Software's total Eclipse

NASA, others find the open-source Eclipse development program is a working foundation for apps

POWER UP: When NASA launches a new space system, such as the Mars Rover, the Jet Propulsion Lab turns to Eclipse to help develop the supporting software.

Joab

Drudgery. We all have our share of mundane chores. For the software engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, one of the duller duties has been building infrastructure support for their in-house programs.

The team doesn't spend all its working hours slinging code. But whenever the lab builds a new remote-controlled terrain vehicle or some other type of robotic system, these engineers work up the control software.

They're fiendishly good at it, too. They love the challenge of designing control systems.

It's building all the other stuff that every good program should include'help messages, error handling, user interfaces and the like'that bores them silly.

The programming work is repetitive and the results, more often than not, are rudimentary.

'There is a lot that goes into developing a useful program, and a small portion of that is what we are experts in,' said Jeff Norris, supervisor of JPL's planning software systems group.

Lately, though, the team has eliminated a lot of the drudgery of designing programs by building them on a foundation that already handles common tasks: the open-source Eclipse Rich Client Platform.

And that's not all. Most people who've heard of Eclipse think of it as an integrated development environment that software programmers use to write applications. In JPL's case, however, developers aren't merely building programs on Eclipse'the programs actually run on Eclipse itself.

Eclipse did indeed start out as an IDE, said Mike Milinkovich, executive director of the Eclipse Foundation. Around the turn of the decade, IBM Corp. set its developers to building a Java IDE, one the Java development community could coalesce around.

In their wisdom, however, the original developers built Eclipse in such a way that it could not only serve as an IDE for Java, but also as a base for other programming languages. In a short time, developers made Eclipse plugs-ins for C++, Ruby, Perl and PHP IDEs as well. The IBM developers also designed Eclipse as an extensible program, one in which components could be easily added or removed.

'It is a framework that can be extended in ways that, frankly, we can't imagine today,' said Eclipse evangelist Wayne Beaton, who spoke at the Boston LinuxWorld conference earlier this year. In addition to IDEs, developers began to make plug-ins for manipulating databases and building business intelligence reports. The General Services Administration's CIO office uses Eclipse as a base for an integrated modeling environment, one that bridges an agency's enterprise architecture with more technical models.

Modular platform

What allows developers to easily bolt things onto the Eclipse platform is the software's modularity. The program uses the Open Systems Gateway Initiative model (www.osgi.org) to define the interfaces among components. Like the popular Transformer series of kids' toys, Eclipse can change shapes based on the owner's whims.

'If you make it easy for people to extend the platform in the direction they need to extend it, they will do so. And that brings more energy and use to the platform,' Milinkovich said.

Increasingly, IT shops have discovered the value of Eclipse, especially those without large teams of developers versed in the complexities of .NET or J2EE.

'One of things users really like about Eclipse is that they can just plug in those additional capabilities that they need,' said Michael Goulde, senior analyst covering open source for Forrester Research Inc. of Cambridge, Mass. 'You pay for what you need, and nothing more. That is a really strong appeal.'

In 2001 IBM open-sourced Eclipse and started the Eclipse Foundation, a not-for-profit organization funded by IBM and other companies to support volunteer developers. (Eclipse itself can be downloaded for free from the Eclipse.org site).

In last year's Eclipse 3.0 release, the Foundation offered a configuration called the Eclipse Rich Client Platform, or RCP. All the IDE development modules were removed, and what was left was a core set of modules for running programs. One RCP module registers other modules, another module handles user interfaces, another offers a help system, and still another handles automatically updating the other plug-ins.

'What the RCP provides IT groups is a platform for building, deploying, and managing rich user experience desktop applications,' Milinkovich said.

Before RCP, programmers used the Eclipse IDE to simply write the source code of a program. Once they compiled the resulting code into executable binaries, Eclipse was no longer used. The Eclipse RCP, however, serves as the very chassis for new programs.

At NASA, the advantage of using such a platform was clear to Norris. By using Eclipse, his team was able to offload the infrastructure duties to the platform. Why write a user interface when an existing module could take care of the task? And instead of worrying about which operating system to write their programs for, why not use Eclipse as a cross-system platform for all current and future OSes that NASA might use? (See sidebar, above, for more on Eclipse as a rich client platform.)

'Using an extensible framework like Eclipse, you can entrust a large portion of that kind of stuff to an organization that specializes in it,' Norris said. 'We're more than happy to turn over those functions to someone who knows better, and that frees us to spend more of our resources on something we really care about.'

NASA operates about eight different applications on Eclipse, Norris said. One program controls the NASA rovers now scurrying about on Mars. A panel in the Eclipse window shows a photograph of the current location of the rover, while another shows a map of the general area in which the vehicle operates. The operator can also scan thumbnails of photographs taken at previous locations. All three of these panels were developed separately from one another, yet they all are yoked together through OSGI specifications.

The JPL also used Eclipse to build software for the Scout Lander, another set of rovers that will be sent to the Red Planet next year. In addition to the Mars vehicles, JPL is always building a number of experimental robotic systems at any given time, many of which will also be controlled by Eclipse, Norris noted.

In addition to NASA, a number of commercial software companies use Eclipse for their own applications. IBM uses it as the basis for its Rational line of modeling and architecture applications. Business Objects of San Jose, Calif., uses Eclipse as a platform for its report generation software. Germany-based Software AG uses Eclipse for its Crossvision suite of service-oriented architecture applications.

Build your own platform

Eclipse's extensible nature has also started JPL down the path of building its own platform, one uniquely suited to its own tasks. Norris' group has created Ensemble, a plug-in that can be placed on top of Eclipse for NASA mission operations-specific tasks.

'You can think of it as a veneer around Eclipse that makes the general toolkit more specific to mission operations,' Norris said. Now, instead of rewriting certain controlling functions for each new program, NASA programmers can simply tap into their own set of reusable tools.

And observers point out that NASA isn't alone.

'What we tend to see people doing is ... start by building their applications on top of the Eclipse RCP,' Beaton said. 'After they have built a couple of projects, they start to see this crossover between projects. Certain elements are repeated. So they extract those repeated components and build their own platform, which does their own domain-specific thing. And then their applications are based on their own platforms.'

It's an approach to reusable software development that agencies and their contractors are likely to emulate.

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