Since its inception, Microsoft has focused on Windows in attempt to cram it into every conceivable form factor. That’s worked pretty well for computers, but not so much for phones. Now, Microsoft is trying its hand at the “Internet of Things,” or IoT. However, it’s giving up on making small, low-power devices run Windows. Instead, Microsoft’s Azure Sphere platform is based on Linux. That’s a first for Redmond.
Microsoft made its first ever Linux announcement at the recent RSA security conference. As IoT devices continue to flourish, there has been some concern about keeping them secure. There have already been several malware outbreaks that targeted smart home devices, which lack integrated security features. These attacks have forced IoT devices to participate in DDoS attacks and mine Bitcoin. Microsoft intends to make its Azure Sphere platform more secure by focusing on three different levels: hardware, software, and the cloud.
At the hardware level, Microsoft plans a series of Azure Sphere certified microcontrollers. The microcontroller is what gives your smart home devices the processing power to be “smart.” The custom microcontrollers will be designed by Microsoft Research and licensed royalty-free manufacturers. The first Azure Sphere chip, the MediaTek MT3620, will be available soon.
The software level is where Microsoft is going over to the dark side with Linux. Microsoft determined that Windows wouldn’t work as a base for IoT software, so it had little choice. The Azure Sphere OS uses a custom Linux kernel optimized for low-power devices, and there’s an integrated security monitor to protect from attacks.
In addition to the local hardware and software, Microsoft has the Azure Sphere Security Service, which lives in the cloud. It will perform certificate-based authentication for all device-to-device communications involving Azure Sphere technology. In addition, software updates will be pushed to Azure Sphere devices from the cloud, and Azure Sphere servers will monitor the entire ecosystem for potential security threats.
Microsoft has high hopes for the Azure Sphere platform. It will work with existing infrastructure providers, including Amazon AWS and Google Cloud, theoretically making it easy for developers to switch over. Microsoft President Brad Smith says he expects nine billion devices with microcontrollers to ship this year. They’ll be in smart switches, appliances, speakers, and even toys. If Microsoft can capture even a sliver of that, it could prove that Azure Sphere is the best option and (if it’s right) make the Internet of Things safer than it is now.
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