In embedded systems, a lifetime is a long time

By Bill Graham


300px-NASA_Mars_Rover The recent news about the demise of the Mars Rover Spirit (Mike Deliman blogged about this last week) and comments about how it succeeded its mission many times over, got me thinking about just how long product lifetimes are for embedded products (see "End of Mars mission: Way beyond warranty" by Bob McDonald at the CBC). In many industries using embedded software to control devices, the expected lifespan is decades which contrasts sharply to consumer devices where either software is upgraded constantly or we dispose of the device in a few years. On the other hand, embedded systems often exceed originally planned lifespans many times over. Case in point is the Mars Rover program, where Spirit operated six years beyond its original mission plan and rover Opportunity continues operation, surviving a harrowing journey and landing and a harsh Martian environment for so many years.

The point here is that these types of embedded systems, mission critical software needs to operate flawlessly not for days at a time (Mars is a long way for a service call!) but continuously for decades. Because of this, its important the software platform is rock solid and can be supported for the lifespan of the product. It boils down to risk management. Programs like the Mars rovers had so many other risks in the hardware, the delivery system, landing and operation that it makes sense to reduce risk wherever possible. From the software perspective, risk reduction is possible by going with a proven and reliable software platform, so at least the developers don't need to re-invent the wheel with a custom operating system, device drivers, middleware and homegrown tools. Wind River has a long relationship with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and that trust and long term support has given the Mars Rover team the confidence they needed to trust an off-the-shelf solution.

We are sad to hear of the loss of rover Spirit but we're proud to be part of such a great space exploration success. We're equally proud to work with JPL and to have built up such a strong relationship with them. Indeed, lifespans of teams, relationships and products are often longer than anyone predicts.