Virginia Tech & ONR develop operating system to improve computing power

ARLINGTON, Va. Virginia Tech with support from the Office of Naval Research (ONR) developed an operating system that can compile different programming languages into a single cyber tongue called Popcorn Linux.

"By applying 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 ," say Dr. Wen Masters, head of 's C4ISR Department. "This could yield significant savings in maintenance costs."

Popcorn is still a proof-of-concept prototype created by Dr. Binoy Ravindran, an engineering professor at Virginia Tech, and his students. However the system is about to enter a new phase of development.

"In our lab and academic setting, we've demonstrated that Popcorn Linux works well with respect to performance speed and power usage," says Ravindran. "Later this year, we'll work with industry partners to create a version of Popcorn Linux that can meet the strenuous industrial standards required by the Navy and Marine Corps."

Increased processing requirements are driving microchip manufacturers to place multiple processing units on individual chips. In addition, analyzing huge amounts of data for complex applications like battlespace awareness and artificial intelligence requires extremely powerful processing. Many of the processors capable of this, speak their own specialized software and must be programmed to interact with each other.

That involves designating specialized "heterogeneous" processors to carry out specific tasks that include 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.

"Before, each processor was like one handyman re-modeling your entire bathroom," explains Dr. Sukarno Mertoguno, the ONR program officer sponsoring Ravindran's research. "Heterogeneous processors, by contrast, represent an actual plumber installing the pipes and an actual painter painting the walls. Each processor has a specialty."

This specialization has "language" barriers. For example, each processor has its own set of instructions that only it understands. To address this, software developers must manually adjust code to determine which tasks should run on which processors.

"This is especially true for Navy and Marine Corps software systems," says Ravindran. "Many of these legacy systems were built in the 1970s or earlier, have numerous security patches and millions of lines of code, and represent a huge investment of time and money. How can Navy developers enjoy the benefits of next-generation heterogeneous processors without rewriting applications from scratch?"

The answer came with Ravindran's Popcorn Linux. It can be used with any computer or device, and serves as a translation tool. From there, Popcorn Linux automatically figures out what pieces of the programming code are needed to perform particular tasks and transfers these instruction "kernels" (the "popcorn" part) to the appropriate function.

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