There are hundreds of versions of Linux, including embedded-specific distributions like TimeSys, MontaVista and Wind River Linux, and well-known desktop/server distributions such as Red Hat’s Enterprise Linux and Novell’s SUSE.
They are all derived from common core Linux components, such as the standard Linux kernel (freely available from www.kernel.org), several graphical application environments (GNOME, KDE, etc), various system utilities and tools, both free and proprietary device drivers, and thousands of application programs. Yet the Linux desktop/server market was disrupted by the arrival of Ubuntu (www.ubuntu.com).
What is Ubuntu?
Ubuntu, which is an African word meaning ‘humanity to others,’ is the name of a completely free and open-source Linux distribution. With the assistance of its commercial backer, Canonical, Ubuntu has skyrocketed in popularity in a few short years, joining Red Hat and SUSE as one of the three most popular commercially backed distributions.
Ubuntu is available in several versions, including full-blown desktop and server variants as well as a new version – Ubuntu Mobile & Embedded, also known as UME – which targets mobile and embedded applications. Additionally, Intel has tapped Ubuntu for use with its low-power, small-footprint Atom processors and related chipsets in conjunction with the Intel-sponsored Moblin.org project.
Ubuntu’s arrival on the desktops of Linux enthusiasts has been accompanied by a rapid increase in popularity among embedded developers, as evidenced by survey data collected by the embedded Linux website, LinuxDevices.com (www.linuxdevices.com/polls). According to the site’s 2008 reader survey, Ubuntu is now the most popular commercially-backed Linux distribution among embedded developers, exceeded only by the Kernel.org and Debian projects. Specifically, 8,6% of respondents said they have used Ubuntu in embedded designs over the past two years, and nearly 10% plan to do so over the next two.
Why Ubuntu in embedded?
There are several good reasons why designers should use Ubuntu in embedded applications. First, it is a nearly 100% free and open-source operating system, availing developers of easy access to source code and minimising device costs. Also, Ubuntu is primarily derived from Debian Linux packages. Debian, a completely free and non-commercial Linux distribution, consistently ranks first among embedded developers according to the aforementioned developer survey.
Like Debian, Ubuntu comes with a simple yet powerful software update infrastructure, APT, which is a free tool that enables quick and easy software installation, updates and security patches. Although it leans on Debian packages, the Ubuntu project produces a more polished, fully tested, user-friendly distribution. And finally, the Ubuntu project has a good track record of delivering semi-annual releases, including a ‘long-term support’ (LTS) release every two years.
A real-world example
ADLINK Technology was the embedded industry’s first embedded computer manufacturer to distribute and support an embedded Linux OS derived from Ubuntu with its Ampro by ADLINK Extreme Rugged boards.
In addition to numerous packages normally included in standard Ubuntu distributions, ADLINK’s embedded Linux also provides selected packages from the UME project. Examples include the Hildon graphical user interface and a device-oriented Web browser (MID-browser) derived from Mozilla Firefox technologies. Visit the Moblin project (www.moblin.org) for details on these and other software components of interest to mobile and embedded device developers.
Touch-screen drivers, also available from Ubuntu package repositories, allow embedded Linux to support the company’s ReadyPanel systems, essentially converting them into industrial-strength ultra-mobile PCs (UMPCs).
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