Linux considered for GPS rival

One of the main contractors for the Galileo European satellite-navigation system has not ruled out the use of open-source software for mission-critical systems

Infrastructure for the European rival to the US military Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) system could include systems based around open-source software, including Linux, according to one of the project's main contractors.

In an exclusive interview with ZDNet UK, Pat Norris, UK business development manager for Logica CMG's Space and Defence Division, said that he wouldn't rule out using open-source software in certain systems as part of the integrator's £5.2m contract with the European Space Agency (ESA) to build ground facilities for the Galileo navigation satellite programme.

Norris claimed his team would definitely consider using Linux for non-critical and non-real-time systems. "Certainly for the off-line systems, we will look at Linux. But for real-time, there is talk of real-time Linux... I guess I don't know the answer, but we'll know at the end of our design contract. Certainly I wouldn't rule-out open source," he said.

Galileo is a European-funded civilian alternative to the US GPS system, consisting of 27 operational and three reserve satellites, and should be operational by 2008. The whole project is expected to cost around 3.2bn euros (£1.74bn).

There have been intense negotiations between the US and Europe over Galileo. The US government attempted to block the project when it was originally mooted two years ago, claiming it was unnecessary given the existence of GPS.

More recently, the US has alleged that Galileo could interfere with the US' ability to downgrade GPS during military conflicts. China's decision to pump around 230m euros into the project is also believed to have angered US interests.

But Norris argued that US attempts to block the project are financial rather than political. "It's a commercial threat to US industry. I don't think you have to look too much beyond that. It does complicate their life militarily, but I think they now recognise that they have to accept it," he said. "The China thing I don't think was crucial, because Europe is also being careful. They've said to China: you're in, but only up to a certain point. The Europeans are also a bit nervous about China."

The budget for the ground facilities for Galileo is about 300m euros, with half of that being spent on computer systems. Nine-tenths of the £150m IT budget will be for software, said Norris. "Mostly it will be custom-built as this is a fairly unusual project. Almost all the real-time software will be custom-built," he said.

But Norris speculated that open-source software could eventually be used in the most vital, mission critical projects. "For safety critical, no, but then again things change so fast in this industry I shouldn't be so adamant. Safety critical means you have to use certified components, and I am not aware of any certified open-source systems, but I could be wrong," he said

Logica has been charged with designing two key ground facilities for the Galileo satellites. One set will control the constellation of satellites in orbit while the other will manage the positioning data broadcast by the satellites.

Norris said there is intense competition between the various European partners over where the two ground facilities will be located. It's a hot political topic. "From our point of view we don't care. Every country would love to have it. The UK is on for it. Lord Sainsbury said the UK must have the operations facility. The Spaniards have said, 'we've built a facility, here it is.' And then the Italians and the Germans..." he said.

Click here to read the full interview on ZDNet UK Insight.