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On Thursday, October 21, EETimes will present the Embedded Linux Virtual Conference. This free event contains many presentations on embedded Linux, including discussions on RTOS, system-on-chip, and the ongoing discussion of open-source vs. commercial. With representatives from MontaVista, Mentor Graphics, Wind River, and Altera, this conference promises to be an excellent event that you don’t even need to travel for. I also see that highly-experienced embedded Linux educator Mike Anderson from The PTR Group will be a panelist.

EETimes is responsible for the Embedded Systems Conference circuit, the largest embedded conferences in the world, so you can definitely say they know what they are doing.

You can register for the virtual conference up until next Thursday, plus you get 6-month access to the archive. If you read my blog, you definitely want to attend this event.

And by the way: miners, welcome back to the surface!


Full disclosure: I am a MontaVista employee and thus a stakeholder in this acquisition. However, I have worked with embedded systems and Linux since 1992, including two years at Wind River in the mid 1990s. I hope I can present a somewhat-objective, partly-informed grasp of the facts beyond my current situation.

I was intrigued by the opportunities for MontaVista provided by Intel’s acquisition of Wind River earlier this year, and a little scared by Mentor Graphics’ swallowing of Embedded Alley, which nudged Mentor into the role of embedded Linux provider, albeit focused on custom solutions.

However, I am absolutely floored by the opportunities presented for both MontaVista and Cavium with this merger.

The background issue with this deal is that embedded systems are very diverse from a hardware standpoint, and there are many players in the field. There are base architecture providers/licensors that provide raw architecture flavors: ARM, MIPS, x86, PowerPC, m68k, SPARC, Alpha, PA-RISC, a whole host of them. The technology is often known as IP (“intellectual property“). From these spring actual hardware providers, chip and board manufacturers who license the actual platform technology and produce physical examples. These licensees come in many different modes:

  • Some, like x86, are produced by the same company that invented it (Intel in this case) as well as by competitors (like AMD).
  • Sometimes the IP is owned by one company and licensed to a number of manufacturers. ARM is like this (owned by ARM Limited), as is SPARC (owned by Sun, now by Oracle) and MIPS (owned by MIPS Technologies).
  • Sometimes the IP is co-owned by several companies and licensed by a consortium (like PowerPC, developed by IBM and licensed by Power.org), which adds an interesting twist that consortium members can make money on their competitors’ products. It’s a crazy world.
  • Sometimes the IP ends up being owned by a company that goes under, leaving it in a delicate state. A timely example is Transmeta‘s IP, which was owned by Novafora until they closed up shop a few months ago. The IP is now for sale. (This one is particularly interesting: the Transmeta Crusoe and Efficeon processors were RISC-based, but supported x86 instructions. Again, it’s a crazy world.)

(Please note that this doesn’t even qualify as a primer on the subject. I’ll try to cover this and draw a map in a future post.)

While the desktop market has historically been driven by x86 architectures, the embedded market is much more fragmented. Some embedded licensees specialize on one particular architecture, like Intel, who only produces chips based on Intel-created IP. Others take an agnostic approach and license whichever architecture suits the solution they are seeking. Cavium Networks, for example, has produced products based on ARM, MIPS, SPARC, and x86 CPUs (and likely others I could not easily find).

All of the astute, intelligent, and frankly attractive readers of this blog remember that I am a Linux dude. I work in embedded systems, where there are tons of different architectures to choose from. Specifically, I work for a Linux provider who produces market-specific distributions and software development kits for a wide range of different architectures.

Linux has evolved to be a universal operating system. Originally conceived to run on x86 architectures, thanks to its open-source nature Linux has been ported to practically every modern microprocessor (and even an FPGA). It is particularly popular currently on ARM, MIPS, and PowerPC-based embedded systems, but for all intents and purposes, it can be made to run just about anywhere.

That sets the stage for a huge win-win scenario.

Wind River’s acquisition definitely fits, for lack of a better term, a “proprietary” model. As a standalone company, Wind River provided Linux solutions across the board just as MontaVista does. However, now they are owned by a company who is single-minded giant in desktop computing, and who probably acquired Wind River in the first place in order to extend their reach more deeply into the embedded market, where they have not had much recent success. There is no motivation for Intel to continue to provide software solutions for competitor’s products beyond current contracts, and a lot of motivation for them to close ranks. (Industry watchers will remember that this also happened to Metrowerks a short while after they were absorbed by Motorola/Freescale.)

