Mentor’s once nearly-orphaned Nucleus RT forms the foundation of a darned impressive software suite for controlling meat packing or nuclear power plants.
Everyone appreciates an underdog—the pale, wimpy kid with glasses and brown polyester sweater who gets routinely beaten up by the popular boys—but sticks it out day after day and eventually grows up to create a tech start-up everyone loves. (Part of this story is my personal history; I’ll let you guess which part.)
So it is with Mentor’s Nucleus RTOS, which the company announced forms the basis for the recent initiative into Industrial Automation (I.A.). Announced this week at the ARC Industry Forum in Orlando is Mentor’s “Embedded Solution for Industrial Automation” (Figure 1). A cynic might look at this figure as a collection of existing Mentor products…slightly rearranged to make a compelling argument for a “solution” in the I.A. space. That skinny kid Nucleus is right there, listed on the diagram. Oh, how many times have I asked Mentor why they keep Nucleus around only to get beaten up by the big RTOS kids!
After all, you’ll recognize Mentor’s Embedded Linux, the Nucleus RTOS I just mentioned, and the company’s Sourcery debug/analyzer/IDE product suite. All of these have been around for a while, although Nucleus is the grown-up kid in this bunch. (Pop quiz: True or False…Did all three of these products came from Mentor acquisitions? Bonus question: From what company(ies)?)
Into this mix, Mentor is adding new security tools from our friends at Icon Labs, plus hooks to a hot new automation GUI/HMI called Qt. (Full disclosure: Icon Labs founder Alan Grau is one of our security bloggers; however, we were taken by surprise at this recent Mentor announcement!)
Industry 4.0: I.A. meets IoT
According to Mentor’s Director of Product Management for Runtime Solutions, Warren Kurisu (whose last name is pronounced just like my first name in Japanese: Ku-ri-su), I.A. is gaining traction, big time. There’s a term for it: “Industry 4.0”. The large industrial automation vendors—like GE, Siemens, Schneider Electric, and others—have long been collecting factory data and feeding it into the enterprise, seeking to reduce costs, increase efficiency, and tie systems into the supply chain. Today, we call this concept the Internet of Things (IoT) and Industry 4.0 is basically the promise of interoperability between currently bespoke (and proprietary) I.A. systems with smart, connected IoT devices plus a layer of cyber security thrown in.
Mentor’s Kurisu points out that what’s changed is not only the kinds of devices that will connect into I.A. systems, but how they’ll connect in more ways than via serial SCADA or FieldBus links. Industrial automation will soon include all the IoT pipes we’re reading about: Wi-Fi, Bluetooth LE, various mesh topologies, Ethernet, cellular—basically whatever works and is secure.
The Skinny Kid Prevails
Herein lies the secret of Mentor’s Industrial Automation Solution. It just so happens the company has most of what you’d need to connect legacy I.A. systems to the IoT, plus add new kinds of smart embedded sensors into the mix. What’s driving the whole market is cost. According to a recent ARC survey, reduced downtime, improved process performance, reduced machine lifecycle costs—all of these, and more, are leading I.A. customers and vendors to upgrade their factories and systems.
Additionally, says Mentor’s Kurisu, having the ability to consolidate multiple pieces of equipment, reduce power, improve safety, and add more local, operator-friendly graphics are criteria for investing in new equipment, sensors, and systems.
Mentor brings something to the party in each of these areas:
- machine or system convergence, either by improved system performance or reduced footprint
- capabilities and differentiation, allowing I.A. vendors to create systems different from “the other guys”
- faster time-to-money, done through increased productivity, system design and debug, or anything to reduce the I.A. vendor’s and their customer’s efforts.
Figure 2 sums up the Mentor value proposition, but notice how most of the non-enterprise blocks in the diagram are built upon the Nucleus RTOS.
Nucleus, for example, has achieved safety certification by TÜV SÜD complete with artifacts (called Nucleus SafetyCert). Mentor’s Embedded Hypervisor—a foundational component of some versions of Nucleus—can be used to create a secure partitioned environment for either multicore or multiple processors (heterogeneous or homogeneous), in which to run multiple operating systems which won’t cross-pollute in the event of a virus or other event.
New to the Mentor offering is an industry-standard Qt GUI running on Linux, or Qt optimized for embedded instantiations running on—wait for it—Nucleus RTOS. Memory and other performance optimizations reduce the footprint, boot faster, and there are versions now for popular IoT processors such as ARM’s Cortex-Mx cores.
Playground Victory: The Take-away
So if the next step in Industrial Automation is Industry 4.0—the rapid build-out of industrial systems reducing cost, adding IoT capabilities with secure interoperability—then Mentor has a pretty compelling offering. That consolidation and emphasis on low power I mentioned above can be had for free via capabilities already build into Nucleus.
For example, embedded systems based on Nucleus can intelligently turn off I/O and displays and even rapidly drive multicore processors into their deepest sleep modes. One example explained to me by Mentor’s Kurisu showed an ARM-based big.LITTLE system that ramped performance when needed but kept the power to a minimum. This is possible, in part, by Mentor’s power-aware drivers for an entire embedded I.A. system under the control of Nucleus.
And in the happy ending we all hope for, it looks like the maybe-forgotten Nucleus RTOS—so often ignored by editors like me writing glowingly about Wind River’s VxWorks or Green Hill’s INTEGRITY—well, maybe Nucleus has grown up. It’s the RTOS ready to run the factory of the future. Perhaps your electricity is right now generated under the control of the nerdy little RTOS that made it big.