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Neoware finds new direction with devices for Linux

LinuxWorld

(IDG) -- Neoware, a company best known for its Windows thin clients, has found a new direction. In addition to Windows thin clients, the company now offers Eon, an x86 appliance box, as well as NeoLinux, a version of Red Hat Linux specialized for embedded systems.

Eon is the Swiss army knife of Linux appliances. It is built on the proposition that a single cheap Linux box can replace everything from routers to card readers to cash registers to thin clients, depending on what software is loaded on it. Neoware doesn't make the software; it sells boxes loaded with NeoLinux to developers, who add applications to fit Eon to various embedded markets.

"Our idea is to provide the basis to build a whole new generation of devices based on Linux," said Michael Kantrowitz, CEO of Neoware. "The Eon platform and NeoLinux, our embedded Linux, and a suite of management tools lets you manage, configure and even upgrade them across the net."

The Eon platform is a plain-vanilla x86 box (it uses the National Semiconductor Geode chip) with decent performance and a good complement of I/O ports. It is so standard, in fact, that Neoware sells the same box, loaded with Windows CE, as the NeoStation 3000C, a thin client for Windows applications. What makes Eon interesting is the software and the underlying concept -- not to mention Neoware's history as a staunch supporter of Windows thin clients.

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The idea has attracted a lot of attention and some early design-ins, including Csoft International, a maker of point of sale (POS) systems (essentially networked cash registers), and Security Applications Inc. (SAI), which makes card- and badge-reading systems for security applications. (See the sidebar "For SAI, Eon and NeoLinux are in the cards" for more information.) Since Eon and NeoLinux just debuted in April, few products have been released, but the concept seems to be attracting attention.

From Unix to Windows to Linux

Neoware made terminals and thin clients for about a decade -- then it came up with the idea for Eon and NeoLinux. When Neoware started out (as HDS Network Systems), making X-Windows terminals for Hitachi Data Systems, the company developed a version of Unix called netOS, which it used as a basis for embedded solutions. "We've been developing that product for years," Kantrowitz said.

Neoware's thin clients were based on netOS running Citrix technology, Windows, and then Windows CE (the stripped-down version of Windows). Neoware is still a major player in the Windows thin client market; the company's 1999 revenue, $10 million, came exclusively from thin clients. The company also announced its first Windows CE thin clients at the beginning of the year. However, in 1999 Neoware also saw it could expand its market by converting netOS to Linux and offering a general-purpose embedded system.

It was increasingly obvious to Neoware that developing and maintaining proprietary operating systems was becoming a no-win situation. The cost was too high, especially as customers demanded more advanced features such as Web connectivity, which increased the operating systems' size and the effort needed to maintain them. Getting device drivers to support various kinds of hardware on a proprietary operating system was also a problem; it was expensive, time-consuming, and usually meant the proprietary OS was a generation or two behind the state of the art in peripherals.

Neoware also had a lot of experience with developing a remotely manageable and remotely configurable version of Unix. This resulted in a group of technical solutions that seemed to fill a need in the developing markets for distributed computing and embedded devices. The company wanted to stick to its strength, its proprietary additions to Unix, and let someone else develop the overall operating system. The obvious solution was to port the specialized features of netOS to Linux and exploit Linux's popularity, development environment, and strengths in the market. "The way we developed NeoLinux was by migrating our proprietary technologies to the Linux OS," Kantrowitz said.

This approach had another advantage: it let the company build its products using standardized hardware, the maximum amount of inexpensive PC components, and a minimum of proprietary equipment. This allowed the company to take advantage of the economies of scale in the PC manufacturing business by farming out hardware production to companies that contract to make PCs.

The process wasn't painless. Neoware reported losses last year, partly because it wrote off its manufacturing operations. Its CEO departed and was replaced by Kantrowitz.

To make NeoLinux, Neoware added features to Red Hat Linux aimed at making it more useful in an embedded, distributed environment. ezOff, for instance, lets the user turn off the machine without worrying about file synchronization and other parts of the normal Linux shutdown process. ezSecure makes the operating system essentially read-only so applications and viruses can't change the OS. ezManage lets users remotely discover NeoLinux devices on the Internet or a LAN, and configure and upgrade them. ezCompress pares down Linux for embedded applications. ezConnect provides a simple graphical interface to connect NeoLinux to the Web or to remote servers with minimum input from the user or system administrator.

