Novell to launch quick-response
Novell plans an October launch for its Suse Linux
Enterprise Real-Time product, an operating system geared for
Wall Street traders
and others who watch every microsecond of the clock.
Real-time operating systems can respond
to external events within a guaranteed time frame, a feature that
mainstream business computing doesn't generally require but that's
necessary for some areas, such as aircraft radar. But in a move
that indicates the flexibility of Linux, Novell plans to begin
selling the real-time variant of the open-source operating system
Novell plans to announce the product
at the Gartner Symposium/ITxpo on Oct. 9, said Justin Steinman,
Novell's director of marketing for Linux and open-platform solutions. Novell
will share the stage with Concurrent Computer, which did much of
the engineering work behind the real-time version that Novell will
market, he added.
Waltham, Mass.-based Novell and Duluth,
Ga.-based Concurrent announced their first joint customer,
Siemens Medical Solutions, which will use SLERT to power
Magnetom magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanning products.
Wall Street also is interested, for
example, in recalculating investment portfolio risk and placing
trades based in response to new information, Steinman said. One
unnamed investment bank told Novell that for each thousandth of
a second that its trading software can act faster than competitors'
software, the company would see $100 million a year in new revenue.
But while Linux is adaptable, it can't
do everything. Indeed, in some more demanding parts of the real-time
market, its limitations become apparent--for example those that
must be able to take actions every 10 millionths of a second--with
each tick of a high-precision clock.
"If there are applications that
need to have 10 microseconds every single time, that's what I call
hard real-time. Linux isn't going to do that," said Glenn
Seiler, senior manger of Linux platforms for Alameda, Calif.-based
Wind River Systems.
Nevertheless, Wind River and others
such as MontaVista Software have been working to give Linux a snappy
And one company believes a more esoteric,
hybrid approach provides combines real-time abilities with Linux
software benefits. FSMLabs, a small company based in Socorro, N.M.,
sells a product called RTLinux that pairs the company's proprietary
RTCore operating system for real-time tasks with Linux to run other
software, such as the user interface.
Real-time operating systems are one
component of the vast and diverse embedded computing market, which
includes everything from cash registers and mobile phones to automotive
telematics and wind turbine power plants.
Linux is increasingly popular as an
embedded operating system. Wind River, Concurrent and LynuxWorks
all have embraced Linux despite having competing proprietary products
of their own.
One of the family SLERT will be one
of several members of the Suse Linux Enterprise product family,
which already includes a server and desktop version of Linux introduced
in July. The company is betting that an aggressive Linux strategy
will help the company improve its overall financial performance
and compete better with the top Linux seller, Red Hat.
SLERT is a joint effort. Novell, which
has better name recognition and a larger sales force, will work
on marketing SLERT, Steinman said. Concurrent has years of embedded
operating system experience and helped with extensions to Linux
that provide the real-time support. The two companies will share
revenue, Steinman said.
While some real-time operating systems
are found in small computing devices, SLERT is geared for larger
systems such as multiprocessor servers. On one test on that type
of system running the Ingres database over 28.8 million transactions,
SLERT responded as fast as 11 millionths of a second and no slower
than 27 millionths of a second, Novell said.
Novell's real-time Linux leader is
Moiz Kohari, founder of the now-extinct Mission Critical Linux.
(The company had some influential employees: Red Hat's chief technology
officer, Brian Stevens, also had been Mission Critical Linux's
The product won't be purchased the
same way as Novell's other Linux versions, however. "Setting
it up does require a consulting engagement" from Novell, which
installs and tunes the software, Steinman said. "It isn't
something you can take off the shelf and get up and running."
UMB Financial Corporation is another
SLERT customer, which uses the software on its identity management
One customer that needs a real-time operating system is Concept
Overdrive in Burbank, Calif., which builds the control systems
for creatures in the hydraulically operated alien in "Alien
vs. Predator" or the dolls in "Seed of Chucky."
RTLinux was well-adapted to the challenge
because it's flexible enough to handle multimedia tasks such as
playing recorded speech at the same time it controls the movement
of a robot's mouth, said Concept Overdrive Founder Steve Rosenbluth.
The status of the motors must be updated
60 times per second, with each interval exactly timed. If one interval
is slightly longer than the next--a problem called "jitter"--the
motors and actuators inappropriately slow down, then speed up by
small amounts, he said.
"Timing jitter will manifest itself
in physical jitter of the actuator," Rosenbluth said. Jitter,
combined with the weight and inertia from robotic mechanics, "causes
visual vibration and shaking."
Timing precision is even more important
for CableCam, another Concept Overdrive customer that uses RTLinux
to control cameras that swoop over stadiums, between buildings
and through trees.
A real-time response also is necessary
for people--the directors and actors and puppeteers shooting scenes
in movies or advertisements.
"Puppeteers are actors. They're
reacting to what else is in the scene--lighting, human beings.
You want what feels instantaneous to a human being," Rosenbluth
said. "When an operator moves a joystick, you want the electromechanical
actuator to move instantaneously and without bumps or glitches."
Mainstream Linux going real-time?
Mainstream Linux must be adapted for the real-time approach, but
Wind River sees real-time improvements on the Linux horizon.
The company employs a Linux modification
written by a Red Hat programmer, Ingo Molnar, even though it is
outside the mainstream Linux development version maintained by
Linux leader Linus Torvalds.
Molnar's "Preempt RT" approach
changes the heart of Linux, called the kernel, so many ordinary
events become opportunities for interruption, Seiler said. With
it, Linux's maximum response rate drops from about 2 thousandths
to 30 millionths of a second, he said.
The biggest hitch is that the patch
imposes requirements on operating system components called device
drivers, which handle communications between the kernel and devices
such as hard drives or network cards.
Those drivers must be adapted to work
on multiprocessor machines for the Preempt RT patch to work, Seiler
said. That's not a problem for computers with mainstream x86 chips
such as Intel's Pentium, but it can be for MIPS or PowerPC chips
in the embedded realm, he said.
"That is the rough edge around
this," Seiler said. "Everybody writes good x86 drivers.
It's the dominant platform for Linux. But when you start getting
into MIPS and PowerPC architectures, then the state of what's available
in the community isn't perhaps as robust or mature as what's available
in x86. A lot of the drivers were written quick and dirty."
Part of Wind River's work in selling
its embedded Linux version is making sure the drivers support the
Preempt RT patch, he said.
But soon real-time could become more
widespread. Seiler believes Molnar's patch will be accepted soon
into the mainstream Linux kernel, currently at version 2.6.17.
"I suspect that's going to happen
within the next couple versions--2.6.19 or 20," Seiler said. "That's
my reasonable, intelligent guess."