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IBM taps Linux for watch, supercomputer

IBM researchers have crammed Linux into a wristwatch to test the limits of the operating system and are considering using Linux in the company's upcoming Blue Gene supercomputer.

IBM is thinking big and small in its strategy for the increasingly popular Linux operating system.

IBM researchers have crammed Linux into a wristwatch to test the limits of the operating system and explore ways people can interact with tiny computing devices. In addition, the company is considering using Linux in its upcoming Blue Gene supercomputer, according to Ambuj Goyal, vice president of IBM research.

Linux is a clone of Unix whose programming instructions can be modified--which is the reason IBM chose the operating system for the project, Goyal said. IBM already is more committed to Linux than are most large computer makers.

"We're conducting research to test the capability all the way from small, pervasive very large-scale petaflop supercomputers," Goyal said. A "petaflop" supercomputer can perform a quadrillion mathematical calculations a second.

The IBM prototypes are no ordinary wristwatches, however. On one hand, they're bulkier, and the rechargeable lithium-polymer battery lasts only two to four days. Yet the watches have as much memory and storage space as an older desktop computer. In two years, IBM expects battery life to improve to last several months, Goyal said.

About two-dozen of the prototypes have been created so far. The watches run on an ARM-based EP7211 processor made by Cirrus Logic and have 8MB of memory to run programs and 8MB of flash memory to substitute for a hard disk. The watches also include an infrared and wireless radio connection and a touch-screen display. The watch can tell time and has a calendar and to-do list that can remind the wearer of appointments, Goyal said.

The device is a way for IBM to develop several new technologies, Goyal said. The company is looking to develop computing devices that don't require a lot of attention from the user, or a "glance-able interface" for devices. The project is also a test case for what types of devices Linux can be used for. In addition, IBM is looking to develop power management software--a key part of making highly portable computing devices.

"This is an exercise in engineering. They're not going to release it commercially at this point," said Giga Information Group analyst Stacey Quandt.

Linux has become a staple in servers, persuading not just IBM but also Hewlett-Packard, SGI, Compaq Computer, Dell Computer, Gateway, Fujitsu and others that the operating system is a good fit for big hardware. But making Linux operate in other realms is still a work in progress.

Analysts had been skeptical whether it's worthwhile to cut Linux down to size for personal digital assistants and other devices that don't have much memory or CPU power. Other operating systems, such as QNX, eCos or pSOS or VxWorks, are already designed for that purpose, they argued. Yet several companies are taking the plunge for mini-Linux.

Companies such as Lineo, MontaVista Software, TimeSys, TurboLinux, Red Hat, LynuxWorks and others are working to get Linux into gadgets, networking hardware and other non-PC computing devices.

Big names are interested as well. For example, Compaq has Linux running on its StrongArm-based iPaq handheld and has set up a Web site with supporting information from Intel.

"I think we CNET's Linux Centerare going to see Linux on cell phones, especially with the Red Hat-Ericsson announcement," Quandt said. Ericsson said last week that it will pay Red Hat to create specialized versions of the Linux operating system in several Internet-enabled devices for the home.

Linux will be used on wireless devices as well, particularly with the efforts of chipmaker Transmeta to spur use of portable Web pads, Quandt said.

Academic institutions also are interested. Wearcomp, a project at the University of Toronto, also has produced a watch running Linux, Quandt said.

This is not the first word about IBM's efforts to run Linux in gadgets. As previously reported, IBM plans to release power-management software to the open-source community.

The company is also working on Bluetooth technology to enable wireless networking, as well as speech recognition software for Linux.

A voice interface is key to super-small devices. Just as Palm had to develop a new interface with a stylus and a few buttons for its handhelds, IBM believes that wristwatch-sized devices will help gadgets take one more step away from the desktop computer, Goyal said.

IBM's watch is expected to be demonstrated next week at the LinuxWorld Conference and Expo, but it's not the first time the watch has been unveiled. IBM showed a prototype of the WatchPad in June at PC Expo.

The other extreme: supercomputers
IBM's upcoming supercomputer will use an unusual design, with 32 CPUs packed together on one large processor chip. These 32-CPU units will then be combined in much larger numbers to form the whole supercomputer.

IBM is considering running Linux on the 32-CPU processors, Goyal said.

The company also is working on Linux-based "clustering" for its Netfinity servers, he said. Clustering enables computers to team up so that one can take over for another that fails, or so that jobs can be shared among a group.

Before Linux, IBM's research group had lost its enthusiasm for operating system work, Goyal said. Linux, though, is ideal for research environments because its open-source nature encourages innovation that's not hobbled by licensing negotiations, he said.

"More and more innovation in operating systems is coming from IBM research," Goyal said. "We are trying to test the limits."