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Article: An interview with FSMLabs president, Victor Yodaiken

Mar 28, 2002 — by LinuxDevices Staff — from the LinuxDevices Archive founder and executive editor Rick Lehrbaum chats with Victor Yodaiken, the creator of RTLinux and President of FSMLabs, a software development company headquartered in New Mexico. Yodaiken has been working on operating systems in both industry and academia since the early 1980s when he was one of the developers of one of the first commercial distributed fault tolerant UNIX systems. In this interview, which focuses on FSMLabs, Yodaiken discusses his company's origins, goals, structure, market focus, products, and future plans. What is the mission of FSMLabs, who were its founders, and how and why did you start the company?

Yodaiken: FSMLabs mission is: write good software, support our customers, enjoy ourselves, and make some money. Our flagship product is the RTLinux hard-real-time operating system.

FSMLabs was founded in 1997 by myself and Cort Dougan. Michael Barabanov started working with us soon after. Like many technology companies, we began as a university research project, then a consulting business, and finally a products company. Michael was the original implementor of RTLinux and Cort ported Linux to the PowerPC, both as graduate students.

My original motivation for starting the company was that I could see RTLinux stalling as it came to the next level of development. People were using it in commercial projects and it needed the kind of careful development and quality control you just can't expect from a university environment. How many people does FSMLabs employ today, where are they located, and what are their general responsibilities?

Yodaiken: FSMLabs is a miniature-multinational. We have four employees in Socorro New Mexico, one in Anchorage Alaska, one in Florida, two in Seoul Korea, one in Russia, two in Tokyo Japan, and there are two employees of FSMLabs Data GmBh in Austria. About 70% of the employees are engineers.

We also have two big partnerships for resale and software development — LynuxWorks and Red Hat — as well as a couple of small but powerful ones, ranging from Dan Malek's engineering group in New Hampshire to Aston Linux in Korea. How have you been funded, and are you currently profitable? If profitable, what's your secret?

Yodaiken: We are profitable and have taken no investment capital: all our funding is from revenue. We're big fans of Taiichi Ohno (the legendary industrial engineer from Toyota) and try to run the company with his principles in mind: in particular, to focus engineering effort on value and to reduce support and debug costs by increasing quality and reliability. Also, we've been lucky to be able to recover from our — mostly my — stupid mistakes, and we've benefited from having a lot of good friends in the industry.

Basically, we just sell software for more than it cost us to develop — nothing very revolutionary. We're a pretty conservative company in terms of not spending more than we can afford, watching the bottom line, and controlling expenses. But we also have adapted and changed as the market changed. What markets/applications is FSMLabs focused on? Also, what geographic regions?

Yodaiken: Most of our current business is in the USA, but we have a major effort to build up sales worldwide. We established FSMLabs Data in Austria and FSMLabs Japan in Tokyo within the last couple of months, and are setting up a reseller and support network in Asia Pacific. Rodney Johnson, our vice president of Sales and Business Development, is based in Seoul Korea. Our business is truly worldwide — both the organization of the company and the market we serve is possible only because of the Internet.

Last year, one of the pieces of advice we got was to “specialize”, but we have not been able to follow that advice — customers are applying RTLinux to everything from graphics/multimedia, to controlling welders, to moving packets in switches. This year, we have been putting a lot of effort into industrial control infrastucture — that's a core market for us. We also aim our products at instrumentation, robotics, and telecom/datacom. So far, we have stayed away from consumer devices, internet appliances, etc. FSMLabs tends to be synonymous with RTLinux. But are your efforts exclusively associated with real-time apps, or do you also have projects with customers who don't require real-time extensions to Linux, but rather have more traditional “embedded Linux” needs?

