The Use of Linux in an Embedded System

One company's solution to a customer problem using Linux and open-source software.
Interface Between the Control Program and the Database

This was one area where we had just enough experience to be dangerous. We knew it could be done and this was one potential hot spot. In evaluating various database packages, we looked at the licensing terms and the availability of support for embedded and web applications. It seemed as though many of the databases available for Linux took care of the last two requirements. The licensing aspect was more varied in that several of the better-known packages provided for a single user or non-commercial use at no fee. Since we would be installing this on many systems and for commercial purposes, licensing was an issue we didn't want to overlook. When we pursued it, we found some of the license fees were higher than the going rate for MS Access. That alone eliminated some of the choices. We eventually settled on using PostgreSQL. Besides the very liberal copyright, we were strongly influenced by the availability of high-quality documentation. Having the opportunity to review the manuals before even committing to downloading the code was enough to reassure us this was a good path to follow.

Once the database was chosen, we had to get down to the details of implementation. The first part was to define the schema. Having had some experience with SQL previously, I found that psql was easily adapted. Knowing that the schema was likely to change as the project evolved, I wrote a few scripts to define all the tables and fill in default values. This took care of setting up the database. The next step was to define the interface to the control program. On the same premise that the database schema would change, I set up the interface as a separate module with subroutines to read selected data into working buffers. With the exception of the log table, all of the tables were read only for this function. Thus, there is a subroutine to read a selected record from each of the tables. The only other exception to this approach is that when the system first came up, a way was needed to determine just how many doors were implemented. This merely took a set of subroutines that would open the table, return the next entry in the table on each call and then close the table. This allowed the program to scan all possible entries to set up the communications links and other structures. All the functionality I needed was provided by the lilbpq library included with the distribution. It turned out to be easier than I had first expected.

Interface Between the Database and the User Interface

This aspect of the project is a bit more complicated because of the number of different packages involved. If you recall from the outset, the idea was to use the web browser as the user interface. This meant we needed to provide a web server on our end of the link. For anyone in Linux, the choice of Apache is a no-brainer. However, we needed to link it up to our database in some way. Because of the availability of Perl expertise, we chose to go that route. In order to provide a complete package, we also needed to include other modules. For the interface to the database, we added ApacheDBI, DBD for Postgres and the Perl DBI package. To support all we needed in Apache, we added Digest, HTML-Parser, MIME-Base64, URI, Apache-SSI, libnet, libwww-perl, and mod-perl. Quite a conglomeration of packages, but when installed correctly, it all worked very well.

The design of the user interface was broken into two primary sections. The first was a set of routines that formats the data for display on the user's screen. The second is a main routine that accepts input from the user and processes it. Generally, that processing consists of updating the database and passing control to an appropriate routine to display a new set of data for the user. On top of all this, Javascript was used at the browser level to perform validity checking before passing parameters back to the main routine. Because of the amount of data being passed back and forth between the browser and the system, we kept things fairly simple. The only graphic we used was an identifying logo.

In general, the user is allowed to select a specific table from a top-level menu. Once a table is selected, the user is allowed to list the current table, look up an existing entry, modify an entry, and of course, add or delete entries. Since the data in the various tables may be somewhat sensitive and the people defining a door have different needs from those defining job codes, we added one other table to the system. The security table has nothing to do with normal operation of the system, but instead determines who may see what tables. It worked out nicely and it also gave us a means of allowing only certain users to have access to the system.

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