One billion Devices, One OS

Writing the low-level software powering the multibillion dollar a year mobile phone market?

Open Kernel Labs

Open Kernel Labs are developing and marketing the cutting-edge OKL4 microkernel that's already powering billions of mobile phones, and their main source of talent is here at UNSW Computing.

"These days, a modern smart phone runs a complete operating system such as Linux or Windows," says Gernot Heiser, Scientia Professor and John Lions Chair in Computer Science and Chief Technology Officer, OK Labs. "It's a PC in the shape of a mobile phone."

The complexity of mobile phones present some unique efficiency and security requirements. "Mobile phones get hijacked, you could turn the thing into a jammer and Bluetooth viruses mean you can cause distributed denial of service attacks," says Gernot.

Indeed, high profile mobile phone hacking is only becoming more prevalent as phones increase in complexity. The strong defence against such attacks is based on internal protection boundaries in the phone's software. Providing such protection at minimal performance cost is the strength of the L4 microkernels Gernot's research produced and which was then commercialised by OK Labs.

The technology was adopted by leading mobile wireless chipset maker Qualcomm, which resulted in OKL4 shipping in phones from HTC, Motorola, Toshiba, Sony Ericsson, Samsung, LG and others, including most Android phones available to date.

Gernot built his team through his Advanced Operating Systems course and moved the research from UNSW to NICTA—a Government funded research institute. "At one stage I had 14 PhD students, all of whom have come through the Advanced OS course", he says. "They called it Gernot's PhD trap. We've also had some really smart second years involved. Now AOS graduates make up the majority of OK's engineering staff, as well as forming the backbone of on-going NICTA research in trustworthy embedded systems. For the students, getting hands-on and in-depth experience with this highly-successful locally-grown technology is some of the coolest stuff you can think of."