Tech Chronicles: Panasonic Toughbook Factory

Panasonic Toughbook

There’s a great gallery over on IT Pro that shows some still photos from the Panasonic Toughbook production line. These ruggedized laptops are designed for extreme conditions and more than the usual amount of banging around and accidental drops. What surprised PPR was the fact that Panasonic still makes these in Japan, not a lower-cost country like Vietnam. And, while there are some industrial robots on the line, certain processes are still handled by humans. See the feature here: Making a toughbook.

PPR Tech Chronicles are snapshots of industrial technology, from legacy hardware to cutting-edge tech. If you have a cool or interesting example to share, email editor@prioritypayload.com with your name and title, a short description of what it is and why it’s so cool, and a photo or screenshot that PPR can include in the newsletter.

VDC: Microsoft should “revitalize” Windows Embedded to compete with Amazon/FreeRTOS

VDC Research recently released a report calling on Microsoft to revisit Windows Embedded. PPR discussed the report with co-author Roy Murdock, Analyst, IoT & Embedded Technology at VDC Research. Murdock also discussed other embedded operating systems, including FreeRTOS, an open-source RTOS whose development is now controlled by Amazon. The following interview has been edited for clarity.

PPR: You and your colleagues at VDC have predicted open source embedded operating systems rising from about 30 percent to nearly 39 percent in just three years, seemingly at the expense of the commercial OSes and the bare metal/lightweight segments. How much of that growth represents the FreeRTOS system versus other open source embedded operating systems?

roy murdock VDC research
Roy Murdock

Murdock: FreeRTOS is definitely going to be a major player. The main factor behind it is that we expect to see growth of FreeRTOS unit shipments in line with the growth in the overall MCU market. And the MCU market is already shipping hundreds of millions of units every year. If FreeRTOS even ships a fraction of those, that’s already huge number of unit shipments every year. So we expect FreeRTOS just keeping up with the unit shipment growth in the MCU market and we expect that growth to be around 8 percent through 2021. So that should give a better sense of unit growth we are expecting from FreeRTOS, as it is one of the most popular and MCU-focused RTOSes.

However, we’ll probably see safety-critical and real-time RTOSes somewhat sheltered from the FreeRTOS growth. That is, those commercial RTOSes that ship into cars and jet planes and industrial equipment. Many of these systems are not really good candidates for FreeRTOS to displace commercial RTOSes, so we are seeing some protected pockets of growth there. It’ll be more in the in-house, chip/vendor-supplied, and the bare metal category that we see FreeRTOS coming in to take some share. WITTENSTEIN High Integrity Systems (WHIS) provides a solution for safe and certified implementations of FreeRTOS, but in many cases we see FreeRTOS as a solution more for the consumer electronics market.

PPR: Besides FreeRTOS, what are the other RTOSes or open source operating systems in that segment?

Murdock: Embedded Linux is the other main force. It’s becoming really popular. But as I mentioned before, it will ship into fewer units due to the lower number of embedded MPU systems, or full-resource systems that can run an OS like Linux. There are just far more MCU-based systems. We expect to see a higher unit shipment growth in FreeRTOS on the MCU side, but embedded Linux is the other side of the coin. In many cases, if engineers are able to switch to free, open source embedded Linux, we’re finding that they’re totally willing to and making plans to switch.

PPR: FreeRTOS has hooks into the Amazon cloud ecosystem. Can Linux compete?

Murdock: These are two very separate markets. Embedded Linux would be shipping into something with a memory management unit (MMU), with a bunch of memory, and a bunch of resources. It probably doesn’t have hard real-time requirements. It could be something that would have run Microsoft Embedded, a system with a GUI such as an ATM or a retail kiosk – something like that would be a good candidate for embedded Linux.

FreeRTOS wouldn’t run as the primary OS in one of these systems. It doesn’t have the capabilities required for that. It would be more for MCU-based systems where you don’t have a lot of memory to work with, but you really only are carrying out only a few functions. Something like a sensor or an insulin pump. A lot of consumer electronics, such as a smart toothbrush, could also be good candidates for FreeRTOS.

PPR: In VDC’s latest report, what are the recommendations for Microsoft?

Murdock: They’ve done a good job at supporting some of their more fully featured operating systems in the embedded world with Windows 10 IoT Core and Enterprise. But they’ve discontinued the development of Windows Embedded Compact, and switched a lot of people out of that to work on Azure.

Firstly, we think they should take the opposite approach, and instead go back to Windows Embedded Compact and revitalize that. Secondly, we think they should move into the MCU space and offer an RTOS that could compete with FreeRTOS down at the very bottom level of the OS stack.

They never had an MCU-focused RTOS before. That would be a big change. And Windows has never been considered a small footprint RTOS. But we think that if they’re going to compete with Amazon at the AWS IoT/Azure IoT Suite level, they really need to look into providing something that could compete with FreeRTOS.

PPR: Last question: What about the vendors that make IoT devices or MCUs or the types of things that would use either a FreeRTOS or some sort of embedded operating system? How should they be positioning themselves in terms of the platforms that they align with?

Murdock: Many silicon vendors (Freescale, Intel, Renesas, SI Labs) have made OS acquisitions/partnerships in recent years. Many of the MCU vendors have also already decided to support FreeRTOS – there aren’t many alternatives for open RTOSs, and it made sense as FreeRTOS became more popular among their customers in the embedded engineer community.

