Choosing the Right Linux Distribution for Your Embedded Application

Choosing the Right Linux Distribution for Your Embedded Application

Find out how to select the most appropriate distributions and pre-configured embedded systems for your industrial applications, such as human machine interfaces.

In today’s digital world, manufacturing and other industries are becoming more complex and increasingly automated. This is being driven by the ever-growing demands of B2B customers looking to achieve maximum output at minimum costs by optimizing overall production efficiencies and streamlining of processes.

One area of enhancement that has experienced significant activity in recent years is the human machine interface (HMI). This platform of communication and information exchange between electromechanical processes and the operator is undergoing considerable evolution, with feature-rich displays, monitors, and touchscreens —commonplace in mobile consumer products—now being incorporated into more industrial applications.

Whether this is part of a trend toward establishing the “Industrial Internet of Things” or simply to deliver more effective and user-friendly operator capabilities, the role of the HMI is now more important than ever. It’s a trend supported by the findings of a recent report published by Global Industry Analysts Inc., which forecasts that the global value of the HMI solutions market will exceed $5 billion by 2020.1

While innovation, new product development, and delivering what the customer wants in terms of an enhanced graphical user interface (GUI) is the lifeblood of future success, so too is the time to market and speed these latest solutions turn from concept in to reality. In such a fast-moving society, reducing development time and speeding up time to market will help achieve that all-important product differentiator and maintain competitive advantage.

Determining the Linux Distribution

One potential way to reduce time in the development cycle is to select the Linux distribution that’s best suited to the display and graphics technology and their application. While the very nature of these open-source Linux-based distributions make for easier configuration and customization, choosing the right one from the vast array of distributions available, even for the most discerning software engineers, can be a challenge.

Make the wrong selection, and additional development is required to configure the distribution with your chosen GUI. Not only will it cost time, but cost financially as well. Get it right, however, and you will end up saving lots of time and effort, thus quickening time to market for your finished product.

When it comes to choosing the right Linux distribution for your GUI, there’s rarely a perfect, ready-made solution. However, working in close partnership with a specialist technology provider—tapping in to their own expertise and understanding of which distributions, tools, and peripherals provide the best fit in terms of your end-user requirements—can prove advantageous.

For example, Densitron’s software engineers have developed fully optimized embedded boards that are pre-loaded with the latest QT cross-platform software and pre-configured with the most appropriate distributions. This helps to further streamline development and customization requirements, and accelerates integration by offering an almost instant “plug-and-play” solution.

Ubuntu and Yocto

In terms of the GUI, a number of Linux distributions have been identified as being particularly suited to systems integration. Take, for instance, Ubuntu based on the stable, multipurpose, and trusted Debian distribution. Ubuntu has become one of the most popular and best-known distributions. Not only is it well-designed and easy to use for network-attached storage (NAS) and web servers, it has also advanced the use of Linux as a desktop operating system more than any other distribution.

Ubuntu comes as a managed package, with full hardware integration, and ongoing support through the availability of a repository of applications, software, and pre-complied packages for download. The combination enables quick and simple configuration. Adding to its flexibility, there are multiple variations of the distribution, including Xubuntu, Lubuntu, Ubuntu-server, and Mythbuntu.

Yocto is another distribution that’s well-suited for video and graphics drivers. In the case of Yocto, the package provides the tools and processes to make your own distributions, whereby the distribution administrator can make its own repositories of software. While Yocto requires a greater depth of knowledge and expertise in terms of development and customization, it’s an excellent option for more deeply embedded solutions in which, say, multimedia drivers are more important than ease of use.

With any software development project, there will never be a miracle “one size fits all” solution. When time is no object, then selecting a distribution with a familiar architecture will certainly work. However, when time is a critical factor in product delivery, then a fully optimized embedded board, pre-loaded with the latest drivers, tools, cross-platform QT software, and distributions ready for near-instant plug-and-play customization, will significantly shrink time to market.

With software engineering and new product development being such a dynamic, fast-moving area, keeping up with the latest changes, enhancements, and innovations is essential to ensure your solutions meet the demands of today and allow for future requirements. It’s important to be open and willing to try, test, and explore new opportunities.

One need only consider the potential that the independent Android platform could possibly offer in terms of its GUI. Android certainly has been successful in the mobile consumer environment, but doesn’t have the interface drivers suitable for industrial applications—yet.  But who knows where this might take us in the future?

Thus, while knowledge and expertise of existing software solutions is vital, so too is a forward-thinking vision where research and testing can explore and deliver future-proof solutions.


1. “Human Machine Interface (HMI) solutions: A Global Strategic Business Report,” June 2015, Global Industry Analysts Inc.

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