Computers have become a taken for granted part of our everyday world. They are on our desks, they are in our phones, our cars and even our TV’s. But what works on our desk is not a good fit in space. It is a hostile environment, and it is pretty difficult to respond to a ‘hit any key to continue’ message when the computer is many millions of miles away.

NASA is well known in the computer world for having a high rate of excellence in their software, but NASA wants to write programs that dig in the Martian ground and analyze the dirt. It does not want to be in the Operating System world. For that they rely on outside experts. In the case of Curiosity and the other assets on mars that role is fulfilled by Wind River and their VxWorks operating system.

Mike Deliman of Wind River was kind enough to agree to an interview. Mike is a pretty interesting man, there is little doubt that he is a serious Computer geek. I suspect that as a young child his first words were not Moma or Dada, but Rama and Data! OK I am jesting, what Mike brings to the table is a great deal of knowledge, but does it in a way that us mere mortals can understand.

The Curiosity Rover (Mars Science Laboratory)  is by far the most ambitious rover ever.


I love this Lego version!

And at the heart of it are two computers, both run VxWorks, and both contain multiple copies of VxWorks on chips. With a project like Curiosity it is important to have backup systems, they call it ‘redundancy’.

What I find interesting is that few people have ever heard of Wind River, they are a very low profile company. Yet there is a good chance that you have a copy of VxWorks in your possession.  It may be in your car running the anti lock braking system, it may be in your cable TV box, your Internet modem, or your router. Mike Deliman estimates that there are in excess of a billion instances of VxWorks in active use.

Why do people use it? Because it just works. Wind River has been around since 1981, and VxWorks has been the Meat and Potatoes!

Mike Deliman describes VxWorks as ‘mature’, but do not take that to mean ‘Old’, the company has around 2000 employees, they have offices in over 20 countries, and of the 2000 employees over half are serious computer geeks working on the software development.

It is not often that you get the opportunity to talk to someone like Mike Deliman, If you missed the live radio interview, you can listen to the recording here.

You will discover why there are no ‘Blue Screens Of Death’ on Mars or anywhere else that Wind River roves!

Simon Barrett

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