However, the MontaVista/Cavium situation is different. Cavium is a solutions provider who is not tied to any particular platform. Cavium currently produces products primarily based on MIPS and ARM platforms (executives of both are quoted in the press release), but they are not limited to those, and have used others in the past, as stated above.

Those are the facts. What follows is conjecture based on those facts, simply my opinion.

This merger provides a strong impetus for Cavium to grow their product line into other markets. I would not be surprised to see Cavium extending its marketplace reach over the next few years, and expanding into new territory using MontaVista’s processor-agnostic philosophy as leverage. In fact, at the same time they announced this merger, Cavium also announced their intention to continue their relationships with Wind River and their other ecosystem partners, which I read as an desire to put a foothold on every aspect of embedded computing—ambitious, but now achievable. Cavium recognized a gap in their portfolio and filled it.

MontaVista, for their part, recognized a brass ring when offered, and took it. Other, more knowledgeable bloggers than I have already written about the merger in terms of MontaVista’s past, their business model, mistakes and successes. I am more concerned with the future.

The enormous potential is what I find so amazing about this merger. It provides MontaVista with a stable base where it can keep producing world-class software and tools, along with an extremely useful general embedded Linux community. It provides Cavium with an end-to-end hardware-to-software solution, as well as a set of software, tools, and ecosystem—support, QA, experienced FAE, professional services, documentation, community—to enter any embedded marketplace.

In other words, it is a win for both MontaVista and Cavium, and a huge potential upside for all of the customers of both companies.

UPDATE: Jerry Krasner at EMF agrees.


Who said fragmentation was forever?

The news today says that design automation leader and Nucleus RTOS provider Mentor Graphics is buying embedded Linux tools provider and professional services contractor Embedded Alley for an undisclosed amount.

The most notable aspect of this is that it comes on the heels of Intel’s acquisition of Wind River Systems. Fire sales and mergers are not unusual during flagging economic times, but this is the first time I have been aware of such consolidation happening in the embedded Linux space—not unusual, as that space has only existed for 10 years and this is its first recession.

I would wax poetic on the ramifications of this merger, but Bill Weinberg has already done so. (Hi Bill!)


Andy V. O’Lay blogs this morning at what is possibly the most insightful blog around on mobile computing, VisionMobile. He is talking about the merger I referred to the other day between Wind River and Intel. Since O’Lay’s insights originate in such a different place from mine I though it would be useful to share the link. Go read his post, and then come back.

Andy says some very important things. Most notably:

“A reference design is not a half-baked breadboard; it is a scale 1:1 device, ready to ship.”

I am not certain I agree with him that TI is on the skids because of their lack of a serious software solution to their excellent lines of processors. But that is only because I don’t agree TI is on the skids at all.

“the key to hardware success is software.” …
“mobile software companies are instrumental in making silicon solutions pervasive, because they tick two major check boxes: reference design and support” …
“This is a visionary move. Hardware (HW) and software (SW) guys realising that they need each other to grow.”

I agree with it all except the last bit. This isn’t a visionary move. Sometimes it is forgotten in the heat of the market that hardware and software go hand in hand, always have, and always will, but it is never forgotten by the companies who make it happen. One reason I like embedded software is because I am constantly reminded of this unity. Making hardware and software engineers work together is certainly not new. IBM was doing this in the 1960s when the distinction between hardware and software barely existed {*}. Apple employs both hardware and software engineers, though they don’t produce their own chips (yet). Then again, there are also cases of companies spinning off one or the other, for business reasons of their own.

One thing is certain, though. This merger will continue to create opinions and counter-opinions from pundits everywhere. It remains to be seen whether it will change the landscape of mobile, embedded, Linux, open-source, or any combination of these.

{*} Historical note: the term “software” was coined in a mathematics journal in 1958 by Princeton mathematics professor John Tukey. The journal was the American Mathematical Monthly. Thanks to Ivars Peterson’s Mathtrek site for providing this valuable information.

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