Wind River was raised on assembly lines and conveyor belts, supplying customers with embedded operating systems with the speed and reliability to keep factories running smoothly. But the company, which formally separated from Intel last month, is grappling with more than its new independence. It is trying to determine its role in the industrial Internet of Things.
That falls to chief executive Jim Douglas, who joined Wind River shortly after Intel’s acquisition in 2009. In a recent interview, Douglas said that the company is focused on returning to its roots in embedded software, thawing relationships with other chip suppliers and giving industrial customers the tools to 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,” he said.
“How do we marry that with cloud architectures, so that we can help customers drive workload consolidation in a way that makes sense economically?" Douglas said.
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 tapping into the “preponderance of 1980’s technology” being switched out in factories—and the software the new equipment needs.
"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 the assembly line.
But 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 make sure that these applications still have low latency and high reliability.
For Douglas, that also means using virtualization to consolidate workloads handled by multiple devices into single multicore processors. Real-time operating systems like Wind River’s VxWorks could be protected from embedded software running on separate cores, preventing faults from cascading into other systems. These processors also have the power to run machine learning tasks locally rather than in the cloud.
These are long-drawn-out changes. 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 purchased, 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.
Selling Wind River allows Intel to reinvest operational savings into shoring up its dwindling manufacturing lead. Leaving Intel gives 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 it was “designed to sharpen our focus on growth opportunities that align to Intel’s data-centric strategy.” He added: “Wind River will remain an important ecosystem partner.” The financial terms of the deal were not disclosed.
Independence also means it can 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. Can the industrial sector can enlist enough programmers to support billions of connected devices in factories? “The overwhelming majority are optimizing code for hardware or writing control algorithms,” Douglas told Electronic Design. “They will significantly need to add folks that can write applications and services, as well as develop machine learning algorithms.”