The U.S. military is on the verge of stepping out of the 1970s and into a new era of computing. Researchers at the Office of Naval Research (ONR) along with Dr. Binoy Ravindaran, an engineering professor at Virginia Tech, have developed a proof-of-concept operating system called Popcorn Linux. The new OS will be more powerful, less vulnerable, speed up system development, and cut maintenance time.
With support from the Office of Naval Research (ONR), Dr. Binoy Ravindran, an engineering professor at Virginia Tech, has designed a system that could revolutionize how military and commercial computing systems perform.
It’s called Popcorn Linux—an operating system that can compile different programming languages into a single cyber tongue.
“By applying Popcorn Linux to longtime, legacy Navy and Marine Corps computer systems, we can improve software without requiring thousands of man-hours to rewrite millions of lines of code,” said Dr. Wen Masters, head of ONR’s C4ISR Department. “This could yield significant savings in maintenance costs.”
Crunching huge amounts of data for complex applications like battlespace awareness and artificial intelligence requires extremely powerful processing. Unfortunately, many of the processors capable of this speak their own specialized software programming languages—and must be programmed to interact with each other.
To increase computing speed, microchip manufacturers in recent years have placed multiple processing units on individual chips. Take the iPhone 7, for example, which has four processors—two high-power (think of a Ford Mustang) and two low-power (think of a Toyota Prius)—to simultaneously dial phone numbers, open web pages, check text messages and take photos and videos.
That involves designating specialized “heterogeneous” processors to carry out specific tasks, like displaying graphics or web browsing. Each processor can be devoted to one specialty, rather than divided among several functions, resulting in much better, faster performance.
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The key to increasing computing power is specialization of processors (heterogeneous processors), but in the past because processors have physically separate components and use different languages, developers have been forced to spend thousands of man-hours in coding to get the processors communicating across systems. This is done every time a new feature or update is added.
Popcorn Linux will serve as a translating tool for these systems. It can be used on any computer or device solving the language barrier that exists today. The new OS will help the military break through the physical limitations it faces with processing huge amounts of data for complex applications like battlespace awareness and artificial intelligence.
Below is an excerpt from Naval Science & Technology: Future Force.
Popcorn Linux’s benefits also apply to legacy naval applications without requiring thousands of man-hours to rewrite millions of lines of code. Programs such as the Aegis Weapons Control System can be migrated onto heterogeneous-ISA hardware with very minimal changes to source codes. This can yield significant savings in maintenance costs, the biggest cost driver in the software life cycle. In addition, the Popcorn Linux software stack can enhance application performance, which can result in significant improvements in many Aegis-specific metrics such as enhanced target tracking and faster engagement times. Popcorn Linux also could be used for security purposes—traditionally, attackers exploit application flaws to gain control inside of an already-running application. These exploits are most often specific to the ISA on which the application is executing. By switching between ISAs, would-be attackers and their hand-crafted exploits would be rendered useless. Using Popcorn Linux, Navy system administrators would be able to detect and react to attacks on the system.
The future of processor design is heterogeneous. Processor designers have begun creating specialized chips tailored to different types of tasks, but programming heterogeneous computer systems today is tedious and difficult for developers, especially for organizations such as the Navy that have a significant legacy code base. To enable easier application development and allow legacy applications to exploit the benefits offered by next-generation processors, the Popcorn Linux project moves ISA handling down into the software infrastructure. Applications can seamlessly take advantage of the benefits without the headaches of complex software design. This will allow the Navy to future proof software for future hardware refreshes.
cycles. This begs the question: how can Navy developers take advantage of the benefits offered by next-generation heterogeneous processors without rewriting applications from the ground up?
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