BlackBerry: Understanding QNX

Mar.18.13 | About: BlackBerry Ltd. (BBRY)

QNX is often touted as one of the biggest advantages of the BlackBerry (NASDAQ:BBRY) 10 operating software. These advantages include improved portability and security of the OS. However, there seems to be a lack of in-depth knowledge about how it really works to make for a secure system. This article attempts to explain the merits of a QNX operating system and the case for a long-term investment perspective for BlackBerry.

A Brief History

Originally developed by QNX Software Systems, Research in Motion acquired the company in April 2010. Research in Motion wasted no time putting their new acquisition to use, and within the same year, released the BlackBerry Playbook tablet running the QNX operating software.

In October 2011, Research in Motion announced "BBX" which was later renamed BlackBerry 10. The BlackBerry 10 builds upon the original QNX-based operating system and in addition, adapts to a touchscreen user interface for devices such as smartphones and tablets.

Understanding QNX

The main differentiating feature of QNX is that, it is a microkernel-based OS. To understand microkernels, we first have to understand kernels.

Essentially, kernels are the little Lego pieces that make up the operating system. The operating system allows the user to use applications on a phone/tablet because it is the bridge that manages the communication between the applications and the hardware of a device. The operating software is responsible for many functions, including managing memory, process and task management, disk management, device driver, protocol stacks and file systems.

When operating software is being developed, there are different philosophies the designer can adopt within a spectrum. At one end is the monolithic kernel, whereby all the responsibilities of an operating system are lumped into a single operating system file.

(click to enlarge)Monolithic vs. Microkernal based Operating Systems. In a Microkernal based OS, only the minimum functions required to run the system are included.Click to enlarge

At the other end of the spectrum, in a microkernel-based system OS, only the minimum functions of the OS are included into the file. The microkernel is considered to be more compact, portable and agile because it performs only the basic functions required to run the device. Typically, the functions included in the OS are those that are universal to all computers. The more traditional functions of the operating system not included in the microkernel are those such as device drivers, protocol stacks and file systems, which run in the user space (outside the microkernel). For this reason, the microkernel OS system is described as minimalistic, clean and logical.

Thus, advantages a microkernel has to offer over a monolithic kernel are therefore quite obvious; one can replace and restart drivers, file systems and so forth on the fly, without having to shutdown the entire system. Also, when part of the operating system crashes, it does not bring down the entire system, because the crashed part is outside of kernelspace.

As an analogy, imagine a large steak that has to be served in a week. In a monolithic kernel system, the entire steak is put into a fridge to store (a single operating system file). If the steak were to spoil, the entire steak would be no good, and have to be thrown away. On the other hand, when the steak is divided into several pieces and placed into different fridges, even if one of the pieces spoils, the other pieces will be still be fine.

How BlackBerry will thrive

The benefits of a microkernel based OS system have far-reaching implications. For mission critical processes, having a crash-proof system is absolutely vital.

In the wake of security breaches, such as the recent hack on Twitter, which affected 250,000 users, senior vice president of BlackBerry OS Sebastien Marineau believes that there will be a 'day of reckoning'.

"A day of reckoning will come. Because as more and more of our lives migrate from desktops and laptops to mobile devices, we will have to solve the problems around security, privacy, anonymity, access to data. If we want this true seamlessness between devices, it means that the underlying plumbing has to share all this data and the only way to do it is going to be to actually solve these hard problems. I am sure there will be some spectacular security breaches - and then people will wake up."

As a result, we see the use of microkernel-based OS prevalent within the corporate community for enterprise planning systems, hospital equipment such as MRI scanners, military applications, nuclear power plants and parts of the International Space Station.

As smartphones pack stronger processors and become more powerful, the main use of mobile devices will no longer be to make phone calls. BlackBerry is envisioning a future of mobile computing, where distinguishing between computers and smartphones becomes increasingly difficult. From anywhere around the world, in the portability of your pocket, a full-blown computer will be at your access. For this to become a reality, security becomes an issue of vital importance.

QNX has stood the test of time and its microkernel is easy to understand. "If you look at the microkernel architecture, the microkernel is the only trusted component in the system," he explains. "It's the one thing that can never fail and it gets to control access. In the case of our microkernel it's about 100,000 lines of code, give or take ten thousand and that's the core code that has to be absolutely bullet proof. If you look at something like Linux, I don't know what it's up to today but it was up to 14 million lines six months ago. That code all runs in privileged space and one line in that can take down the whole system or be the vulnerability that people exploit. It's very difficult to test to prove that that amount of code is secure and bug free."


In the short-term horizon, many investors are awaiting the fourth quarter results due on March 28. Looking beyond that, if BlackBerry 10 is able to fend off the masses of skeptical media hype and short speculation within the near future, their proprietary QNX operating system will certainly have the opportunity to thrive in many broad based applications in a world hungry for technological security.

Disclosure: I am long BBRY. I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it. I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.