Embedded Linux: The 2.6 kernel is ideal for specialized devices of all sizes

For more than twelve years, the capabilities and popularity of Linux® have been building exponentially. Started in 1991 as something of a pastime for creator Linus Torvalds, Linux has since become a robust operating system and a worthy competitor to commercial software such as Microsoft®'s Windows® family and Sun®'s Solaris™.

Much of the attention that Linux has received has been focused on its growing use in servers. However, Linux scales down as well as it scales up, and as a result, Linux has become an ideal operating system for a wide variety of systems. Nowhere has this been more evident than the world of embedded computing.

In the simplest terms, an embedded system is a special-purpose computer that's built in to a larger device to control that device.

Embedded systems are nothing new. In fact, embedded devices have been around since the 1950s—about as long as computers themselves. Compared to traditional computing (say, desktops, servers, and mainframes), the embedded computing universe is vast and diverse, encompassing computers of all sizes, from tiny wristwatch cameras, to personal digital assistants (PDAs), to telecommunications switches with thousands of nodes distributed worldwide.

Today, embedded systems can be readily found in your house (your microwave and TiVo), your workplace (industrial robots, network firewalls and gateways), your car (in your engine), and even on your person (your Blackberry, iPod, and cell phone).

Common to all embedded devices is a microprocessor and software dedicated to a single purpose. Memory requirements and the amount of ROM and RAM for an embedded system vary greatly, depending on the purpose and features of a particular system. Smaller systems with a single objective, for example, usually require less memory. Embedded systems can also be simple, only requiring small microcontrollers, or they can be fairly complex, requiring massive parallel processors with extraordinary amounts of computing power.

In the embedded software market, several commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) operating systems are available, including Wind River's VxWorks, LynuxWorks™' LynxOS®, and Green Hills' Integrity. Over the past several years, however, none have matched the explosive growth and popularity of embedded Linux.

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