Does a market exist for a realtime version of the OS?

July 1999's The Lab Guys column, "Embedded NT," prompted many responses from readers who are interested in this new version of an embedded OS. Although some of Windows NT Embedded 4.0's applications are in traditional NT-oriented markets, many of the readers who responded to July's column asked about using NT as a realtime OS.

Microsoft doesn't sell or position NT as a realtime OS, but VenturCom, the company that Microsoft licensed the component technology in NT Embedded from, does. VenturCom bases its business model on embedded, realtime, and control applications that use NT. VenturCom offers three products that provide and take advantage of a realtime environment in NT, and the company recently released Win32rt, a common realtime API for NT and Windows CE. Win32rt helps developers build applications for NT and Windows CE more easily. VenturCom's primary products are RTX, realtime extensions for NT; DCX, middleware for data and control exchange between software components; and Component Integrator, the software Microsoft uses in NT Embedded.

RTX is the heart of realtime NT, and it's pretty cool stuff. RTX has a proprietary hardware abstraction layer (HAL) and runs a proprietary Real Time Sub-System (RTSS) device driver that is tightly integrated with the NT Executive. RTX developers use the standard Win32 programming model, and debugging applications that developers write with RTX use the standard Win32 debugging tools. The product even provides an orderly shutdown of your realtime application after an example of NT exception handling (aka the blue screen of death).

Will we start to see lots of embedded or realtime NT applications in the Windows NT Magazine Lab? In the short term, we doubt it. Although devices such as Netier Technologies' NetXpress SL2000 NT Embedded-based thin-client device are the most likely candidates for Lab testing, the really interesting market for this software is in infrastructure products such as routers or even set-top boxes. Although the ability to use the same tools and a common code set to manage your network server and network routers has a certain logic, before NT Embedded can make a dent in a market that uses dozens of proprietary OSs—primarily flavors of UNIX—a certain amount of time must pass. To convince infrastructure-product vendors that a market exists for NT-only versions of their products, a proven, reliable OS that you can reboot quickly, combined with the simplified management that an embedded version of NT can offer, is necessary. As far as the set-top market goes, some vendors are already moving standard NT and NT Embedded into that market. But set-top boxes aren't targeted only at corporations (unless your business is building those devices).

If you run a hard-core NT shop and your future development plans include embedded control systems or the need for a realtime OS, VenturCom likely has the tools you need to stay in the NT family. Only time will tell whether a large enough realtime NT market exists to make the OS a viable solution outside the NT loyalist camp.