Yodaiken: We are primarily a real-time/embedded company focused on RTLinux. However, we have an “accidental” business in our embedded Linux DevKit — we have a stripped down, text mode, development system that has Linux, cross build tools, and components of an embedded filsystem. We built this to reduce our support costs — we don't want to spend a lot of time helping solve problems caused by incompatibilities in libraries or versions of tools, so we provide a build environment that doesn't have any of those problems. We also added some things that are needed by our customers but didn't seem available in other embedded Linux distributions, such as support for openssh. So yes, we do have some customers who don't want the real-time system, but just need a reliable embedded Linux. What are FSMLabs' principal products and services?

Yodaiken: Our flagship product is RTLinux/Pro, but we have added some other products over the last six months. The RTLnet real-time networking layer gives hard real-time/zero-copy performance up to UDP with a stackable API. The RTLcontrol system exports RTLinux control variables in XML and makes them available to local and networked control interfaces — you can even use Excel as an operator interface. RTCore/BSD runs the same RTLinux real-time kernel on NetBSD. There are a couple of other products in the pipeline. As I mentioned earlier, we also sell our embedded Linux DevKit and we sell engineering services and support. What are some examples of customers/applications that you can talk about?

Yodaiken: Our customers have the most cool applications! RTLinux is being used for jet engine test at Pratt&Whitney, flight simulators at FlightSaftey, talking animals at the Jim Henson Creature Shop, agricultural robots at a company in New Zealand, machine tools in China, steel mills in Korea, and there are many more. How important are Linux and Open Source to FSMLabs — are they fundamental strategic/philosophical core business associations, or do they represent a marriage of convenience?

Yodaiken: Linux opened up the operating system market and brought a lot of technical excitment to what was a nearly dead field. We've contributed quite a bit to Linux, with the GPL RTLinux and contributions to the Linux core, and I very much intend for us to continue along these lines.

I'm strongly in favor of “open source” both as a business strategy and as a principle. Even for our proprietary products, we make source available at a minimal cost increment — we are not in the business of either trying to lock-in or to mystify customers. On the other hand, I don't believe there is a “free-software only” business model in our market. Software development is not cheap and embedded/real-time is a very different market than desktops and servers. I can see how system integrators can make money in embedded/real-time — but they rely on someone else paying for development, and, frankly, much of the time they rely on being able to violate GPL restrictions. The pressure to include proprietary modifications is very high in our market. RTLinux is released as GPL, but since you own its copyright, you can also license it for non-GPL uses. Could you give an approximation of how much of your business — that is, stuff you actually get paid for — is associated with non-GPL vs. GPL uses of RTLinux?

Yodaiken: About 80% of our revenue is from RTLinux/Pro, about 10% from the GPL development kit. The GPL/RTLinux work that we do loses money — actually, we budget it under “marketing”. I hope to improve the GPL business over time, as we build up the brand name and get the muscle to enforce GPL strictly. What are your plans/hopes/dreams for the future of FSMLabs and its products?

Yodaiken: Our first goal is to drive our support business for RTLinux down to minimal levels. We want RTLinux/Pro to work out of the box, to be very well documented, and to be refined to make its operation clear to any skilled engineer. We're getting there. There is a backlog of optimizations to go into RTLinux too.

Then we have all sorts of products underway and (too) many ideas for new work. The real-time networking is really moving forward, and we're adding support for 1394 networking. There are some security additions coming — for example, when you put a 20-ton hydraulic press on the network, you better make it hard to hack! We have some work on fault-tolerance, lots of documentation, a new BSD-based release, a new and even more powerful set of regression tests, and we are about to release our user mode real-time work. The last has taken a huge engineering effort to make it reliable. If you are not very careful, usermode real-time can have all sorts of unpleasant interactions with the memory management in the UNIX thread.

As far as the business is concerned, we are fundamentally an engineering company. We look for areas where our technology and skills can be applied to make valuable products or services. We are also building a worldwide network of technology partners and resellers that can help us continue to have market impact way beyond the company size. Thanks for taking the time to share some background about FSMLabs with the community. We wish you much success!

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