Doing this wasn't exactly easy. "We had to do a lot of work to Linux to make it into an embedded operating system," said Kantrowitz. "Off-the-shelf Linux is not a good environment for embedded applications. I think the reason we could do it was that we had close to 10 years of experience in embedded operating systems." Among other things, Neoware greatly reduced the size of Linux and eliminated the need for a disk drive or network connection. Kantrowitz said that NeoLinux can run from flash memory or Eprom in less than 8 MB of total storage space.

Neoware still offers Windows CE thin clients. When asked why, Kantrowitz picked his words carefully. "Windows CE is appealing to people who want a Microsoft end-to-end solution," he said. "If you want Microsoft on the server and Microsoft on the client, then CE is the way to go. From a technical perspective, I would say the advantages of Windows CE are limited. I think Linux, and NeoLinux in particular, has certain advantages, including manageability, performance, configurability, and the ability to be modified."

Kantrowitz cited the lack of device drivers compared to Linux as one of Windows CE's limitations. In addition, he said, "there's a certain amount of flexibility that comes with Linux. Linux is something we can more easily customize or manage. Because we have the source code, we have been able to optimize it into running faster." In fact, he said, Linux runs up to three times faster than Windows CE on the same hardware.

"Ultimately," Kantrowitz said, "it is up to the customer. If they prefer a Microsoft solution, we provide them with that. If they prefer a Linux solution, we provide them with that."

Prospects

Basically, Neoware is betting that combining an open operating system with highly standardized PC-type hardware will enable it to drive the cost of its systems well below that of special-purpose devices produced in much smaller quantities. The company believes this will convince embedded-device sellers to buy Neoware boxes, rather than continuing to manufacture their own proprietary hardware.

Using a Linux-based general-purpose device offers many advantages in development as well. NeoLinux developers can take advantage of the enormous range of software tools available for writing and supporting programs under Linux. "There's this whole big development and support community," Kantrowitz said. "If they know Linux, they know NeoLinux. We don't have to do anything special in terms of providing a unique development environment or tools. You use the same tools you'd use on Red Hat."

Can a single device successfully take on the jobs of multiple boxes? Kantrowitz thinks his can, in part because the Linux open source model will drive software improvements faster than the specialized proprietary units. Adding plausibility to the argument is the fact that most embedded systems do not push their hardware's limits, especially not their processing power. A security badge reader, for example, doesn't take much computing power, even if it includes fairly elaborate networking capability. In fact, embedded systems are much more likely to be limited by I/O constraints than processing power, especially ones based on something as powerful as a modern Intel processor that use a reasonably efficient operating system like Linux.

However, that isn't true of all embedded devices. Routers, for example, need a lot of computing power. Skeptics of using general-purpose computers for routers point out that they can't match the throughput of specialized devices. According to Kantrowitz, the idea of a Linux-based router using standard hardware did not originate with Neoware. There are a number of projects geared toward building Linux-based routers, including the open source Linux Router Project (see Resources for a link) and a couple of commercial Linux routers. Kantrowitz believes the open source community's collective brainpower will allow Linux-based appliances like Eon to compete with specialized devices that have much smaller development teams.

"Because there are thousands of programmers working on Linux all around the world, Linux will outpace the level of innovation you will see in any other operating system," Kantrowitz said. "Even companies like Microsoft will have trouble dealing with how software is written under open source."

Kantrowitz said of Linux-based routers, "We're at the early stages of implementation. One of the benefits of open source is you're going to have some really bright people come back to these issues."

Neoware must attract applications developers. The primary market for Eon and NeoLinux is developers, not end users. The product's success depends on third parties using Eon and NeoLinux to develop appliances and then being able to compete with the makers of specialized devices. Embedded markets are typically fragmented and built around proprietary devices optimized for particular roles, so that will be a major challenge, even with the economies of scale and development inherent in the Eon/NeoLinux model.

It's much too early to predict how this will play out. Neoware released the Eon box in April and hasn't yet released version 2 of NeoLinux, which includes ezConnect. Until Eon and other general-purpose appliances have been on the market for a while, it is hard to judge applications developers' success with using them to replace existing special-purpose devices.




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