Wind River acquires real-time Linux tech

Purchase of RTLinux technology--used for devices like animatronic robots--opens new markets for Wind River's embedded Linux efforts.
Written by Stephen Shankland, Contributor
Wind River Systems has acquired the technology assets of FSMLabs, a small company selling a specialized variant of the Linux operating system used for devices like animatronic robots that are extremely sensitive to precise timing.

Wind River, based in Alameda, Calif., focuses on embedded operating systems, those used to power computing devices such as aircraft radar or laser printers. FSMLabs' RTLinux will join Wind River's other main operating systems, Wind River Linux and VxWorks, said Glenn Seiler, Wind River's director of Linux platforms.

RTLinux splits the difference between VxWorks and ordinary Linux. VxWorks and RTLinux have "hard real-time" attributes, which means they can respond quickly to events and take actions that require very precise timing. RTLinux has a low-level real-time operating system that runs Linux as a process; that approach lets customers modify ordinary Linux applications so they can take advantage of the real-time abilities.

"As we have grown with Linux, we do get requests for hard real-time that can't be met with the solutions available in the market today from established commercial vendors," Seiler said. "We saw this as an incremental growth opportunity for Linux that will take us into hard real-time markets that Linux is starting to get traction in."

One of those markets is mobile phones, he said. Phones today typically have two chips, a baseband processor to deal with radio communications and an application processor to run the software with which a user interacts. The baseband chip needs a hard real-time operating system, he said. Products such as RTLinux are well suited to newer phones that combine both functions onto a single chip, he said.

Wind River acquired FSMLabs' software, patents, trademarks, copyrights and domain names. It also hired four of its employees to develop and support the software, though not FSMLabs' founder Victor Yodaiken, Seiler said. Wind River didn't disclose further terms of the deal.

Among the devices that use FSMLabs' software are cameras suspended on cables above sporting events and the animatronic characters in the recent movie Charlotte's Web. The camera motors require very precise timing to traverse the cables, while the animatronic robots must be carefully controlled to avoid unnatural motion or problems synchronizing with soundtracks.

Wind River isn't the only company pursuing embedded Linux. Wind River's erstwhile partner, Red Hat, has been interested for some time and is funding software development in that direction. Red Hat has now hired a team to support the work of programmer Ingo Molnar, who has been trying to decrease Linux's response times, said Chief Technology Officer Brian Stevens in an interview last week.

"There's no doubt that everybody in the industry is getting more interested in real-time," Seiler said.

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