Embedding Real-Time

April 1, 2004
Embedded computing is the very foundation of control, while control systems are the cornerstones of automation systems. Within these systems lie the intelligence to control processes and machines, and provide information in “real time” essential for the smooth operation of enterprise business systems.

Embedded computers can take the form of very small circuit boards that fit within a device, like a personal digital assistant or DIN rail-mount computer. They can also be as large as a single-board computer in a VME or CompactPCI bus computer system that would fit in a 19-in. rack. Either way, the heart of embedded computing is the operating system. These operating systems must be robust and fast. Control systems cannot break down. Many control systems require processing speeds of the system to be measured in microseconds. Real-time operating systems (RTOSs) provide the crucial platform to assure control system quality.

These operating systems have not always been easy to implement. Many original equipment manufacturers have been forced to use more expensive systems rather than hire the expertise required to build their own systems. In an effort to provide powerful tools to embedded developers, IBM, the Armonk, N.Y., computer company (www.ibm.com), developed the Eclipse Project. In November 2001, the company turned the project over to an open source foundation. This open platform for tool integration is now built by a community of tool providers operating under an open source model.

Sebastien Marineau, senior software architect, at QNX Software Systems (www.qnx.com), of Ottawa, Ont., Canada, reports that the Eclipse Foundation has reorganized and relaunched as a not-for-profit corporation. “Originally formed as a consortium, Eclipse is now an independent body that will drive the platform’s evolution to benefit the providers of software development offerings and end-users. All technology and source code provided to this fast-growing ecosystem will remain openly available and royalty-free,” adds Marineau.

“Written in the Java programming language, Eclipse now supports C, C++ and COBOL languages with C# and UML 2 projects currently active. The third version, due to be released in June, will have an improved user interface, more hooks for applications and a broader application builder,” states Marineau. “This will be a good tool for developers to use to build industrial control systems.”

Marineau notes that QNX, Red Hat Linux, Monta Vista Linux, TimeSys, Netsilica and other companies are shipping the Eclipse platform with their products. He adds that Rockwell Collins, which has a large existing code base and tool set, is using the Eclipse platform to extend its in-house tools and make the entire system easier to use.

A few years ago, Microsoft (www.microsoft.com), the Redmond, Wash., software developer, decided to enter the embedded operating system fray with Windows CE and Windows 2000 Embedded. The Windows 2000 version has morphed into Windows XP Embedded, to reflect Microsoft’s latest operating system, Windows XP. The CE version is a stripped down, modularized operating system designed as a platform for small, limited function devices such as cell phones or game boxes, while the XP version is a full-blown personal computer operating system in an embedded form. Surprisingly, these operating systems found a niche in industrial automation.

Rather than require customers to choose one or the other of the operating systems, Kuka Controls (www.kuka-controls.com), a robotics and control company headquartered in Weingarten, Germany, has released a real-time extension platform, CeWin. This software allows Microsoft Windows CE .Net and Windows XP Embedded to reside concurrently on a single central processing unit. Using Windows CE .Net as the real-time backend of Windows XP Embedded eliminates the shortcomings and capitalizes on the advantages of each operating system.

Acknowledging tremendous interest in Web Services by users who must export real-time information from control systems, Alameda, Calif., software developer Wind River’s (www.windriver.com) real-time operating system, VxWorks, and its industrial platforms—Platform for Industrial Automation and Platform for Industrial Devices—have been enhanced through added communications capability. The additional capability includes support for eXtensible Markup Language (XML), simple object access protocol (SOAP) and Web Service Definition Language (WSDL).

Gary Mintchell, [email protected]