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Wind River Changes Course Towards Linux

Going With the Flow

  • February 23, 2004
  • By Jacqueline Emigh

Once seen as a staunch holdout against Linux, embedded toolsmaker Wind River has made a number of moves in the opposite direction during recent months.

Just today, the Alameda, Calif.-based company announced it is teaming up with Linux distributor Red Hat in order to develop Red Hat Embedded Linux for the device software optimization market. The deal with the Raleigh, N.C.-based Red Hat means its enterprise version of Linux will be the foundation of Wind River Linux-based Platforms and will be integrated with Wind River's own tools, middleware and services, the companies said.

So why--after a history of moves away from open source--the change in strategy? Demand for Linux from some of the company's customers, starting with the telecom market, according to Dave Fraser, Wind River's senior VP of products.

"We decided that we'd perhaps been going in the wrong direction. We'd ended up looking like we were anti-Linux," Fraser acknowledged, in a recent interview.

Fraser didn't mention this fact during the interview, but about 18 months ago, Wind River Chairman and Co-Founder Jerry Fiddler published a white paper weighing the strengths and weaknesses of using open source software and Linux with embedded devices. As benefits, Fiddler cited low acquisition cost, community support, and "a lot more room to be creative and exploratory," for instance. "Linux has all the qualities of open-source software described above. It also has the additional attribute of real-world success in the server environment," Fiddler conceded.

Some observers, though, viewed the white paper as a suggestion by Fraser that Wind River's VxWorks or BSD/OS was a better choice for customers. As drawbacks to using Linux with embedded systems, Fiddler pointed to "hidden costs" associated with the GPL license, as well as to a number of specific characteristics of embedded systems, including hardware architecture, software interoperability requirements, and design goals.

Then, between December of 2003 and January of this year, Wind River's approach appeared to take a completely different turn, when the vendor announced that it had joined three industry groups active in Linux and open source: OSDL (Open Source Development Labs), the Eclipse Project, and CE Linux Forum.

During the same time frame, Wind River rolled out a Linux professional services program, and also released its "hardware bring-up tools" on Linux.

Wind River's change of heart isn't entirely as sudden as it might seem, however. The company launched its first Linux project about three years ago, Fraser recalled, during the recent interview.

"Then, though, the project got halted, out of concerns that our customers might potentially have to release their IP (intellectual property). In the embedded world, there's been little distinction between the OS and the application, because things are so tightly integrated," he maintained.

"But that's ancient history. For us, it's now become a customer decision as to whether GPL is an issue." according to Fraser.

Meanwhile, Wind River actually joined Eclipse more than a year ago. "But we kept it quiet until December," Fraser noted.

Fraser admitted that, by hanging back from Linux, Wind River drew a lot of cricitism from some quarters.

"Some people want to throw a stone. But a lot of that is competitive. Now, the Linux community will see what we're doing as we start to make contributions to the community," he contended.

Customer reactions to Wind River's lack of Linux adoption ranged all the way from "Linux as a non-issue to something that puzzled them," according to Fraser.

About a year ago, however, more momentum began gathering around Linux, especially among Wind River's telecom customers.

"Unix has been out there in telecom for a long time, particularly Sun Solaris. The management cards ran Solaris, whereas VxWorks tended to be used on the line cards. With Linux, customers can get a much lower cost of ownership."

Linux is already replacing Solaris on the management side. Now, some customers want to go to "end-to-end Linux." The release of Wind River's hardware bring-up tools on Linux is one big step in that direction, according to Fraser.

"Right now, Linux is very well tuned for standard PC hardware. If your box looks like a PC, then you're golden. It's hard to get Linux up and running, however, on custom hardware. Our bring-up tools provide intelligence. You can see what is failing without relying on printout statements and flashing LED boxes."

Wind River's change of heart has been "enthusiastically received" by the installed base, according to Fraser. "And it's had a very dramatic impact with prospective customers."

Wind River's Linux customers are handling GPL issues in any of three ways. "Some are choosing to ignore these issues. They're kind of assuming that things will be worked out through the lawsuits that are happening now. A second group is treating GPL very seriously. They're using Linux strictly as an OS. A third group has chosen to build in firewalls and stuff, to protect their code."

Fraser predicted a similar wave of Linux adoption among Wind River's customers in the consumer, automotive, and industrial markets.

Will Wind River port its other products to Linux, too? "We're evaluating where to take all this next, and it's likely to render up more announcements in short order," Fraser replied.

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