Wednesday Jun 01, 2011

Embedded Systems Conference San Jose

The annual Embedded Systems Conference in San Jose was held at the beginning of May. This was Oracle’s first year at the conference, and we did get visitors who were surprised to see us there. However some people, myself included, think we're going to see increased convergence between enterprise and embedded in the coming years. I know we're not alone, because a certain other big name in enterprise systems had a booth right next to ours!

Since embedded is not a topic everyone is familiar with, I want to give a little insight into this conference and the embedded space in general, as I think it is potentially an important growth area for products like Berkeley DB. Since I was an embedded developer myself in a past life, this is familiar territory for me.

Wikipedia defines embedded systems as "a computer system designed to do one or a few dedicated and/or specific functions." It is important to note that embedded is generally considered to be distinct from mobile. Mobile platforms are typically derived in some way from desktop platforms such as Linux, Windows, OSX, and are often more general purpose devices. Before the advent of cheap, high-res, general purpose LCD displays, having a display in your device meant a Cathode Ray Tube (CRT). Embedded devices were traditionally ‘headless,’ meaning they had no display and no generic input device such as a keyboard. Because of this, in the early days developers would commonly develop on desktop machines using a cross toolchain. A cross toolchain is a set of tools designed to build software on a target embedded platform, which was a completely different hardware architecture and OS from the desktop development platform. Nowadays, many embedded platforms are powerful enough that they can run their own toolchains. Such was the case with our demo, more on that below.

Another common aspect of an embedded system is “real time” requirements. A simplified definition would be if a given operation does not complete by a certain time, it’s just as bad as not finishing at all. Real Time Operating Systems, or RTOSes, can provide guarantees about when operations will finish. Real time embedded devices are still quite prevalent in some industries, including military, aviation, industrial manufacturing, and networking. The embedded space has certainly been encroached on by the rise of mobile, but as long as we have mission critical devices there will continue to be a requirement for embedded devices.

Now back to the Embedded Systems Conference. Booth traffic was high, we were averaging about 1 visitor per minute the nearly the whole time I was there. I attribute this partly to curiosity, but mostly to our great giveaways! They did their job, I talked to a number of people who ended up having a genuine interest in what we were showing, and were initially attracted to the booth by our swag. Also we held a drawing for an iPad, which brought a ton of people to register.

Our demo was a temperature sensor attached to a small device called a SheevaPlug, which is a general purpose embedded development device from Marvell. By embedded standards, the SheevaPlug is a very powerful device, and we were able to develop directly on it. The idea behind the demo was that the device represented one of many nodes in a sensor network. Some real world examples of this include weather stations, or monitoring conditions inside laboratories or industrial facilities. Our demo showed the system collecting temperature data, which was then uploaded to Oracle Database. All of this was running on top of Java SE Embedded. The demo was well received. Nearly everyone who listened to me present agreed that the sync functionality would be useful to them, or useful in general if they didn’t need it themselves.

The main purpose of our presence at ESC was to showcase the power, ease of use, and versatility of Java Embedded. When you combine that Berkeley DB and Oracle Database Lite Mobile Server, you get a system that has out of the box capability to move data to and from enterprise storage systems. After a few simple configuration steps, the data stored on the local Berkeley DB or SQLite data store is connected to the enterprise backend. This is a potent combination of features, and one that we feel will be in high demand in the coming years, as M2M and embedded solutions continue to proliferate.

Tuesday Mar 29, 2011

Ubiquitous Mobile Applications


It goes without saying that smart phones are already very popular and enjoying rapid growth. But a few things finally happened in the last year that people have been predicting for a long time, things that could make smartphones and mobile apps an even bigger part of our lives.
First off, in what many consider to be a bold move from a normally conservative company, GM has already released mobile apps that allow many of their cars to be remotely monitored, unlocked, and even started. So as long as you have a high degree of confidence in your smartphone's battery life, you don't need your car keys anymore.

Next, we have Starbucks, who have quietly sidestepped the ongoing mobile payments dispute by launching a barcode based payments app that doesn't require any special technology. Other large retailers are probably watching this closely, and if the big cell phone companies don't get their acts together, they might just end up missing the boat again. In any case, many industry observers feel that the Starbucks system could be the spark that sets off an explosion of mobile payment systems, from McDonald's to Neiman Marcus, and everywhere in between. Here is some more detail on the Starbucks solution, and for an industry analysis click here.

But I saved the biggest one for last. Are you ready? Take a deep breath, and then read this: Smartphones outsold PCs for the first time, Q4 2010. This milestone happened much sooner than anyone expected, thanks mostly to new Android activation numbers so high they're almost hard to believe. At the start of 2011 people were talking about activations in excess of 125k units per day. Currently the number being tossed around is 300k units per day. If Android can keep it up, that platform alone will outsell PCs in 2011. Folks, this could be the end of an era.

When we combine these milestones, the smartphone appears to poised to become a sort of ultimate swiss army knife; a single device that does everything. The thought of it is exciting; imagine the convenience! Alas, as with all great things in life, there is a downside. Money, privacy, communication, and even physical security could be compromised if the software or data on the device is not secure.

The average person has at least 3 things with them when they leave the house: wallet, keys, and cell phone. Today, if one of the three things were to be lost, that would be bad. It would be a huge inconvenience, in the best case. However, when a cell phone is lost today, the unfortunate person is not normally forced to cancel their credit cards and reprogram their car locks. Worse than that, if we envision the future that the stories listed above point to, there is a potential for any or all of the three to be stolen electronically, by a thief far away, even in a different country. That should be a sobering prospect, both for consumers and the various companies providing services to them. It is easy to tout the benefits of technology convergence; it's a fun and exciting topic. But as technology providers, it is our duty to also consider the potential drawbacks.

In order to keep everyone safe, sensitive mobile data needs to be securely stored on the local device, and transmitted reliably to each company's data vaults. Those same companies need to be able to determine, with 100% accuracy, whether a certain request is coming from an authorized device or an imposter. This could be a mobile purchase, a request to unlock your car, or even your home.

Two critical components of a safe, trustworthy solution for storing and syncing sensitive mobile data are Oracle's Berkeley DB and Database Mobile Server. Most of the world's large enterprises already store their critical data in Oracle Database. Berkeley DB is a stable, mature product with over 10 years proven history. It is ideally positioned to be the mobile data store to complement Oracle Database. It is secure in the traditional sense, meaning it can protect mobile data from malicious intent, and in the database architecture sense as well, with full transactional guarantees. Database Mobile Server provides the final piece to form a complete solution: the capability to synchronize your data between the mobile devices and your Oracle backend, and manage the mobile application, data, and even the device itself if desired.
If you're considering a mobile application that will access sensitive data, data that you already trust Oracle to store in your backend infrastructure, Berkeley DB and Database Mobile Server are the best choices to handle it.

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