Embedded Linux is All Grown Up

by Roy Murdock | 04/14/2016

Ten years ago, most embedded engineers would not have considered using Linux in any system other than a desktop PC or a web server. How could any respectable developer think of putting a free, open source operating system in charge of a resource-constrained, low-error-tolerance machine? Furthermore, how could one trust that Linux would continue to be supported and developed over the long lifetimes of many embedded devices?

For deeply embedded devices, there was (and still is) a varied pool of small-footprint, highly-deterministic, and industry-specific operating systems from which to choose. But for general purpose embedded computing systems the decision was clear – Windows dominated, and  Linux was not on the typical embedded engineer’s radar as a practical, general purpose embedded OS.

Embedded Linux is All Grown Up

In 2016, embedded Linux is now all grown up. Of embedded engineers that VDC recently surveyed, 40% indicated that they were using Linux as the primary operating system in their current project, with the distribution of those using commercial Linux (Android, SUSE, Red Hat, etc.) and free Linux (Debian, Fedora, kernel.org, etc.) split 50/50 down the middle. Furthermore, sentiment points strongly towards abandoning of commercial OSs by many OEMs, primarily for the greener pastures of free, open source Linux distros in the foreseeable future.

What is more interesting is the reason that an increasing number of engineers are choosing free distributions of Linux. Cost seems like the obvious factor – it’s hard to beat free – but survey respondents indicate that Reliability/Stability and Tooling Support are the most important factors driving their decision to implement free Linux in an embedded system. The huge, prolific community of Linux developers and maintainers that are constantly pushing updates, soliciting feedback, and improving tool support has earned Linux a reputation as a solid, mature general purpose embedded OS. Cost is listed as a secondary factor, on par with the need for available source code.

Unsurprisingly, the need for real-time performance is the leading reason for developers to choose commercially-licensed operating systems. While Linux is eating away at the top and pushing down towards the middle of the embedded OS market, it is simply not designed to run on small footprint, highly-deterministic systems. WITTENSTEIN’s FreeRTOS fills this niche for some engineers, but there is still ample room for safety and security-focused OS vendors.

What percent of engineers are using multiple OSs on their current project? Which programming languages are gaining traction? How about processor architectures? Tooling? Attitudes towards the IoT? We explore many more engineer adoption and sentiment trends across the entire embedded market in the latest VDC report: The Voice of the IoT Engineer: Survey Dataset and Analysis. The report analyzes responses to 150 questions by over 800 embedded engineers who come from diverse industries across the globe, providing a granular view of the market to help shape embedded strategy.