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Rough road ahead for Net-connected designs

Posted: 01 Apr 2001 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:net centric computing? os? x86? linux? unix?

Everyone has been marveling at the so-called blossoming of the various Net-centric computing devices. There is one problem, though. It is called infrastructure. It is as if everyone has started to run the 100-yard dash, but at the same time they are trying to pull on their running shorts and socks, tie their shoelaces and put on their running shoes?with the aim of getting to the finish line first.

The new Net-centric computing device market is very unlike that of the PC, which took off in 1980 with the introduction of the IBM PC. The latter inherited an existing infrastructure of desktop architectures?also built around the x86, which had established the market?with OSs supplied by Microsoft and Digital Research, languages, tools, communications protocols and everything else that it needed to grow a market.

By comparison, this new computing market is starting from scratch. There are no pre-existing architectures to build on, no standards for OSs or processors and no clear winner in terms of languages and tools. In lieu of anything except the pre-existing Web and Internet protocols, companies that are building the new devices are?at the same time creating their own infrastructures.

If there is any clear historical similarity to the present situation, said Marc Erickson, project manager at IBM's Object Technology Inc., it is the birth of the automobile industry at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. That industry started with a relatively standardized system built around a bulky and unreliable steam engine, which then gave way to dozens of internal combustion vehicles with a variety of engine types, etc.

The connected computing environment will not grow, just as the automobile industry did not begin to, until an appropriate infrastructure is in place, said Erickson. This fact is obvious to almost every major and minor player. Where they can, they are building with industry standards or at least giving voice to the need for standards. And where they cannot, they are going at it alone, hoping that the solutions they have come up with will strike a cord amongst developers, manufacturers and users alike.

In the opinion of senior technical staff member Jim Colson at IBM Pervasive Computing, bringing all of those elements together piecemeal, as needed, will not work. Instead it will require a well-thought-out structure, a context within which devices can be developed.

"Connected Net-centric information appliances and embedded Internet devices present enormous business opportunities, but equally enormous technical challenges as their full potential is realized," Colson said. "To realize this opportunity, what is needed is an open, non-proprietary standards-based component architecture that enables a viable model for network content delivery in a scalable manner."

Where IBM is focused on providing a developer with a framework for developing Net-centric computing devices, others like Red Hat Inc. are attempting to provide a standards-based maintenance infrastructure on an embedded client/server structure.

What everyone, from Microsoft down to the smallest developer, software or hardware supplier, must face is that there are some fundamental constraints that differentiate Internet appliances from today's typical Internet-connected desktop system: slower processors, less memory, intermittent (wireless) Internet connections, smaller file systems, primitive or no user interface, fault tolerance and intermittent operation (power fail at any time).

Many in the Linux community believe that the open-source environment is the most likely place to develop the necessary infrastructure to support Net-centric computing devices. Here Linux, because of its Unix heritage, has an advantage most other OS do not: the Internet and World Wide Web are direct outgrowths of the ubiquitous Unix. Also, Linux is showing much more scalability. The real clincher is that it is free, open source and costs are minimal.

"To build the infrastructure for our mobile wireless Internet solution, we chose to go with Linux for a number of reasons, beyond our philosophy of open-standards," said Linus Lundberg, director of corporate business development, Axis Communications. "The front-end access points and the back-end servers in our system are Linux-based because it gave us a lot of support from a wide range of providers and service organizations." If the company had opted to build its system with a proprietary OS and then tried to impose that on another open-standard at some point, he said, the company would have been locked out of some potential customers and markets that did not support the same OS.

"For building the infrastructure within which Net-centric computing devices will operate, an OS that has been proven to be bulletproof, comparatively speaking, in a wide range of systems, from the largest servers to small devices, is very important," Lundberg added.

? Bernard C. Cole

CMP Media

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