Friday May 02, 2008

Linux crash at 35000 feet (what happened to QA?)

The Aer Lingus Airbus 330-300 that my family took to the U.S. a few weeks ago was equipped with video screens on every seat. Each passenger had the choice of several video games, songs, TV shows and movies. My wife watched Cecelia Ahern's tearjerker "P.S. I love you", and after checking the options, I started the same movie about 30 minutes later on my screen and started a Snoopy/Charlie brown cartoon on my daughter's screen. It's pretty impressive when you think about it. The Airbus 330-300 can hold over 200 passengers and I'd expect that decent quality small-screen video requires about 1MB/sec. Hmm, come to think of it, 200MB/sec isn't that impressive, I think my old G3 powerbook usually managed to keep up with that speed of video data on its firewire port, but somewhere, one or more CPUs is very busy uncompressing up to 200 streams of video data.

The most interesting part of our experience came when my daughter decided that the sardonic "Peanuts" cartoon wasn't what she wanted so I hit the home menu button about 3/4ths of the way through her movie. The very instant I hit the home menu button, her screen went black and began booting a version of Red Hat Linux. Then I noticed that my screen and my wife's screen were also booting Linux. I looked around me, everyone's screen was scrolling the ugly text of the Linux kernel boot sequence, a tiny penguin peered from the upper left corner of each screen. "Did I do that?", I wondered. A few minutes later everyone was back to their movie as though nothing had happened. My wife commented that people have become so accustomed to computers crashing that this didn't surprise anyone. It looks like I'm not the first to have seen Linux crash onboard a flight. Another friend told us of a similar failure which wasn't resolved even after someone came from the cockpit on their flight in a failed attempt to repair and reboot the same entertainment system. Now if it might be necessary for someone to come from the cockpit to fly an entertainment system, shouldn't that entertainment system go through some good A?

Even with the occasional crash, X86 hardware running Red Hat Linux with MythTV or some other PVR software may be adequate for an in-flight entertainment system. Let's just hope the software used for fly-by-wire and air traffic control is more robust and more well-tested.

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bnitz

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