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Wind River Lends an Industrial Touch to the Internet of Things

Wind River built its business on assembly lines and conveyor belts, supplying customers with embedded operating systems with the speed and reliability to keep factories running smoothly. Now the company, which formally separated from Intel last month, is trying to stamp its claim on the industrial Internet of Things market.

That falls to chief executive Jim Douglas, who joined Wind River shortly after Intel’s acquisition was announced in 2009. Douglas said in an interview that the company is focused on returning to its roots in embedded software, building relationships with chip companies other than Intel. The company is also planning to sell more tools to help industrial customers handle the billions of connected sensors to be installed in factories.

“These areas that have high levels of criticality is where our D.N.A. is,” Douglas told Electronic Design. 

More than two billion devices in aerospace, manufacturing, automotive and other industries use Wind River software to enforce the precise timing and reliability needed to prevent failures that could, for example, shut down factories or cause car airbags to burst too late or too early. The company, now owned by TPG Capital, is trying to ride a wave of new technology being installed in factories. All that new equipment needs software after all.

"In the next decade, there is going to be significant investment in upgrading and replacing these systems," Douglas said. The Alameda, California-based company is betting on factories shifting from automated systems—welding robots, for example, positioned on car assembly lines and locked in protective cages—to autonomous machines—like transport robots that can safely navigate factory floors to ferry parts to an assembly line.

To succeed in the future industrial Internet of Things, Douglas says industrial companies have to embrace new business models. That means shifting the value of industrial process controllers and other hardware into services and applications managed from a single environment. That also means allowing partners like Wind River to handle the high-reliability, low-latency software that these often applications need.

Douglas says that there will be an increased use of virtualization to consolidate workloads handled by multiple devices into single multicore processors. Virtualization would allow real-time operating systems like Wind River’s VxWorks to be protected from application software running on a separate core, preventing faults from cascading into other systems. The industrial sector also needs to get better at machine learning, Douglas said.

These changes will not happen overnight, said Douglas. While multicore processors are widely used in traditional control equipment like sensors and switches, many companies are still not taking advantage of like multi-threading. Others are uncertain about what workloads to consolidate into edge-computing systems. But Douglas said there is “a desire to really harness multicore now.”

Wind River is offering customers a helping hand. The company is building software to enable virtualization on servers installed in factories and to orchestrate jobs between the factory and the cloud. It is also focused on industrial software modeled on Titanium, which enables network-function virtualization in telecommunications. It would be bundled with Wind River’s Linux and VxWorks operating systems.

Growing up in the industrial sector gives Wind River an advantage over cloud computing firms like Microsoft and Amazon, which have encroached on its business with software to connect factory sensors and other devices to services running on the cloud. The privately-held company is also fighting the growing use of open-source operating systems including FreeRTOS in the embedded space.

Wind River, which employs more than 1,200 people worldwide and earned revenues of more than $350 million in 2009, has been in business a long time. Founded in 1981, the company sells software to industrial heavyweights like Rockwell Automation, Schneider Electric and Kuka Robotics. But after Intel’s $884 million acquisition in 2009, it ran into stumbling blocks.

“Our needs were so different, our go-to-market strategies were so different, and success was measured so differently,” Douglas, who was promoted to president in 2015, said. “There were strategic investments we made for Intel that didn’t exactly line up with what we were trying to achieve,” he added. “In some cases, we were extending beyond our core value proposition.”

The subsidiary was fighting its instincts under both chief executive Paul Otellini, who was in charge when it was acquired, and Brian Krzanich, who was chief executive when the sale was announced in April. Wind River—which holds more than 20- and 50-percent market share in commercial real-time operating systems and embedded Linux, respectively—was only integrated into Intel’s Internet of Things group in 2016.

Now Wind River more breathing room to grow and reinvest in product development. “We can focus tighter around what we know and what we know well,” Douglas said, adding that it will continue to collaborate with Intel. When the deal was announced, Tom Lantzsch, Intel’s senior vice president of the Internet of Things group, said “Wind River will remain an important ecosystem partner.” The financial terms were not disclosed.

As an independent company, Wind River can also make more aggressive deals. When Intel could put “an investment dollar in silicon versus an investment dollar in our commercial operations, silicon was going to win out every time,” Douglas told Electronic Design. Without going into detail about possible targets, he said that “we were exceedingly limited in what kind of deals were could consider.”

Douglas likens what will happen in factories to what has happened in software-defined networking. The telecom industry is shifting over to “white box” switches that run on off-the-shelf processors and customers can alter after installing them in data centers. That has tightened the screws on networking companies like Cisco and Juniper Networks, which depend on “black box” hardware paired with their custom software.

Vendors of industrial control hardware need to follow the same “white box” route so that customers “can constantly alter the infrastructure at a factory and improve it over time rather than just hope it doesn’t break,” Douglas told Electronic Design. Bonus points: security patches can be installed and reinstalled over the lifetime of a factory machine or connected vehicle.

Douglas firmly believes that current safety standards for factory robots and automatic emergency car brakes aren’t anywhere they need to be with security. The number of Wind River customers concerned about security has “radically amplified” in recent years. “You can’t be safe if you’re not secure, and you can’t be secure if you’re not safe,” he added.

Other challenges could be more persistent. One major question is whether the industrial sector can attract enough programmers to support billions of connected devices in factories. “The overwhelming majority are optimizing code for hardware or writing control algorithms today,” Douglas told Electronic Design. “[The industry] will significantly need to add folks that can write applications and services, as well as develop machine learning algorithms.”

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