumped into the fray. Motorola Computer Group, for example, said last week that it is partnering with TimeSys to deliver its Linux RTOS software development kit for MVME5500, Motorola's high-performance VMEbus single-board computer. The kit includes a single-kernel Linux RTOS that is said to provide real-time performance, even under heavy loads. TimeSys said it has achieved such performance by improving Linux in several key areas, including priority inversion control and in the ordering method for processing interrupts.

Makers of boards and chips say that they are attracted to real-time Linux because they see the market moving that way.

“Regardless of whether they will actually do anything with it, developers feel that being able to view the source code is a big bonus,” said Rebecca Barker, manager of business development for Motorola Computer Group Strategic Marketing.

At Kontron America (San Diego), engineers have incorporated TimeSys' Linux RTOS into their CP605 board, a single-slot 6U rack-mount CompactPCI board.

At FSMLabs, which has pioneered real-time Linux developments, engineers say that they are already thinking about networking applications. The company said recently that the networking component of its RTLinux operating system is now compatible with IEEE 1394b and Gigabit Ethernet. The result, they said, is that it is being employed in the military's Joint Strike Fighter program and in factory automation, where it replaces proprietary field buses.

Ultimately, analysts say that the real-time strategy is likely to take a bigger bite out of the billion-dollar embedded-systems software market, approximately 7 percent of which is already represented by Linux, according to figures from Venture Development Corp. (Natick, Mass.).

“We haven't seen a huge demand for real-time Linux yet,” said Nadamuni of Gartner Dataquest. “But it has always been said that Linux is bound to spread faster if it becomes real-time.”

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