Linux Embedded in Motherboards

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This article was published by ComputorEdge, issue #2544, 2007-11-02, in the "Linux Link" column, in both their print edition (on pages 18-19) and their website.

Viruses. Spyware. Trojan horses. Disk failures. Operating system bloat. Overly long boot-up times. What do all of these banes of the computing world have in common? No, the answer isn't "Windows!"

A common characteristic of all of these problems, is the hard drive — or, more generally, the ability of the computer to save and later read applications and data using a nonvolatile storage device. Nowadays, that means magnetic hard drives. (In the earlier days of personal computers, that meant diskettes. In the future, it will likely mean flash drives, to a growing extent.)

While hard drives have provided and will continue to provide incalculable value to those of us whose business and personal lives would be barely functional without a computer, they also make possible the dreaded software that taxes your sanity. But enough about the Beast from Redmond. Are there any solutions to these problems with the same level of effectiveness as "nuke from orbit"?

How about getting rid of the hard drive itself? This can be done, and not necessarily by tossing the entire computer out the window, though at times that may seem like an attractive option.

Through the use of Web e-mail services, such as Gmail, as well as other Web-based applications, it is easier than ever to get work done without relying upon local storage on a hard drive. The most common way to do that now is with the use of a "live" Linux CD, which contains a complete operating system on a bootable CD. There are many flavors of Linux — known as "distributions" or "distros" — that are available as live CDs, including Ubuntu, which is currently the most popular Linux distro.

But now there is an even more extreme solution possible, involving no magnetic or optical drives whatsoever.

Mobo Mojo

Over the years, hardware manufacturers have continued to pack more capabilities onto the motherboard ("mobo"), most of which had previously required separate cards. Examples include cards dedicated to video, sound, and network functionality. Yet throughout this evolution of the increasingly powerful motherboard, the hard drive was essential for storing the operating system.

That era may be coming to an end, due to the efforts of motherboard manufacturers to embed an entire operating system — invariably Linux — within the motherboard itself. ASUS is pioneering this trend with its P5E3 Deluxe/WiFi-AP@n motherboard, which offers a range of worthy features, including unparalleled energy efficiency, fanless heat dissipation (and thus lower temperatures), image display optimization, and more.

Perhaps the most groundbreaking feature of all is the ASUS Express Gate, which allows the user the option of booting their PC in only five seconds. This rivals the instant-on advantage formerly only enjoyed by PDAs. But a PC equipped with a P5E3 Deluxe motherboard allows one to do that immediate Web surfing on a much larger and more readable screen, and with a keyboard whose keys' size match the fingers of regular humans, and not Lilliputians.

The Express Gate uses a Linux desktop named SplashTop, developed by DeviceVM. Incorporated into this embedded Linux environment, is a Web browser, namely, a rebranded version of Firefox. It also includes a Voice over IP (VoIP) client, thus allowing the customer to make inexpensive phone calls, including long-distance ones.

Goodness Baked In

There are many advantages to having a robust operating system, such as Linux, built right into the motherboard itself. The instant-on capability would be especially convenient for those times when your PC is not running, and you simply want to check something quickly on the Web, or make a VoIP phone call, without going through the laborious process of booting up your PC from the hard drive, and waiting for all of the background services and other startup processes to finish loading.

If your PC is running embedded Linux, then no viruses or other forms of malware can infect your system long-term — and that's not just because the majority of malware is targeted at Windows users. Most forms of malware will not function if not stored on a hard drive — either as a stand-alone application or infecting a legitimate one. With no hard drive required to run embedded Linux, there's no way for malware to get itself saved anywhere on the computer.

Other advantages of doing without a hard drive include: eliminating the cost of purchasing one in the first place, putting an end to its endless noise (oftentimes the most annoying component of a PC's total noise produced), or worrying about the hard drive failing and taking with it precious data that could have instead been stored on a more secure and reliable Web server.

A Half-Baked Idea?

Even though embedded Linux motherboards have just recently been introduced to the marketplace, some criticism has already been leveled against them. Some people point out that if customers are limited to Web-based functionality, such as Web browsing and VoIP, then they will miss out on so much of what else computers can offer, including installable games and other robust applications that make the most of the typical PC's resources.

Also, on a diskless system, one cannot save documents and data from the Internet — at least in electronic form, since one can still presumably send those items directly to one's printer. But proponents of Linux-embedded motherboards counter that that is the whole point: Much of what gets saved from the Internet nowadays, such as malware, the typical computer user is better off without.

Regardless of the arguments on both sides, no one would disagree that motherboards with built-in operating systems are an inevitable development in the computer world, and will see greater applications and use in the future.

Copyright © 2007 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.