Intel buys Wind River to push Linux

Intel will use Wind River products to optimize software for embedded and mobile chips

Intel's acquisition of Wind River on Thursday is a strong push by the chip maker to extend Linux support across devices that use its processors, analysts said.

Intel agreed to buy Wind River for US$884 million. The acquisition should help both Intel's prominence in the Linux space and its efforts to push the OS in smartphones and mobile Internet devices, analysts said. Wind River offers embedded Linux operating systems and is a leader in software design tools for devices such as smartphones.

"While [Intel] competes with many vendors in doing so, it may also be trying to counter the buzz and momentum in the space around Android from Google and the Open Handset Alliance," said Jay Lyman, an enterprise software analyst with The 451 Group.

Intel has been throwing more of its weight behind Linux and its efforts to consolidate the disparate versions of the OS, Lyman said. The company is working on Moblin v2.0, a version of Linux for mobile devices and netbooks, for which it released a beta version in May. It is also working with Canonical on Ubuntu Netbook Remix, a flavor of Linux for netbooks.

Intel's Atom processor was designed for mobile devices and netbooks and it recently announced derivatives of that Atom chip for embedded devices. It also opened up Atom's design to other chip designers through a deal announced in March with Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company. The company is trying to catch up with rival Arm, whose low-power chip designs go into most cell phones and smartphones today.

To sell more chips, Intel needs to provide software tools, and acquiring Wind River could give it much-needed credibility in the embedded and mobile space, analysts said. Products like Wind River's compilers could help Intel optimize software to work with low-power x86 chips.

"The company seems to be interested in the broader mobile and embedded software space, which continues to embrace Linux," Lyman said. "Intel is obviously moving more aggressively into both software and mobile and embedded devices, so this acquisition fits both of those."

Wind River's acquisition could be a step to filling the software side of Intel's recent push to develop integrated chips that could fit into new products like set-top boxes and TVs, said Dean McCarron, principal analyst with Mercury Research.

"Intel already had quite a bit of embedded software expertise, and a bit of the motivation was to ramp that up," McCarron said. Wind River's products fit right into Intel's software offerings, which include compilers and tools like Vtune that analyzes and optimizes software performance. Compilers are a key to optimizing software for execution on the x86 processor instruction set, McCarron said.

Beyond mobile and embedded processors, the chip maker could also extend Wind River's technology to high-end multicore processors like Intel's Larrabee graphics chip, McCarron said. Wind River and Intel already collaborate to deliver software tools for multicore systems.

A recent programming challenge has been writing software for simultaneous execution across multiple cores and Wind River's products can translate program code to loop tasks across multiple processors.

"Intel is working on chips that enable symmetric multiprocessing, I wonder if there is a connection there," McCarron said. "Given that Larrabee is running its own internal OS, there may be a tie-in related to the OS."

The Larrabee graphics processor uses an array of X86 cores with vector processors, and a chip-level operating system is needed to coordinate software execution across those cores. Right now the chip uses BSD (Berkeley Software Distribution), a flavor of the Unix OS, internally to coordinate processing, and Wind River's products could be used to optimize software -- like games -- to work effectively.

"It greatly eases the load on people writing the code," McCarron.

Only time will tell if Intel winds up paying too much to acquire Wind River, but the planned acquisition is an exercise by Intel to provide the right mix of products to push chips into new devices and markets, analysts said. Intel's consumers want to get higher software performance from the chip.

The planned acquisition is not about Intel taking aim at its competitors, in McCarron's view. "This is not targeting any company. It is more about controlling your destiny and having the right ingredients," McCarron said.

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