The Power of Linux (Almost) Everywhere

Linux software review

Linux — the free, open-source operating system for enterprise, small business, and home computing use — is not used everywhere yet. However, its user base crosses nearly every industry.

Linux is in many places today. It’s in consumer products like TVs and computer networking gear. Linux drives services that users do not even know run Linux. Think in terms of servers, Big Data farms, and cloud storage facilities. The analytics and Big Data marketplaces host and run platforms and applications on top of Linux in data centers and in the cloud.

The Linux OS certainly is evolving in the connected car space, for example. Linux also is embedded in many appliances. It often controls the sensors in industrial machines, navigational gear, and medical instruments.

“Increasingly, I see Linux used in a wide range of industries and quite a wide range of use cases. As companies continue to become aware and comfortable enough with it, Linux adoption will continue,” said Kerry Kim, open source software marketing and product management professional at Suse.

Spreading the Word

Often, people in enterprises are more familiar with the concept of open-source technology — but they are less informed about the power and greater flexibility that the Linux operating system brings compared to other platforms.

The word is spreading about the reliability of open source. Many of the early concerns about Linux and open source have subsided as companies have learned about the successes others had in using them to improve their competitive position, Kim told LinuxInsider.

“Companies are becoming more willing to try Linux and open-source technology. We still see companies that have never tried Linux. Some are just very conservative. Some companies do not think they need it,” he said.

Other companies just need more time and exposure to discover the power of Linux. Often, that happens slowly and in partial migrations.

Special Moments

Kim recalled a recent technology gathering in Boston, where he met with the CIO of Welch’s, the company that makes all those juice products. The CIO mentioned that he was thinking about trying Linux.

“We were all surprised that he had not tried it yet,” Kim said, but “seeing a company like Welch’s get to that step is encouraging.”

You might say that Suse’s Kim is in the preaching trade. He works on converting businesses to the Linux OS. Sometimes, that progress happens slowly.

For example, five years ago, Kim had a conversation with an executive from Levi Strauss & Company, the jeans maker. Its executives were adamant about remaining on a Windows platform. That changed.

“Recently, our sales guys visited the corporate offices there to learn that Levi Strauss has begun switching to Linux. That company still uses Windows, but the innovation in open source and Linux is winning the company over,” said Kim.

Hidden Treasures

Linux is hidden in many unexpected places. Take sports, for instance.

“It’s not surprising to find Linux serving a range of sports-related applications,” Bill Weinberg, senior director at Black Duck Consulting, told LinuxInsider.

Open source has a great impact on sports analytics. The Linux platform supports the real-time sports analytics of all four grand slam tennis tournaments.

That is not all. It runs the FanVision devices for Nascar, NFL, and other sports, according to Weinberg.

Sports fans may be watching live events and looking directly at the results of Linux, but they do not see the Linux operation. For example, Linux powers the stadium seat-back displays/STBs and large scoreboards.

Linux for Love and Fore

Linux also is used extensively by IBM with its own specialized software. IBM uses the combination to become a prominent player in powering tennis and golf tournaments, according to John Kent of the IBM Sports Sponsorship Team and Brian O’Connell, master inventor on IBM’s Global Technology Services Cloud Team.

For example, IBM Power Systems servers run AIX and Linux. The combination makes the technological infrastructure work so website traffic does not go out of bounds, serving up live scores during tournaments.

IBM, for years has embraced Linux across its e-business infrastructure. For instance, its TOURCast application runs on Linux Virtual Services. Another example is the internal computer network at the All-England Club.

Officials there in 2003 converted their network to the Linux OS. Following that migration to Linux, the Wimbledon public website and its Intranet followed suit.

Attention Walmart Shoppers

For many business leaders, computer technology is not about a religious war between proprietary and open-source software users. Rather, it is more of a discussion about which technology will help them run their businesses better, said Suse’s Kim.

A striking example of that approach to using Linux played out with the Walmart pharmacies. The corporate computer network links the pharmacies at all of the Walmart stores. The company wanted to upgrade the system and run Linux. However, some of its critical software applications ran only on Windows.

It was difficult to port those applications to Linux. Instead, the IT department used Suse’s Virtual Machine Driver Pack. That allowed the pharmacies to work with the must-have Windows applications in a virtual environment that ran within the Linux OS.

“Using the Linux environment to run the virtual machines gave Walmart better performance running the Windows applications than it originally got running them strictly under the Windows OS. Plus, Walmart actually saved money as a result,” said Kim.

GNU Linux, not Gun Linux

GNU might be thought of as “gun” Linux — at least for some hunting enthusiasts. Engineers at TrackingPoint developed a Linux distro to make a computerized aiming and tracking system work.

