Celebrating Commercial Software

DN Staff

February 26, 2010

7 Min Read
Celebrating Commercial Software

Thegrowth of commercial real-time operating systems (RTOSes) has enabled therevolution we've all enjoyed in snazzy leading-edge consumer electronicsproducts, informative and entertaining automotive electronics andsophisticated, life-saving medical devices. Leading manufacturers like HP,Casio, Sharp, Sony, Bose, Philips and Welch Allyn are enhancing our quality oflife with product after product that use modern commercial microprocessor andsoftware technology.

Years ago, such products were lesscommon and often ill-fated, as the electronics industry - particularly thesoftware sector - tinkered with home-grown solutions and do-it-yourself (DIY) developmenttools. The result was unreliable products, overdue development schedules andcostly staffing that reinvented the wheel over and over again.

Fortunately, over the last 20 years,software development has made dramatic advances that have skyrocketedproductivity and propelled the electronics industry into a key role in everydaylife. Paramount among these advances are the tools available today for softwaredevelopers that enable them to be much more productive than in the "dark ages," duringwhich they routinely crafted the tools and software they used in the productsthey were building. Since the early '90s, managers would be fired if theyendorsed do-it-yourself development for software or hardware that could bepurchased off-the-shelf for less cost and significantly less resourceconsumption. In today's economy where development costs are under such closescrutiny and project schedules are more and more demanding, DIY development iseven more a thing of the past.

Despite this advancement in thinkingwith respect to software development tools, embedded developers continue to bedivided as far as the best way to satisfy their applications' needs forreal-time control, scheduling and interrupt management. Although commercialRTOS products are plentiful and support dozens of microprocessors, a dialogcontinues encouraging developers to do-it-yourself.

Interestingly, although the dialogcontinues, commercial RTOSes have been used in the most successful andubiquitous electronic products. The call for developers to shun commercialsystems appears to come from a strong DIY advocacy of independent developerswho are (justifiably) proud of their work and who want to share it with thecommunity. Obviously, there will always be some engineers who prefer to do it themselves,as opposed to licensing a commercial product, just because they can. Typically,however, such engineers are not engaged in commercial product development, but areacademics, consultants or part-time RTOS hobbyists.

While DIY makes sense in an academic setting wherenew paradigms are being explored and examined, it is less effective than acommercial RTOS in leading to successful product development and production. Accordingto industry analysts at Embedded Market Forecasters (EMF, www.embeddedforecast.com), who have surveyed hundreds of embedded developersfor the past several years, developers using a commercial RTOS have a greater likelihood of finishing their development project on time than those using a DIY approach.

DIY proponents raise concernsregarding commercial offerings, including that such RTOSes are too big, tooexpensive and not suitable for many applications.

Are commercial RTOSes unsuitable for any applications?

If commercialRTOSes were unsuitable for any significant number of applications, we'd see DIYRTOSes used in those applications resulting in successful products brought tomarket, but we don't. Commercial RTOSes (let's include commercial Linux distributionsin this category, making it actually "non-Roll-Your-Own RTOS")dominate most commercial electronic products developed in the last 10 years, whichproves their suitability for any application.

There's also nodenying the ubiquitous nature of the commercial RTOS as sufficient proof of itssuperiority over DIY RTOS solutions. According to EMF, in 1995, only 33 percent ofapplications included a commercial RTOS. Today, that number has grown to morethan 76 percent.

Do commercial RTOSes cost too much?

Analysts haveexamined the cost of commercial vs. DIY solutions. From 2003 to present, EMFhas consistently found commercial RTOSes dominate ROI results with open-sourcetrailing. DIY fares even worse than open source, to the limited extent thatanyone reports using a DIY RTOS for a real project.

In the recentwhite paper "Shoot-Out at the RTOS Corral," EMF shows the ROI advantages ofusing certain RTOSes over others. According to the EMF survey, only 22 percent ofrespondents reported using an "In-House" RTOS on their last project. CommercialRTOSes better enable developers to meet schedule and get products to marketon time, with 60 percent of projects completed on time or ahead of schedule vs. 54 percentamong those who chose DIY.