That calculus in the ecosystem will change with this announcement – what the silicon vendors should or need to do to differentiate. They had looked at having more integrated stacks through OS acquisitions and development, but now you’ve got a much larger and more powerful entity, AWS, driving FreeRTOS forward and adding more software capabilities on top than would have happened organically.

In some cases, this may galvanize silicon vendors to get working on their competitive OS solutions, and to further invest in the software around their hardware offerings. In other cases, some vendors may fully embrace Amazon FreeRTOS if their customers continue to use and demand it. It’s still early and remains to be seen how the hardware ecosystem reacts.  

MELTDOWN-SPECTRE: THE MESS CONTINUES

The fallout from the Meltdown and Spectre CPU bugs rolls on. There’s a lot of reading on this topic, but here are some of the bullets you need to know:

  • According to one experienced tester, the Meltdown patches “introduce the largest kernel performance regressions I’ve ever seen.”
  • The early patches might be causing more harm than good … and it’s not just the performance hit. As noted by Security Week, “Both microcode and software updates designed to address the Spectre and Meltdown vulnerabilities have turned out to be buggy, often making systems unbootable or causing them to reboot more frequently.” Major software vendors including Microsoft stopped the patches due to instability.
  • Attacks can be exploited by JavaScript in a Web browser … and proof-of-concepts are already floating around in the wild, according to ZDNet.
  • Intel is coming out with a new set of patches that supposedly avoid the reboots and other problems noted earlier. But considering Intel’s history of attempting to spin its way out of this PR mess and releasing half-baked fixes, I would take the news with a grain of salt.
  • Long-term, the entire world has a big security problem on its hand that won’t be fixed until silicon platforms are rearchitected AND older systems are patched or replaced. This could take years.

If you’re trying to play catch-up with these flaws, the best to start is on this page created by security researchers, which includes links to advisories and patches put out by major vendors.

Tech Chronicles: Robots take on a dirty job in biogenetics

Biogenetics robot cleaning cagesThere is an interesting video and 3D tour of the MRC Harwell animal research facility, near Oxford, England. This company conducts genetic research using nearly 50,000 mice to track and test genetic variants. The facility has partially automated one of the dirtiest jobs–cleaning mice cages.

Workers load used cages into the cleaning system. A caged robot empties the used cages of litter and puts them in a washing machine. Then the cages are loaded into an industrial-grade autoclave, which uses high-pressure steam for sterilization.

Other videos show safety procedures around cryogenic storage, the air shower used by staff before entering the clean areas of the lab, and the experimental wards where tens of thousands of mice are tested and monitored.

PPR Tech Chronicles are snapshots of industrial technology, from legacy hardware to cutting-edge tech. If you have a cool or interesting example to share, email editor@prioritypayload.com with your name and title, a short description of what it is and why it’s so cool, and a photo or screenshot that PPR can include in the newsletter.

Platform dynamics: OPC Classic vs. OPC UA

Recently, I had to dig into OPC Classic vs. OPC UA specifications, which are part of a series of frameworks for industrial interoperability. Yes, the reading on this topic is very dry, but it points to an ongoing shift in the way PLCs–and machinery they control–are connected to applications, data management tools, and each other.

The quick history: OPC (OLE for Process Control) was the 1990s love child of a team at Microsoft and various industrial automation vendors. Novotek outlines some of the technology history.

Microsoft was actually pushing OLE in various industrial and business segments–this ancient article from my old employer Computerworld shows MS getting three dozen players in CAD lined up behind The Borg in providing OLE-compliant software.

It’s important to note that Bill Gates circa 1995 wasn’t a soft and cuddly figure like MIcrosoft’s current CEO, Satya Nadella. Gates was all about platform control, something he had engineered so well with the Windows-dominated PC platform, with some timely incompetence from IBM. Gates wanted to extend control to profitable verticals–even if MS didn’t write the applications, with OPC they could still dictate the platform architecture to other vendors and thus encourage deep-pocketed business and industrial companies to sign up for Windows NT and other Microsoft products and services.

Stacking up the specs: OPC Classic vs. OPC UA

OPC Classic flavors (including OPC DA and HDA) ruled the roost for more than a decade. Besides being Windows-centric, they also used Distributed Component Object Model (DCOM) for data transportation, which could be difficult to configure. In the late 1990s, the OPC Foundation was established at ISA Chicago and began work on creating a new set of specifications, including OPC UA. Benefits of the new spec would include:

  • Support for operating systems other than Windows

  • Ability to integrate open source contributions

  • Support for a wide range of hardware platforms

  • Web services instead of DCOM

  • Improved security features

  • Better networking support

The OPC Foundation is now making a play for OPC UA to become a “universal protocol” for IIoT/industrial connectivity and Industry 4.0.

Endpoint: After reading this, half of you are probably saying “who cares?” while the other half wants to school me on some obscure yet important technical detail that I missed.

But there’s a bigger lesson here: Companies gain power and profit by controlling platforms and associated standards, and can set the stage for control for years. Microsoft wanted Windows and related software and services to dominate the industrial market, and its actions to steer development of OPC Classic standards helped it achieve control over the market for industrial automation software.

Looking to the future of IoT and connected industry, the battles over communications standards and advances in artificial intelligence will determine which companies have control over the next 10-15 years. Specifications could end up looking more like OPC Classic, with dominance by a single powerful company … or they could be more open, like the OPC UA model. Time will tell …