Will Telecom Love Linux?
MontaVista Software Inc. today claimed to be first to market with a version of embedded open-source Linux ready for use in softswitches, IP gear, telecom management systems, and even routers. And analysts say it does indeed look like a milestone of sorts.
Interest in using Linux -- the Unix lookalike operating system developed in the 1990s -- for telecom use has been building for months. This past January, Alcatel SA (NYSE: ALA; Paris: CGEP:PA), Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO), Hewlett-Packard Co. (NYSE: HWP), IBM Corp. (NYSE: IBM), Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC), and Nokia Corp. (NYSE: NOK) joined MontaVista and two of its embedded Linux rivals, Red Hat Inc. (Nasdaq: RHAT) and Germany-based SuSE International in creating a Carrier Grade Linux Working Group at the Open Source Development Lab , a consortium devoted to open source software. (So far, no visible progress has been made on specs.)
Linux's potential use in telecom makes sense. It is among the most popular of the open-source packages, so called because the kernel, the internal essence of the operating system's code, is openly available on the Internet to anyone caring to use it. What's more, Linux has been widely adapted for use in so-called embedded applications, in which code runs within firmware to control the internal functions of servers, desktop equipment, and consumer devices.
A few companies already are using Linux in telecom products. Alcatel is among these, so is Nortel Networks Corp. (NYSE/Toronto: NT), which claims Linux is cheaper and easier to maintain than alternative proprietary software in embedded applications.
Indeed, Nortel says that the ability to change code itself is a key benefit to using Linux. As a result, the company doesn't have to wait for suppliers to help make changes to embedded code. "It was difficult to get changes incorporated in carrier-grade applications," says a spokesperson. "As Linux is an open system, we can use in-house expertise to make the necessary enhancements to the operating system." Nortel now uses Linux in its Succession Communication Server 2000-Compact, which is a softswitch.
While interest in Linux and various in-house implementations of it in telecom gear have grown, there have been virtually no commercial Linux implementations for telecom (or "distributions," as they are called by open-source software devotees). The reason appears to be that no vendor so far has been ready to guarantee the reliability that's expected of a product used inside third-party carrier devices.
Now MontaVista says it's made Linux "carrier grade" by improving its reliability to "six nines" (99.9999 percent uptime). The vendor has done this in part, it says, through use of a special monitoring subsystem and redundant features that ensure the software won't fail in live network devices.
"We're including diagnostic tools such as Kernel Dynamic Probes that allow you to execute diagnostic code in the kernel. We'll also add a kernel crash dump tool," says Glenn Seiler, MontaVista director of product marketing. He also cites a range of features, including Posix threads, geared to making the MontaVista software tackle more processes per system. A version of MontaVista's package designed to run on Intel platforms is set to ship next quarter.
Is MontaVista first to market? It looks like it. "I know other companies are working on this, but I haven't seen a carrier-grade product emerge until now," says analyst Steve Balacco of Venture Development Corp., a market research firm. But he's not surprised, since he says the market is growing.
Still, MontaVista has its work cut out. A four-year-old startup, it is one of the few remaining companies seeking to mine the market for embedded open source software. Even in a growing market, analysts say, companies have been challenged in this segment.
"The embedded software market is tricky," says Dan Kusnetzky, program manager at market research firm IDC. "Companies building devices want to partner for software with companies that have a long track record. It's like a marriage. They're very careful." New companies, and those based on open source code, have been perceived as tainted with bugs and created by fly-by-night programmers of the ponytail-and-sneakers ilk.
MontaVista doesn't seem a bit concerned with this. Its funding is now over $60 million, $28 million of which came in January 2002 from a spate of investors that include IBM Corp. (NYSE: IBM) and Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC), both of which are partnering with MontaVista in creating network processors and other devices that can be used for embedded telecom gear.
The cooperation of Intel is especially significant, sources say. "The key issue for the marketplace will be the adoption of Linux and hardware platforms from Intel for applications development," says Chuck Kanupke, analyst at Insight Research Corp. While there's no guarantee that availability of telecom Linux for Intel platforms will sell like hotcakes, it's a safe bet that such availability will help boost a market if one's in the offing.
MontaVista says its business model, unlike some earlier models from other companies that were based on royalty payments, involves the sale of subscriptions for proprietary Linux tools and implementations surrounding an open-source kernel. So far, this approach is building a sizeable revenue stream, the startup says. "We're now running about 80 to 85 percent subscription renewals," says MontaVista's Seiler. "And those coming back are renewing at higher volumes."
But it's not clear that telecom equipment makers are eager to sign on for the package announced today. Although MontaVista hints that Nokia may be a beta customer, no word from that company has emerged acknowledging a relationship. Alcatel says it's looking at MontaVista, but appears to be unconvinced that this initial package is "cooked" enough for carrier use. Cisco declined to comment.
Analysts say that most vendors are probably waiting to see what comes of MontaVista's implementation. That may be a good thing: "Open source software is a community effort," says IDC's Kusnetzky. "Once in development, there may be hundreds of cooks, and in a short period of time a package can become very strong."
In the meantime, MontaVista deserves credit for banging out a first draft and calling the world's attention to it.
— Mary Jander, Senior Editor, Light Reading