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Intel eyes nontraditional device operating systems with Wind River buy

Wind River's expertise gives Intel a power position in the nontraditional device operating systems market that will play a bigger role in IT.

Intel's decision to purchase Wind River and its specialized operating systems expertise signals a sea change in IT that could significantly affect solution providers.

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Intel said last week it would acquire Wind River Systems Inc. for $884 million in cash. Wind River develops middleware and OSes that run on embedded devices; its software -- including Wind River Linux and VxWorks, a proprietary real-time OS -- runs everything from cell phones and digital cameras to factory floor systems to the Mars Exploration Rover. Wind River will become an Intel subsidiary when the deal closes this summer.

Wind River works with non-PC devices, and many view this acquisition as a play by Intel to grab shares in a fast-growing emerging market and to cast its lot with partners other than Microsoft. VARs should keep an eye on this development because more of these devices are starting to connect into customers' IT infrastructures.

Others say Intel's amped-up push into nontraditional devices signals a move toward pervasive computing that will mean big changes for IT staffs.

The chip giant is not the only major player eyeing this trend. Last week Microsoft released a new version of Windows CE Embedded, which it's pushing for non-PC and non-cell phone devices. So far, though, it's seen limited uptake.

IT stretching beyond the server room

In the world of pervasive computing, automated sensors and controllers will feed more data into the PCs and servers that IT staffs already manage, said Heather Clancy, analyst with SWOT Management Group Inc., a Hillsborough, N.J.-based IT channel consultancy.
"We're at the turning point [where] you'll see that many of the things we expect out of technology will not come from human-controlled devices but [from] automated sensors and controllers," said Clancy, who is also a contributor. "Things like green computing and the smart grid depend heavily on such devices."

Cisco Systems' EnergyWise program is another example of this trend, Clancy said. EnergyWise is Cisco's attempt to bring IT and facilities management together to maximize energy efficiency. An EnergyWise-compliant building would feature monitors and controls that would turn off lights and minimize heating or cooling in empty rooms during off hours, for example.

"The numbers tell the story," said the chief technology officer of a major financial services company via email. "Today [there are] about one billion computers and 20 billion devices with embedded processors that are not desktops or laptops. In five years there will be two billion computers and 100 billion devices, maybe more. Maybe you only get $1 per device -- some will be more, some less -- but that's a lot of dollars. Windows Embedded CE never got a lot of this market, and Wind River pretty much owns it."

This CTO said his IT staff already works with many nontraditional devices. The practice may not be mainstream yet, but that will change, he added.

Smart embedded devices find home in IT

Rand Morimoto, chief operating officer for Convergent Computing, an Oakland, Calif., IT consultancy, said Intel is continuing to do what it's always done: "own more and more of what goes on a chip."

"We saw it a decade ago when they put networking technologies onto their chips so that an Intel chip had WiFi wireless capabilities in addition to Ethernet networking," Morimoto said. "Or in the past couple of years, with the whole VPRO technology, where we can now manage and administer Intel-based systems remotely using Microsoft Configuration Manager 2007, effectively booting a system and controlling [it] without even booting an operating system."

Wind River's technology will let Intel add more features and functions to the chip using software that will make devices smarter and more manageable.

Morimoto said that imbuing phone handsets, webcams, printers and other once-dumb devices with intelligence and remote manageability is only good for IT. It adds a "whole new meaning to distributed and managed computing when we can communicate, manage and optimize devices in a more productive manner," he said.

The trend toward smart embedded devices is also a classic example of technology following the money -- in this case federal money. The U.S. stimulus program has earmarked about $56 billion for smart grid projects that will depend on an array of intelligent devices working in all sorts of conditions. And many will go way beyond the server room.

"Face it," said Clancy. "If Intel, Cisco, SAP, all these companies are doing stuff with the smart grid, that's where the technology will be. A lot of these devices will feed into networked PCs and servers."

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