With a fast-growing presence in everything from servers to cell phones, the Linux operating system appears ready for prime time. But is it ready for real time?
MontaVista Software thinks so. The Sunnyvale, Calif.-based company is adding real-time features to its version of the popular software, making it speedier and more rugged. The idea is to have Linux crunch data and deliver results reliably and instantaneously -- in real time, so to speak.
The new software is a huge step forward, says MontaVista Chief Executive Jim Ready. And it could greatly expand the appeal of Linux. MontaVista is pushing to have its additions grafted into the official version of Linux, a process that could take months.
Real-time Linux "is blowing the socks off of everyone, to put it mildly," Ready said. "Nobody believed this was possible."
Linux is developed by a loose-knit league of programmers from around the globe and shared freely. The software's creator, Linus Torvalds, has the final say over how it evolves, but anyone is free to create his own Linux spinoffs.
Some firms, like MontaVista, sell commercial versions bundled with services and add-on software.
Linux first became a hit on servers and is now moving to all sorts of gadgets, including cell phones and home networking gear.
It's less popular in hard real-time settings, in which the device is expected to perform certain tasks at specific intervals without fail. Two examples: auto engine electronics and missile guidance systems.
Other companies, such as San Jose, Calif.-based LynuxWorks, also sell real-time versions of Linux. General Dynamics' Advanced Information Systems is using LynuxWorks for the U.S. military's push to network tanks, planes and other units on the battlefield.
These other approaches usually entail building a separate real-time operating system on top of Linux. Having built-in real-time features will make a big difference, Ready says. It could double the potential market for embedded Linux -- the type used by gadgets and gear -- to $3 billion, he says.
Adopting the real-time features now could give MontaVista as much as an 18-month lead over Wind River Systems, its chief rival.
Wind River also sells Linux for devices. But most customers don't find it suitable for real-time tasks, says John Bruggeman, the firm's marketing chief. Wind River recommends its flagship proprietary operating system VxWorks for those users.
Linux will eventually have solid real-time features, Bruggeman says. But MontaVista is taking the wrong approach by using nonstandard code to do the job, he says.
Bruggeman sees MontaVista's software as "proprietary Linux," cut off from the larger Linux community. It could cause more problems than it solves, he says.
Because MontaVista's real-time features aren't part of standard Linux, buyers will be locked into MontaVista's version, he says. That defeats one of Linux's main purposes: an industry standard supported by all the major tech vendors.
Few Linux companies are big enough to provide the support needed for a nonstandard version of the software, Bruggeman adds.
Wind River's VxWorks -- like MontaVista's real-time Linux -- is proprietary, Bruggeman concedes. But the firm supports Linux and VxWorks equally, so customers can easily switch to Linux when it gets the real-time features they need.
MontaVista's Ready calls the argument a red herring. Many of the features MontaVista includes in its products eventually end up in the official version of Linux, he says.
The firm worked with outside Linux developers on its real-time features, and it expects the latest functions to be embraced as well.
It also will support any of the features that don't make it into the official version.
"Linux is a race," Ready said. "It's a race for innovation."