Monday Oct 15, 2007

General Purpose Always Wins ... Why Not for the Real-Time Market Too?

The brief but brilliant era of computing has seen companies come and go, many relegated to the ash heap of history because they failed to heed this simple rule:  
 
  In the long run general purpose solutions will always win out over specialized proprietary ones. 
 
As a long time employee of Sun Microsystems, I've witnessed firsthand the effects, both positive and negative, that this law has had on my company.  Sun can attribute it's initial meteoric rise to the fact that it offered a viable alternative to the popular minicomputer platform of the day.  The first Sun workstations were built from commercial off-the-shelf components, and although nearly equal in performance to the minicomputer, they were so much more affordable that they became good enough.  And of course over time, as Moore's law might dictate, those initial deficiencies quickly dissipated, and in fact surpassed traditional minicomputer capabilities.
 
Somewhere along the line Sun lost sight of this ideal and began incorporating more proprietary technology into their products.  At first the strategy appeared to be successful as Sun was well positioned to reap huge benefits during the Internet bubble.  Meanwhile, low-cost general purpose servers were continuously improving.  When the bubble burst they in turn became good enough alternatives to the powerful but costly Sun servers.  The resulting decline of Sun was rapid, and it's taken the better part of a decade for us to recover.   This story has been told -- and will continue to be again and again -- for those refusing to learn this lesson.  A professor of mine once told me, "If there's anything we've learned from history, it's that we haven't learned anything from history".

When markets mature, even those where technology is paramount, economic considerations dominate. General purpose systems scale on every dimension (unit, management, training and integration costs) whereas proprietary systems do not.  A switch to more standard components should in no way be construed as stifling innovation.  Rather, general purpose systems help create new innovation by building from common elements economically appealing in their own right, and presumably even more economically beneficial once combined.1

[1] The above paragraph was taken in bits and pieces from an email exchange with Dave Hofert, Java Embedded and Real-Time Marketing Manager.  His points were so compelling I couldn't help myself.

Real-time industrial controllers could be the next market ripe for disruption.  Admittedly this is an entrenched and conservative lot.  But the economics of general purpose computing cannot be denied.  As organizations strive to further eliminate cost out of their system, revisiting usage and deployment of industrial controllers, typically via custom proprietary PLCs, is falling under review.  Consequently, at the behest of one of the world's largest industrial corporations, Sun has partnered with iGoLogic, a systems integrator, and Axiomtek, an industrial PC board manufacturer, to create the real-time controller platform pictured below.
 
Among others, here are some of the compelling benefits of this platform: 

  • It's based on standard x86 hardware.  The motherboards aren't much larger than a postcard, are energy efficient, and yet have PC class processing power.  The number of competing manufacturers in this space eliminates vendor lock-in and insures price sensitivity and further rapid innovation.
  • Real-time applications are developed using Sun's Java Real-Time System, enabling you to leverage the largest development community on the planet.  Obscure development languages and highly specialized environments are longer needed.
  • Industrial Networking Protocols (e.g PROFIBUS, EtherCAT) are easily migrated to this platform, partly because of the wealth of development tools available.
  • The system utilizes an IDE flash drive from Apacer.  In addition to eliminating the moving parts associated with a traditional disk drive, it consumes less power and makes the system more resistant to shock and vibration.  Overcoming the longevity limitations of flash memory, Apacer has done some interesting work on wear leveling algorithms effectively extending the lifetime of the flash device well past the expected lifetime of the industrial controller.

 
Let this be our first salvo fired over the proprietary industrial encampment.  We believe the opportunity is immense, but also understand that to achieve any measure of success, partnering with organizations who are truly experts in this arena is critical.  If you think you can add further value, we'd love to talk.

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Jim Connors

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