Is Azure Sphere the Rebirth of Microsoft HomeOS?
Microsoft last month announced the general availability of Azure Sphere, an end-to-end connected home solution. Azure sphere, according to Microsoft is an integrated security solution for IoT (Internet of Things) devices and equipment. A solution that will form the based for the development and deployment of secure connected devices. The idea is, if connected home devices and services are developed on a secure base and supported by an active platform then the increasing risks to connected home and its occupants will be less.
Microsoft has been knocking on the connected home market door for a long time. If you have been following this site or the connected home sector for some time you would remember Microsoft HomeOS released in 2010 as an answer to the disjointed connected home ecosystem. HomeOS was meant to be the Windows operating system for the home, where you could easily add obtain applications that are compatible with devices in your homes and obtain any additional devices that would work seamlessly in our homes. HomeOS was also meant to simplified the development of connected home applications.
HomeOS didn’t take off as expected, so could it be that they took it back to the research lab and come back with Azure Sphere? Like HomeOS Azure Sphere has an OS (Operating System) component. However, Microsoft is proposing removing the Real-time Operating Systems (RTOS) on processors and replacing them with Azure Sphere OS. According to Microsoft, Azure Sphere OS unlike RTOSes offers multiple layers of security, which combines the best of Windows in a customised Linux kernel.
So far Microsoft has formed partnerships with chip manufactures such as Media Tek, NXP and Qualcomm. These partners are in the process of designing and building a new class of highly-secured, Internet-connected microcontroller (MCU) with Azure Sphere OS at its core. Some of these chips will feature advance capabilities, such as cellular, AI, vision and graphics. These variety of chips, according to Microsoft will allow OEM manufacturers to use Azure Sphere based chip in different devices.
Like HomeOS Azure Sphere allows development of new software solutions, developers can license Visual Studio and Microsoft’s Azure IoT services to develop apps for Sphere. Using the Azure Sphere SDK for Linux or Windows and samples and solutions open-sourced on GitHub, developers can deploy apps that make use of peripherals on Azure Sphere-certified microcontroller.
Where both solutions seem to differ are in Azure Sphere’s cloud infrastructure, end-to-end approach to security and centralise management. Microsoft said to develop Azure sphere they are, “Leveraging years of security experience, and learnings from across the tech industry.” From their research they have identified what they called, “The Seven Properties of Highly-Secure Devices”, and the need for a hardware root of trust to protect and defend the software on a device.
The root of trust is part of the multilayer security architecture starting with the chip manufacturer, because chips produced for Azure Sphere will be certified. These chips provide a foundation of security, starting in the silicon itself, and provide connectivity and compute power for these devices.
The cloud-based Azure Sphere security service is the next component that distinguishes Azure Sphere from HomeOS. This “security service connects with every single Azure Sphere chip, with every single Azure Sphere operating system, and works with the operating system and the chip to keep the device secured throughout its lifetime.”
The centralised management means Microsoft will be able to provide security updates to all connected Azure Sphere devices. To protect older or devices that don’t have the Azure Sphere chip, they have offering what they called the “guardian module.” These are Azure Sphere based devices will sit in front of these other devices to provide protection.
According to Microsoft, they have committed 15 years of research and $5 billion investment into intelligent edge innovation by 2022 and pledged to grow its IoT partner ecosystem to over 10,000. So far, they have introduced Azure IoT Central, a cloud service that enables customers to quickly provision and deploy IoT apps, and IoT Plug and Play. Microsoft’s investment has now produced Azure Sphere and Azure IoT Edge, which distributes cloud intelligence to run in isolation on IoT devices directly.
To me, this seems like they are taking another shot at creating the ideal operating system for the connected home. For all the work, money and time that they have invested lets hope it goes further than HomeOS did.