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Linux at the Fall 2000 Embedded Systems Conference


October 3, 2000
Forrest Cook
The fall 2000 Embedded Systems Conference was held the week of September 24 through 28 in San Jose, CA. Hundreds of companies displaying everything from IC sockets to systems on a chip to virtual development systems were present.

The conference started off with a lively debate on whether Open Source software was a Boon or Bane to open source developers. At the conclusion of the conference, the answer to that question appers to be fairly clear: Linux based embedded products are being developed by many firms and a lot of companies are proving that it is possible to profit from the development and production of such systems.

Trends and Observations

There is a large movement in the embedded world towards networked systems. In many applications, the web browser is becoming the Universal GUI. The reliability of the Linux networking code, the Apache web server, and the choice of several web browsers make Linux a natural fit for networked embedded systems.

Devices running on wireless networks are becoming more common. Gateway devices which can isolate internal wired and wireless networks from the larger internet are going to become more common. Linux is a natural choice in this field with its built-in firewalling capabilities. With all of the example code to work from, the wide variety of Linux network device drivers makes assembling a new system much easier.

Linux desktop systems are known for having uptimes measured in months and even years in some cases. This reliability is the direct result of having so many people working on the code and tracking down bugs. Long-term reliability is an obvious advantage for embedded systems that must run in a completely unattended mode. As embedded code becomes more complicated, well-debugged software become more important.

It appears that many developers are moving away from islands of proprietary software towards continents of open-source applications and operating systems. Monolithic systems seem to be giving way to more distributed approaches. The additional requirement of networking in embedded systems means that the code base for a project must grow in a large way. Many Linux programmers have built their knowledge of networking by playing with Linux systems and digging around in the network code. That base of experts is being tapped by the resourceful companies. Many of the Linux companies at the conference had one or more young people with obviously big brains working their booths. This youthful energy seems to be one of the key ingredients for businesses entering the open-source world.

Embedded systems tend to be built on finite amounts of Flash memory and RAM. The ability pick and choose pieces for a custom built system is of great importance, especially since different systems require different OS components.

One common theme was that the various open-source licenses seem to be a mystery to many developers who are new to open-source. Industry consortiums such as the Embedded Linux Consortium could help in this area by publishing simplified explanations of the licenses. For more info on the ELC, see this LWN article on the ELC at the Embedded Systems Conference.

Areas Still Devoid of Linux

Linux is currently finding its into many embedded systems, but it has not made as much progress showing up on the desktops of developers. The semiconductor manufacturers almost universally appear to be slow in producing development tools that run on the Linux desktop. Manufacturers of In Circuit Emulators (ICE) and microprocessor/EPROM programmers are also way behind in this area. Traditionally, the software on most of these systems has evolved from DOS programs into the Windows world. With more and more target systems running Linux, it seems like a natural step to move towards Linux on the development system side. The old axiom, Simpler is Better, works here, why support two operating systems when a single one will do the job better. The Embedded Linux Consortium can offer help to companies that are looking for an easy path into the world of Linux development.

Some software companies have been providing Unix/Linux based tools for a long time and a few are starting to venture into this area now. As software becomes a larger part of embedded systems, it would be a wise move for forward-looking hardware companies to enter this world.

Cool Linux Stuff

Here is a small sampling of the many cool products that were shown at the ESC:

Arcom Controls offers an embedded OS development kit that can run Linux. This board is unique in that it comes with a pre-installed version of Linux so developers can connect to their network and download applications right into the board. The system sounds like a great tool for reducing the time to market on embedded projects.

Virtio offers a virtual prototyping system that allows anyone with a web browser to download a virtual development system. The system is apparently quite useful for debugging the Linux kernel and is also good for developing embedded Linux systems. One does have to pay to use the software.

Conclusions

The Embedded Systems Conference is growing. It has outgrown the San Jose Convention Center and will be held at the Moscone Center in San Francisco in March of 2001. The use of Linux in embedded systems has grown much since the last ESC and will likely continue with that trend. Linux is quickly becoming a big contender in embedded systems.

Eklektix, Inc. Linux powered! Copyright 2002 Eklektix, Inc. all rights reserved.
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