Embedded Systems September 2000 Vol13_10

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I participate in the free software movement because I don't need, nor do I want, the assistance of a "closed source" license in order to be successful. because they won't have the inertia of the installed user base they have today. Academia Mr. Murphy seems concerned that the success of the open source movement spells the end of contributions to the free software community from acade- mia and other nonprofit sources. . Again, the evidence doesn't support his fears. Much free software was, and still is, written and maintained by members of the academic community, including instructors, graduate students, and undergraduates. One of the most pro- found examples of this is the Coda File System, which is the heir-apparent to the popular Network File System (NFS) as an approach for distributed data management on an enterprise scale. Coda is free software.5 Although tech nically still under development, Coda has been deployed at Carnegie Mellon University and elsewhere, and is main- tained by members of the computer science staff there. The number of graduate students whose master's degrees are based on their contribu- tions to Coda isn't listed anywhere, but is likely a significant number. Yet another example is Mosix, a novel clustei;ng solu tion that lets net- worked Unix-like computers share processors and other resources with- out user or application intervention.6 Like Coda, Mosix is in routine use although it is still under active devel- opment, and it is also a product of academia. For something with more of an embedded influence, there's the LART project, a StrongArm-based sys- tem that runs Linux.7 Among its strengths are that it offers about 250 MIPS on a measly one watt of power. And yes, schematics are included. Free software morality Unfortunately, I must agree with Mr. Murphy on one point-many free software and open source communi- ty members do mistakenly claim the moral high ground over their com- mercial brethren. I participate in the free software movement because I don ' t need, nor do I want, the assistance of a "closed sou rce" license in order to be successful-professio nalism, skill , and proper marketing are enough. Releasing a product as free software demonstrates my commit- ment to that and isn ' t a morality issue at all. My positio n o n this subject is probably common, but my situa tion isn 't-I don't have to convin ce a corporate boardroom to adjust their way of doing business. I only have to encourage a handful of clients, who are usually progressive enough to go along willingly after I explain the alternatives (which occasionally include finding another suppli er). Go easy on the people that don 't have such a handy lever to pull. When you use o pen source soft- ware, you support those who wish to deal with you forthrightly and who allow you complete access to infor- mation needed to evaluate their strengths and weakn esses. When you choose free or o pen source soft- ware over a closed source alterna- tive, you demonstrate your prefer- ence for vendors who want to por- tray their capabilities in the most unambiguous way poss ibl e- as source code. If you think you gain a certain moral advantage by participating in this process, you've missed the point entirely. Free software isn' t about giving users their rights back, it's about not taking them away in the first place! 90 SEPTEMBER 2000 Embedded Systems Programming Embedded code Mr. Murphy states: "Encouraging embedded engineers to release code as Open Source rarely has benefit unless the hardware design is included." This statement isn 't altogether true, but it is clear that providing the source code for an OTP or masked- ROM embedded system is of little benefit. Or is it? Advanced users and ana- lysts could use the source code to track down bugs and compare features of competing products. And in cases of product obsolescence (plan ned or otherwise), that source code could also be used by motivated third parties to populate replacement devices. Furthermore, new coders would get an example of how a particular problem was solved. So open source software also provides a valuable and inexpensive training opportunity. How can this not be of benefit? Unfortunately, both the FSF and the Open Source Initiative are under- standably short on ideas for how to p rotect user's rights related to embedded systems that are field upgradable, and I have personally run headlong into this problem in my own work. Furthermore, the liability issues that arise from an end user's incorrect programming of a piece of critical hardware should not be underesti- mated. But some products, like facto- ry automation equipment, are built with this explicit purpose in mind (save the "incorrect programming" part, perhaps), so working out these details in an embedded product is not without precedent nor indication of reward. And finally, there's the debugging opportunity that showing your code to the world offers. End use rs of techni- cal products are often technically competent, and I always get beneficial feedback and ideas for improvements after my code (embedded and other- wise) hits the 'Net.

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