Wind River: Tasty Embedded Linux Treat

Intel just purchased embedded systems vendor Wind River for a cool $884M. But why?

Intel just purchased embedded systems vendor Wind River for a cool $884M. But why? The answer may lie in Linux and device virtualization.

For many, Intel's acquisition of Wind River may have gone over this week as just another asset grab by the microprocessor giant. But as someone who has been observing the embedded systems space for some time, to me the $884M purchase represents a major addition to the semiconductor giant's portfolio, particularly as it pertains to Linux and device virtualization.

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A few months ago I wrote about Wind River's Multicore Hypervisor -- this is in effect a complete virtualization platform for consumer electronics devices and all types of embedded systems. Much like VMWare ESX, Citrix XenServer or Microsoft Hyper-V allows multiple instances of different X86-based operating systems to run within a single consolidated host server, Wind River's solution would allow different embedded OSes -- such as Google Android, Palm WebOS, Windows Mobile or even iPhone OS to run simultaneously on one device.

Intel's Wind River device hypervisor would also permit a device manufacturer (say, an HTC, or a Samsung) to easily create a single reference design for a smartphone or webpad/tablet that can run an entire lineup of OSes -- the carrier or the customer would need only choose what "flavor" of smartphone OS they wanted and run it in a virtual machine image on the device, thus greatly simplifying device development.

Wind River's hypervisor would also allow something like Tivo and Slingbox to be integrated into a single set-top unit simply by having both OSes running virtualized, instead of trying to merge the functionality using a single OS instance and creating difficult to maintain integration scenarios -- such as we have seen in the past with DirecTV with the DirecTivo hardware. SOHO wireless routers such as a NETGEAR or Linksys could combine VOIP functionality from providers such as OOMA or Vonage by simply running the VOIP software of choice in its own VM separate from the main wireless router OS, and could be maintained separately by the provider.

In addition to the Multicore Hypervisor, Intel is also acquiring Wind River's Platform for Consumer Devices, which is a complete development environment for creating devices such as smartphones, MIDs and Set Tops using either Linux or Wind River's proprietary VxWorks real-time operating system. This product competes with solutions from MontaVista,LynuxWorksas well as Freescale Semiconductor's toolsets.

Clearly, with the Wind River acquisition, Intel wants to get into embedded devices which use Linux in a big way. But that raises another important question -- is it looking to extend it's low-power x86 Atom architecture into handhelds and smartphones in order to compete with ARM-based solutions from companies like Texas Instruments, Qualcomm, Motorola and FreeScale?

While the Atom would work for Set-Tops and netbooks and a number of other larger devices, It's not currently suited for anything like a Smartphone, because the power draw is too large. Indeed, the Wind River software is best suited to embedded microprocessors like Marvell's XScale, which Intel manufactures under contract and once owned before selling the product to Marvell in 2006. Perhaps Intel might be looking to buy Marvell in the future, making it a one-stop shop and bringing XScale back into the fold? That would certainly alter the landscape a bit.

What do you think Intel is going to do with Wind River? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

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