Red Hat, Wind River partner on embedded Linux OS

Even as Linux has continued its slow, steady, well-publicized trek to enterprise acceptance, it has quietly started catching on in another market — devices employing embedded software.

That’s why on Monday Red Hat Inc. partnered with Wind River Systems Inc. in Alameda, Calif. to produce Red Hat Embedded Linux.

While Red Hat is one of the largest distributors of Linux in the world, Wind River already has a strong position in the embedded software market with its VxWorks system and has promised to support both its proprietary platform and Linux, according to industry analysts.

Red Hat Embedded Linux will be based on Red Hat’s Enterprise Linux (RHEL). It will be available through Wind River at the beginning of 2005 and sold on a subscription basis similar to RHEL, said Leigh Day, a spokesperson for Red Hat Inc. in Raleigh, N.C.

The operating system will be developed by a joint set of engineers from both companies working out of Red Hat’s facilities in Westford, Mass. The initial target market will be the commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) portion of the device software market for carrier-grade network equipment such as as routers and switches. Financial and legal details of the partnership were not disclosed.

“It’s pretty clear that one of the opportunities for Linux is in embedded devices where what is needed is a reliable stack of software to support the function that a device is supposed to offer. There isn’t a strong tie to Microsoft [Corp.] software or Microsoft’s communications protocol or development tools. The tie is really to the hardware and providing the function the end user wants,” said Dan Kusnetzky, vice-president, system software at IDC Ltd.

Linux is good for this, he added, because it is open source and relatively complete in terms of functions needed.

“What is needed is to adapt [embedded Linux] to specific hardware, such as microprocessors and a lot of that has already been done by one member of the open source community or another,” Kusnetzky said. “Linux right now supports well over 40 microprocessor architectures, making it easier for a person making that device to find support for it.”

Kusnetzky said that so far vendors’ strategies for developing operating systems for their products has generally been “roll-your-own”, where the manufacturer designs one itself. He said this isn’t cost-effective because companies end up doling out a great deal of money to develop embedded operating systems. As a result, a Linux-based embedded operating system might be very attractive to gear-makers.

However, this is not the first time Red Hat has been involved with the embedded Linux market. In 1999 it purchased a company called Cygnus Solutions and acquired with it a Linux-based embedded operating system called eCos. In the spring of 2002, Red Hat decided to stop maintaining eCos and in January 2004 passed along ownership to the Free Software Foundation (FSF).

Red Hat said it would still continue to work with eCos-based systems such as RedBoot and noted its Global Engineering Services are still available to address the needs of the embedded systems market. Red Hat’s Day said the company ditched eCos in favour of Red Hat Embedded Linux because eCos didn’t have binary compatibility with RHEL. She said eCos had a different kernel and a completely different code base and this clashed with Red Hat’s strategy of wanting to have end-to-end compatibility with all its Linux distributions.

In addition, this isn’t the first time Wind River has dabbled in the open source market. It bought Berkeley Software Design Inc. in May 2001, acquiring FreeBSD and another Unix-based operating system, BSD/OS. In January 2002, Wind River abandoned its FreeBSD operations and transferred them to Free BSD Mall Inc. in Brentwood, Calif. Wind River still maintains the BSD/OS software.

“I guess Wind River decided BSD wasn’t the popular platform they thought it would be and decided to go to Linux,” Kusnetzky said.

Wind River has been active over the past several months by ramping up its support for Linux. In January 2004, the company joined the Consumer Electronics Linux Forum (CELF), an organization dedicated to advancing Linux as a platform for electronic devices. In December 2003 it announced professional services to support Linux and joined the Open Source Development Lab (OSDL). In October 2003, the company announced Linux support for its visionPROBE II

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