Embedded Systems Conference 2000

At this year's Embedded Systems Conference, Linux loomed large in almost every booth. Talk about a year changing everything.
What's Cool?

In addition to the above trends and observations, here are two Linux-related items that especially caught my fancy.

Lineo's real-time clock demo, you've heard of real-time clocks, but this one was different! It's a bit hard to describe, so please bear with me. Fantazein makes a clock that “projects” the time via a set of LEDs on a wand that oscillates back and forth (see Figure 1 and 2). The LEDs are modulated at precisely the right rate to show the time, as if projected in space, as the wand sweeps back and forth. Okay, read the explanation on their web site (www.fantazein.com/how.html)—but hurry back!

Figure 1. Fantazein Clock

Now that you've got the picture, I'll explain what Lineo did. They rewired the inputs to the LEDs so that they are driven by a PC parallel printer port. With an otherwise idle Linux system, words projected via the “clock” appear stable and readable. Then, the system starts doing some file transfers, and the display becomes completely unreadable. Now, control of the LEDs is switched to RTAI, a hard real-time Linux system. You guessed it; even with file transfers taking place, the display is rock solid. It turns out that even a Linux kernel with low-latency patches would not be able to make the display remain stable in the presence of high loading on the system. RTAI (or RTLinux), on the other hand, can do it easily. Bravo, on a great demo of hard vs. soft (or non-) real-time performance!

With all the talk about open-source operating systems and related software, how often do we hear about open-source BIOS? Sure enough, there are a couple of projects going on out there. But to date, there has been no truly well-supported effort to provide comprehensive technology for system initialization and startup. That situation appears to be changing, as a result of some new software being developed by Red Hat called RedBoot. The project is new, and there is much yet to be done, but RedBoot may soon be “booting” that proprietary BIOS out of many embedded Linux systems. If you've ever tried to use an embedded PC in a non-PC application, you probably had to struggle with issues like eliminating a long list of copyright messages, creating a custom splash screen, speeding the boot process, supporting custom hardware initialization or adding robust system diagnostics. RedBoot to the rescue!

On, to the Future!

Well, ESC is a really large show and there were, no doubt, many other important trends and interesting demos and products that I didn't see and haven't included. I guess you really do need to be there, to take it all in. See you next ESC? Perhaps at the rate Linux is spreading, they'll need to change the name to ELSC—the Embedded Linux Systems Conference!

Rick Lehrbaum (rick@linuxdevices.com) created the http://www.LinuxDevices.com/, “the embedded Linux portal”, which recently became part of the ZDNet Linux Resource Center. Rick has worked in the field of embedded systems since 1979. He cofounded Ampro Computers, founded the PC/104 Consortium, and was instrumental in launching the Embedded Linux Consortium.