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Internet of Things May 2018 Viewpoints

Technology Analyst: Guy Garrud

Microsoft Launches IoT Platform

Why is this topic significant?

Internet of Things applications suffer from having a large potential attack surface for malicious actors. IoT security requires radical reassessment of the software and hardware used in small peripheral devices.

Description

In April 2018, Microsoft announced its new platform for IoT devices, Azure Sphere. The platform comprises three aspects: hardware, software, and cloud support.

Microsoft's hardware element is a microcontroller that incorporates microprocessor cores, memory, input/output, and wireless connectivity. The microcontroller has a separate core: the Pluton security coprocessor, which is inaccessible to application software and protected by hardware firewalls. The Pluton core acts to ensure only authorized firmware updates are added to the system, controls encryption when communicating with the Azure cloud platform, and is the only core with access to the Wi-Fi hardware.

Microsoft's chips run the Linux-based Azure Sphere OS, which runs application software and communicates with the Pluton core. The software is also designed for easy communication between the device and Microsoft's Azure Sphere Security Service—a cloud-based platform that monitors devices for errors, pushes bug fixes and other security updates, and mediates secure communication between a device and all other connected systems.

Microsoft doesn't sell chips but rather is offering royalty-free designs to chip manufacturers that can then market the devices to diverse product developers. Semiconductor designers and manufacturers are also free to add functions and value to the microcontrollers to produce highly integrated system-on-chip (SoC) products. Microsoft plans to have developer kits available in the summer of 2018 and anticipates that MediaTek will ship the first commercial version of the chips by the end of the year.

Implications

Updating, patching, and otherwise maintaining IoT devices is a major challenge. In particular, ensuring the security updates are carried out swiftly, even for small, low-power devices, is an important aspect of ensuring the overall security of an IoT system. Microsoft's designs appear well suited to the needs of IoT applications. Segregating control of wireless connectivity to a core that is nominally separated from application software should offer a high degree of security, in addition to enabling easy firmware updates.

Microsoft's move to offer its design free to chipmakers feels like a potential territory grab. Few such highly integrated IoT-security solutions are currently available. The chips are tailored to interface with Microsoft's Azure cloud platform, which might evolve to handle substantial amounts of IoT traffic. Though chipmakers will apparently pay no design royalties, product developers will likely need to pay Microsoft for the use of Azure Sphere Security Service. Imaginably, Microsoft could also benefit from the data it handles if said data aren't end-to-end encrypted.

Impacts/Disruptions

Microsoft is making an aggressive move by offering a chip design that's well suited to IoT-device developers' needs. Chip manufacturers may offer competing products that aren't tied in to Microsoft's cloud services, although in doing so, those manufacturers may need to take steps to avoid infringing on Microsoft's intellectual property.

As is often the case, early adopters will likely be at increased risk of encountering compatibility issues later on, but Microsoft remains one of the largest tech companies in the world and consequently may be seen by device developers and end users as a safe bet. The company is unlikely to disappear in the short to medium term and will likely provide ongoing support for Azure Sphere–based devices for the foreseeable future.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: High

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: Now to 5 Years

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

Product development, electronics manufacturing, software development, IT-systems design, system-on-chip design and manufacturing

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas:

Net-Neutrality Update

Why is this topic significant?

Internet access is a fundamental component of the Internet of Things. Net-neutrality rules prevent service providers from prioritizing certain kinds of data traffic over others and the presence or absence of such rules can have a strong shaping effect on IoT platforms.

Description

In December 2017, the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to partially repeal the 2015 Open Internet Order. The Order had classified data services as common carriers—a legal term that means the services had only limited abilities to impair traffic or refuse to do business with a customer. In nations that observe common law, common carriers include trucking companies, airlines, railroads, and wired-telephone services. These organizations are free to set charges in accord with how customers use their services (transporting video is more costly than transporting audio), but they cannot favor or discriminate against particular customers or the specific content of their messages.

Following the FCC repeal, 21 state attorneys general filed a suit against the FCC's action. In addition, public-interest groups, including the Open Technology Institute, Free Press, and Public Knowledge, launched lawsuits against the FCC's decision. Several cities and states, most notably the state of California, also began enacting local legislation to create protections similar to those removed with the partial repeal of the Open Internet Order.

Implications

The future of net neutrality in the United States, at both federal and state levels, will likely be determined in courts of law. Internationally, the status of net-neutrality legislation is somewhat more clear. For example, the European Union enacted Europe-wide net-neutrality regulations in 2015, and Russia and India did likewise in 2016. Overall, some form of net neutrality is all but certain to persist in many nations.

Enabling paid preferential treatment for data would mean that companies could use different data channels for different forms of data. For example, mission-critical systems such as a temperature sensor in a data center could be placed on a higher priority than data from temperature sensors in an office or canteen. That said, high-tech companies see net neutrality as important for keeping smaller players competitive. For example, in the absence of net neutrality, large companies might well be able to pay extra fees to avoid traffic impairments, but start-ups may not be able to afford to do so and could face throttling of important data.

In some IoT applications, reliability of connection is likely to be more important than availability of bandwidth. For example, remote battery-powered sensor nodes may have sufficient energy to send a data packet only once, and companies may be willing to pay a premium rate (or they may have no alternative) to ensure such signals are reliably received and transmitted, even if the devices transmit only a small amount of data.

Impacts/Disruptions

By enabling companies to pay for preferential treatment for data associated with mission-critical systems, the dismantling of net-neutrality protections could represent a boon to some IoT platforms. However, even if individual US states don't enact different interpretations of net neutrality, international operations will inevitably mean interacting with territories that have strong net-neutrality rules or different sets of rules. IoT-platform providers may then have a strong motivator to ensure their platforms operate effectively even in regions with strictly enforced net-neutrality rules.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: High

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: Now to 5 Years

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

Telecommunications-equipment manufacturing, home and business services, backbone services, cloud services

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas: