New Adventures In Real-Time : An Interview With Greg Bollella
Sugrue: Has the whole Blue Wonder project taken very long?
Bollella: That’s the interesting thing – what we’re trying to do is stay as close to off the shelf stuff as we possibly can, so that the real time Java on there is unmodified from our 2.0 release of the Sun Product version. The only two things we do different with Solaris are writing the new device driver for Profibus and we don’t install all the packages – we’re selective on the packages we install to keep the amount of disk and memory used down.
We’ve been able to build something to do more functionality than a PLC and include Java in there too.
Sugrue: Because it’s so easy in theory, is there anything stopping someone from taking your idea and the TimeSys implementation and producing their own version of Blue Wonder?
Bollella: The first thing is that they would have to get a real time Java implementation. Our RT Java is not open source, it’s a binary product. Java itself is open source so they could grab that and build an implementation of Real Time Java from that. Solaris is open source so they could take that. But it would be more work for them to do that.
They could partner with us, and get our implementation, or even partner with Aonix or IBM. It would be probably as straightforward for one of those companies to do it as it was for us. The thing is to get the JSR 1 implementation first.
Sugrue: Is this as far as Sun plan to go with Industrial Automation - providing this off the shelf PLC replacements and partnering with other companies.
Bollella: We do offer training and consulting for writing real time Java programs and engineering service kind of stuff. We’re helping a couple of customers port their existing systems to Blue Wonder/Java RTS. We’re helping some customers with greenfield implementations.
Sugrue: Industrial Automation is usually slow to take up new trends, and to change implementations- how did Java RTS change this?
Bolllella: That’s really true – not only are they slow to move technologies, but there are also a lot of entrenched interests who don’t want new technology to get in. But I think that what people are starting to see is that even in the entrenched automation companies like Allen Bradley, there’s a lot of push from their customers to get more visibility from the regular IT side of the company onto the factory floor. There’s a real gap between those two right now. Like I said, all of a sudden the control in the floor for automation, packaging or machine tools are really Solaris nodes, the gap is bridged. There’s no gateways between the layers or stuff like that. The CEO of a company could conceivably check the log from a PLC anywhere in the world (I doubt they’d want to do that exactly). That seamless integration is the driver, with the need to interconnect machines from different manufacturers.
There’s an effort for Sun to become a member of MT Connect (Machine Tools Connect.) – it’s a http based protocol that allows you to access a machine tool, which is a web server now, by URL. We’re working with them to see how BlueWonder plays. Now not only is it a web server, but it’s also a Solaris node – you really get a seamless integration between the world as the rest of us know it and the factory floor, which has before been completely separate.
Sugrue: Where did the name ‘Blue Wonder’ come from?
Bollella: It’s kind of a long story. All the projects that I’ve worked on I’ve named after bridges. I did my graduate work in North Carolina, where Fred Brooks (he wrote The Mythical Man Month) is on the faculty. Fred talks about how the cathedrals of Europe were interesting to the engineering community because they didn’t really know how to build them – it was all through trial and error. Yet there was a lot of customer demand for cathedrals so they kept trying – they fell down, they took a long time, they were really expensive.
The same thing applies to bridges. If you’ve read any books by Henry Petroski at Duke, To Engineer Is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design (1985), and things like that, he talks about the bridges in the UK. At one point when they moved from wooden truss bridges to iron bridges, after a while they collapsed a lot, and killed a lot of people. The little anecdote is that the Queen got so pissed about this, as she was losing subjects and tax dollars, that she went to the engineers academy to get them to fix this. The engineers didn’t know anything about metal fatigue, so they were having these catastrophic failures.
Building real time software systems, but especially distributed real time systems - we find them in places you wouldn’t expect. Every automobile that’s driving around less than 10 years old is really a distributed real time system. It just happens to have a second function as a car. Distributed Real-Time Systems are really hard to build and the engineering community doesn’t really know how to build them in a coherent repeatable way. My claim is that real time, and distributed real time systems are now occupying that same place in the engineering community that cathedrals did in the 1000s and bridges did in the 1800s and 1900’s.
So I’ve had Mackinac, Golden Gate, Royal Gorge and a new one called Gateshead. So, Blue Wonder is a bridge in Dresden, Germany.
Sugrue: Best place to have an automation related project come from really! So, where else is the Java Real Time System going?
Bollella: We had some press releases on this stuff. Reuters is using Java RTS as the implementation for their next generation, market facing application. This is really important for Reuters as it generates quite a bit of revenue for them. I’ve been helping them architect their new systems – their old system was written in Ada and it wasn’t going to meet the new requirements. So we do offer that consultant help.
We’re also working with a couple of automotive manufacturers at using BlueWonder to prototype some really interesting new automobiles. So BlueWonder will be in these cars and doing dynamic control for the vehicle. That’ll be a different form factor – for prototyping we used BlueWonder as seen at JavaONE, but if and when we go to production with them we’ll go to a smaller unit with fewer I/Os and different features and get the price down quite a bit.
There’s a military integrator we’re working with – they’re rebuilding the software for this really large radar in Florida that tracks objects way up in geosynchronous orbit, They turn this thing on and the lights dim in Florida! It’s based on IBM computers from decades ago – they can only get their hardware parts on ebay now.
If you look at OpenESB and the SOA model, there are uses for being able to give some of the messages going through the system the chance to meet their quality of service requirements, to get to their destination at the right time.
So it’s quite a range of things that we’re involved with really – from industrial automation, to finance, to military and back into more standard technologies like ESB and SOA.
Sugrue: Have you got a big group working on Java RTS?
Bollella: No - the reason we’re not a big group is because what we do is really modifying system products. So we took Java, turned it into Real Time Java. We took Real Time Java and Solaris, wrapped it up in hardware and turned it into BlueWonder. If you looked at the total R&D that went into Blue Wonder, you’d have to include the R&D time put into Java and Solaris. So in some sense you can add up Java and Solaris to our group, they contributed a significant amount to the effort as well and by that measure we’re a pretty big group.