Notably, not all commercialRTOSes faired the same. EMF surveyed hundreds of embedded developers asking, "Was your lastproject completed on-time, on-schedule, or behind-schedule?" and "What operatingsystem did you use?" The chart below portrays the results indicating those usingcommercial operating systems completed their projects on time or ahead ofschedule more often than the industry average.

Year after year, EMF data from2006-2009 showed developers who chose ThreadX completed their designs onor ahead of schedule 75 percent of the time - a benchmark that analyst Jerry Krasnerbelieves is due to "feature glut" on the part of some RTOS vendors. In itswhite paper, EMFobserves "using an RTOS that is overqualified for the application may havea negative impact on time-to-market, design cost and product support ... becauseadditional capabilities, beyond what is required by the needs of theapplication, make these RTOSes more complicated and harder to use." Readersare encouraged to read the white paper.

In allinstances, the killer for DIY and open source lies in the amount of support,including product enhancement and ports to new microprocessors. Both theseareas require substantial investment of manpower from an in-house developmentteam. Commercial RTOS suppliers also invest heavily in these areas, but theirman-years are amortized across many customers, with each one bearing a smallfraction of the cost.

Are commercial RTOSes just too large?

These days, commercialRTOSes are available in sizes as small as 2 kilobytes. Very fewapplications have such an extreme size constraint, particularly when memorycosts have fallen so significantly and processors boast much faster clockrates. As Linux developers are well aware, scaling the open source or DIY RTOSdown to this extent is a monumental task.

Today, commercial and open-source RTOSesare available as complete products, ready-to-use and off-the-shelf, with featuresand technology far beyond what even the best developer could produce in-house.For example, in the development tools area, we now have open-source compilersfrom GNU, as well as commercial products from leading vendors like ARM, IAR, Inteland Green Hills. While the open-source GNU compilers produce good code and arefreely available, the compilers from ARM, IAR, Intel and Green Hills go farbeyond GNU with advanced optimization techniques that consistently producesmaller code and faster execution speed.

In the operating systems area, wesee open-source examples such as Linux, as well as commercial products like Wind River's VxWorks or Express Logic's ThreadX. Again,while Linux is useful in many products, research demonstrates thecommercial Linux offerings consistently experience development costs that are16.1 percent less than the DIY versions. That commercial RTOSes from Intel (Wind River), Express Logic and others are found inliterally hundreds of millions of products, from cell phones and ink-jetprinters to commercial airliners and FDA-certified medical electronics, demonstratestheir ability to operate within the size constraints of a wide range ofembedded system products.

DIY development delivers greatsatisfaction once the OS is finally clicking along - making all those nightsand weekends of struggles with timing and interrupts seem worth it. Such is theplight of companies just getting started with no funding that haveno other choice until they can get the prototype running well enough to invitethe investment of a backer, who then insists they migrate into tools thatsimplify their development and reduce overall labor costs. Obviously, very few developersfall into this category.


In this day and age, the "wheel" isa well-established technology. Even when it comes to RTOS development, there's reallyno excuse for developers reinventing the wheel in light of the number of commercial RTOS offerings available in all sizes, shapes and flavors. Everyembedded system of reasonable complexity requires an RTOS, and developers know it's more efficient to spend their time designing their application thanre-inventing the RTOS wheel.

Based on trends, it appears DIYdevelopers are a small though enthusiastic minority and embeddeddevelopers - those working on cell phones, cameras, defibrillators and GUI-drivendashboards - are facing project timetables that no longer allow them to take therisks associated with internal RTOS development.

While DIY will continue to thriveamong academics, hobbyists and unfunded enterprises, the majority ofprofessional developers will continue to enjoy the many benefits of commercialsoftware and the result will be a continued emergence of cool new electronicgadgets and life-saving technology.

So when you hear someone ponder the possibility of writingtheir own RTOS, ask them what products they use every day that use a home-grownRTOS. Maybe, just maybe, that will give them cause to consider using acommercial RTOS product.

HP is the market leader in ink-jet printers, all of which use Express Logic's ThreadX commercial RTOS, FileX embedded file system, and PEGX GUI.

Celebrating Commercial Software A

According to the EMF survey, respondents reported varying degrees of success in meeting schedule, depending on the particular RTOS they used.

Celebrating Commercial Software chart

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