Originally Published: Thursday, 19 October 2000 Author: Brian Richardson
Published to: enhance_articles_hardware/Hardware Articles Page: 1/1 - [Printable]

Why Embedded?

What's the deal with embedded devices, and why is Linux a contender? Embedded is the newest buzzword in the tech marketplace. While the standard geek might not get it, the market for embedded systems is huge, from your microwave to your television set. Linux.com's own Brian Richardson breaks it down and makes it simple. Read on!

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My recent trip to Atlanta Linux Showcase revealed a growing number of embedded solutions based on Linux. Being the classic PC guy, I had to ask why use a non-standard embedded system instead of a Linux-based computer?

Atlanta Linux Showcase is a great event for me. I get to hang out with my friends in the community, stock up on penguin-oriented t-shirts (I'm up to 15 now), and look at the latest in creamy computer goodness. It's like giving the Marlboro Man a passport to flavor country. I saw a lot of high-level software, some powerful server solutions, and a nice pair of Tux boxer shorts ... but I also saw a lot of embedded systems.

Linux has gained a reputation as a reliable server platform, but it is making inroads into the embedded market. The typical embedded product uses a real-time operating system (RTOS), but these are very proprietary and cost many dollars. The scalability of Linux, combined with its broad processor support, makes it a great candidate for embedded solutions.

The common theme for the embedded devices at the show was networking. MontaVista and Absolute Value displayed some very compact Linux-based router/firewall solutions, all based on boards from Embedded Planet.

I talked to Embedded Planet about their systems, which are mostly development platforms for PowerPC applications. Since their major focus is network routing, I couldn't help but compare their solutions to my home router ... a Cyrix CPU with a floppy disk and just enough RAM to run the Coyote Linux floppy. Their solution requires new hardware, while I made use of the "old clunker" in the closet.

For the geek with an endless stash of "yesterday's hardware" tucked away in storage boxes with the Christmas decorations and back-issues of Computer Shopper, this may not make any sense. Why buy this tiny box when the same solution can be thrown together on-the-fly (using only recycled parts and free software)?

The answer ... well, the real answer doesn't apply to the hard-core geek. The new generation of Linux-based embedded devices have a different market. While a PC-based router has all sorts of advantages in power & expandability, the power of a 486/Pentium processor is wasted on "packet bouncing". The 25 MHz RISC processor in the Embedded Planet box does just fine, and uses much less power than it's beige counterpart. Some folks will spend the extra money to get the sandwich-sized "all-in-one" box that lacks the noisy cooling fan.

But the largest advantage to an embedded system is what it doesn't have ... it doesn't have the look of a computer. As far as personal computing has come in two decades, a majority of the public still associates moderate discomfort with configuring a computer system. Making computers look more like appliances can promote their integration into new markets. And the stability and flexibility of Linux can help embedded computers work their way into these new markets.

Brian Richardson is tired and can't think of a cool article footer.

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