Highlights from the Embedded Linux Conference

The annual Embedded Linux Conference happened last Monday through Wednesday (April 4th-6th) in San Diego, with high-level corporate sponsors on the order of Qualcomm and Intel. It is one of the biggest annual Linux conferences in North America, with over 100 different speakers offering technical presentations this year. Let’s look at a couple of the notable aspects of this year’s conference.

For starters, the most-reported aspect of this year’s conference is that, for the first time this year, Linux founder Linus Torvalds delivered a keynote address at the conference (despite reportedly not enjoying delivering keynotes). Torvalds, who released the original Linux kernel almost 25 years ago, has pretty high hopes for the future of his operating system, including its use in the Internet of Things (IoT). While Linux has already gained a strong following on embedded systems, Torvalds sees it as being useful on larger IoT-connected devices as well. In particular, he sees Linux being part of the IoT backbone, noting that, “Maybe you won’t see Linux on the leaf nodes, but you’ll see Linux in the hubs.” Torvalds thinks that having a single standard for backbone IoT devices is needed to improve communication, particularly for home automation.

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One concern about Linux in a large-scale IoT context is that IoT vendors release new products very quickly, and their devices are often unpatchable. Torvalds recognizes this, but isn’t as worried about it as some security experts are (such as cryptograher Bruce Schneier, whose blog post about the subject was picked up by Wired in 2014). While this is an important consideration, Torvalds notes that, “Job one is to get the job done. In a new industry, things get done without security. Security plays second fiddle.” He also commented that an operating system developer can only do so much, because vendors often get in the way of security (such as with the Android system updates).

In another part of his talk, Torvalds said how he wishes the Linux OS would have a bigger presence in the consumer desktop world, but don’t look for it to be taking over Windows 10 or Mac OS X any time soon. Linux continues to seem very well-suited for embedded systems and less so for conventional desktop systems. But there are many reasons to be optimistic about the future of Linux, regardless of its lack of a presence in the desktop market. For one thing, the kernel continues to evolve, with the latest release coming just a few days before the event started. Another positive bit of news involves the Civil Infrastructure Platform, which was announced at the conference, and is an open source software framework that will “support the development of software needed to run critical services that create the backbone of any modern society”, according to a recent CIO article. This is a large task, but The Linux Foundation has big plans for CIP usage with a variety of civil infrastructure services so that developers will be able to work more efficiently. Though it is a big step, the CIP is truly just another way that an already widely used operating system will continue to make software development easier, and more effective. As Torvalds commented in his keynote, there was no master plan for Linux when it started. He said, “People know where they want to drive Linux, but there’s no coherent plan, and it’s actually, I think, what made Linux be a fairly well balanced system… we just spread out and did a little bit of everything.”