The original plan was to base the tracking system on an application processor similar to the kind used on mobile devices. Engineers then considered which operating system would be the most stable and robust for the application.

“We decided that with an open embedded application, Linux was the best way to go. Both of the application processors already supported the Gentoo Linux distribution. So this was a natural progression to go with,” said Ryan Bedwell, an engineer at TrackingPoint.

Linux Inside

The Linux-powered tracking system uses a smart scope to replace a regular optical scope. It has an image sensor at the front end and a microdisplay at the back end. It connects to a computer device and has intelligence on the trigger, Bedwell told LinuxInsider.

“Once we run Linux, now we have a TCP/IP stack and a WiFi connection. This is where Linux gives us the ability to make the scope into an access point of WiFi. Users can log into the scope and stream video and watch the live video feed,” said Dan Morelli, an engineer at TrackingPoint.

The scope shows a video display and an overlaid heads-up display. To the user, it is just like an optical scope, explained Bedwell.

The display also shows the temperature, the compass direction, and the barometric pressure, along with a wind setting. All of this is fed into the ballistics calculator. Once you determine the range, the system knows that it is not shooting line of sight. The system will start tracking the target if it starts to move.

How It Works

TrackingPoint engineers developed a gun sighting system that runs with both open-source and proprietary technology. The ballistics calculator is proprietary. Other processors in the system run on Linux as well as Android, a Linux derivative, Bedwell noted.

“Think of this almost as a protocol stack. There are several layers of processing going on. Some of those are real-time or bare-metal applications,” TrackingPoint’s Morelli told LinuxInsider.

The bottom layer is the PGF (precision-guided firearm developed by TrackingPoint) or image-processing stack. The next layer is comprised of real-time operations, ballistic calculations, imaging tracking, and all the image-processing algorithms. They are sitting on top of that, running on another processor, explained Bedwell.

The user interface is the third layer. It handles all the push buttons and HUD overlays and all the statistical information coming back to the user. That is all being done within the Linux domain, he noted.

Eye on Target

The sports hunter sees an image of the target or animal through the scope. The user finds a target and zooms in, then presses a button near the trigger. That drops a red tag on the target image. That tag is in the scope image only.

The system uses image-processing technology to remember that point and shows it on the display. It does range detection and runs a full ballistic calculation to determine the firing solution. It tells the shooter where to aim in order to hit the target.

Once the target is tagged, the system starts recording, so there is an actual video record of the hunter’s final shot — but the system blocks the trigger once the user tags the target.

The shooter then sees the ballistic level rather than the line of sight and must manually move the reticle back to on top of the tag. If the user pulls the trigger during that time, the weapon will not fire.

Lovin’ Linux

Linux lets the PGF system do something with the Smart scope that you never can do with a glass scope. It includes the ability to connect with mobile devices and the apps that TrackingPoint created. They connect through the PGF over WiFi. All of that also is controlled through the Linux environment.

“You can see how this is very useful for people who are managing a safari hunt. They have somebody out there watching on a tablet at what the actual shooter is looking at,” said Morelli.

This Linux-powered system assists the shooter in getting back on target. It is mechanically blocked under the control of the Smart scope until the shooter is directly over the tag. This feature helps to eliminate some of the variability. The system holds the shot off until the shooter is in the right spot, TrackingPoint’s Bedwell said.

The user still has to keep pulling the trigger, though. So, the shooter is still the final step in the process. When the user pulls the trigger, the reticle turns red as confirmation, but until the shooter resolves the ballistic solution, the trigger remains blocked, said Morelli.

Looking for Linux

Linux is used in a variety of industries, but you will have to read the fine print of company product brochures or IT manuals to discover just where it is.

Suse’s Weinberg has encountered an intelligent device running Linux on many forays into clients’ technologies.

The following list of industries is by no means complete. However, it does suggest the extent to which Linux is everywhere:

  • telecoms and networking equipment;
  • network security;
  • eHealth and medical equipment;
  • storage;
  • aerospace and defense;
  • scientific instrumentation;
  • printing and imaging;
  • home Entertainment and multimedia (e.g., set-top boxes, DVRs, and HD/DTV);
  • the emerging Internet of Things; and
  • the maker movement.

Jack M. Germain

Jack M. Germain has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2003. His main areas of focus are enterprise IT, Linux and open-source technologies. He is an esteemed reviewer of Linux distros and other open-source software. In addition, Jack extensively covers business technology and privacy issues, as well as developments in e-commerce and consumer electronics. Email Jack.

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