Real-time software market expansion: a lesson and a warning for Wind River Systems

The supplier base for real-time embedded software seems to be expanding, which comes as a shock among some in this business.

Mar 1st, 2002

by John Keller, chief editor
Military & Aerospace Electronics

The supplier base for real-time embedded software seems to be expanding, which comes as a shock among some in this business, especially to leaders of the software company potentially with the most to lose — Wind River Systems of Alameda, Calif. Don't get me wrong. Wind River is still the default real-time embedded operating system provider, but not as solidly as it has been in the recent past.

For a long time, most of us remember, Wind River and its venerable VX Works have been synonymous with real-time embedded operating systems. For military and aerospace applications — especially in the mission- and life-critical areas — it almost goes without saying that Wind River-backed VX Works is the operating system of choice.

Yet for a while I've been hearing other names in the mix besides Wind River. Most notable among these are Green Hills Software Inc. in Santa Barbara, Calif., OSE Systems in San Jose, Calif., QNX Software Systems Ltd. in Kanata, Ontario, and different versions of real-time Linux from companies such as FSM Labs in Socorro, N.M.,

LynuxWorks in San Jose, Calif., and MontaVista Software Inc. of Sunnyvale, Calif.

Watching the number of serious real-time software providers expand beyond Wind River reminds me that I've seen this phenomenon before, and so have a lot of others in this business. I remember the late 1980s when the default real-time operating system for military and aerospace applications was VRTX and its closely related ARTX for Ada from a company called Ready Systems. The man who developed VRTX and ARTX is James Ready, the founder of present-Day MontaVista Software.

Ready's VRTX and ARTX had in those days much of what Wind River has now — name recognition, a broad installed base, and well-known partners. Unfortunately, however, Wind River also has now what Ready Systems had then — nimble competitors, customers who admit privately that if they had the choice to make again they would choose differently, and a growing reputation of becoming disconnected from its core customers by trying to be all things to all people.

One of the toughest competitors in the real-time software business that did the most in the early '90s to kick the props out from under Ready Systems and its flagship VRTX/ARTX real-time kernel was — you guessed it — a little company called Wind River Systems, with what was then its flagship real-time product called the Wind Kernel.

For Ready Systems, there wasn't a happy ending to its tussle with Wind River and other real-time software companies of the day. Ready Systems ceased to be an independent entity in 1993 when the company merged with Microtec Research Inc., which itself became a part of Mentor Graphics three years later.

Other real-time software companies of that time, which served military and aerospace applications, met fates similar to Ready Systems as they tried to hang in against the ascending Wind River. Fallen flags include Software Components Group of San Jose, Calif. (see http://www.softwarecomponentsgroup.com); Verdix Corp. of Chantilly, Va.; and Tartan Inc. of Monroeville, Pa. Others, such as Eyring Inc. of Provo, Utah; DDC-I Inc. of Phoenix; and LynuxWorks (then known as Lynx Real Time Systems) survived and found their own real-time market niches.

Today, a decade later, Wind River not only is a $438 million company, but also is still an acknowledged leader. Yet some industry veterans are advising leaders of that company to start looking over their shoulders.

Perhaps the most striking indication that Wind River's role in the market is not what it once was came last October when avionics designers at Lockheed Martin Corp. in Fort Worth, Texas, announced their choice of a real-time operating system for the future F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. A surprise to many, the choice was not VX Works, but INTEGRITY from Green Hills Software. The consensus among engineers in the real-time embedded community is the Joint Strike Fighter software job should have been Wind River's, and the company lost it in a head-to-head competition.

Ten years ago when I asked engineers of real-time embedded computing about Wind River, they told me Wind River was the shining star with the most exciting technology. Today, those in that same community quietly give me different answers — and I'm simply asking around; I'm not looking for Wind River bashers.

"We are staying with Wind River because we have to; too many customers are using it," is one comment I hear. "VX Works is more expensive, and Wind River is harder to work with," is another. Yet again, "The attitude is 'we're Wind River and you're not.' They think they're Microsoft. They ought to be kicking themselves for losing JSF; it was theirs to lose."

Technologically, Wind River critics claim the company's once-advanced real-time software has fallen behind its competition, particularly in terms of multiprocessor support and information security. Competing real-time software from companies such as Green Hills, OSE, and QNX, critics claim, were developed from the ground up to support these modern computing paradigms.

For their part, Wind River officials say they intend to address any complaints from their customers, on a person-to-person basis. "We want to be the leader of integrated embedded software," says Steve Blackman, director of marketing and business development for the Wind River aerospace and defense business unit in Canton, Mass.

Further, Blackman vigorously disputes claims that Wind River's technology has fallen behind its competition, and says he invites computer integrators to watch for new Wind River developments, a new operating system for digital signal processors called DSP Works, and future dedicated software support for field programmable gate arrays.

To me, at least one thing is clear. It's a good idea to keep a close eye on the real-time embedded software business.

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