Peggy Smedley and Pamela Cortez, Azure IoT senior PM, Microsoft, talk about Azure RTOS (realtime operating system). With an extreme amount of IoT (Internet of Things) devices coming online, she says Azure RTOS provides services and manages processor resources for applications. She also talks about the challenges and importance of building applications, devices, and security.

Below is an excerpt from the interview. To hear the entire interview on The Peggy Smedley Show, visit www.peggysmedleyshow.com, and select 6/16/2020 from the archives.

Peggy Smedley:

…At Microsoft Build …I think a lot of people were able to learn more about RTOS. I think what was interesting is if you’re trying to understand what’s happening in the IoT (Internet of Things), you really got a chance to sink your teeth into what’s going on…. So, for today’s discussion, let’s take a step back a little bit and maybe dig a little bit deeper into what is a realtime operating system? How does it relate to the IoT device story? And just in general, why does anybody need to care? I mean, I thought maybe today we could spend some time digging a little bit deeper, because I thought that’s what Microsoft did really well. And there’s been some acquisitions that are going to play into this, and we could talk about Express Logic. That’s what you and I get to talk about for the next 45 minutes.

Pamela Cortez:

Like I said, I’m super excited to deep dive into each one of those areas with you Peggy. Maybe we can go ahead and get started with, as you mentioned, what is Azure RTOS?

Smedley:

Great.

Cortez:

Anyone who’s a little overwhelmed with the device story, I don’t blame you. So many devices out there with different requirements, different needs, different use cases. There’s a lot of reports coming out, like for example the Business Insider Intelligence, they reported that 41 billion connected devices are going to come online in 2027. And then on top of that, IDC said that 152,000 IoT devices are connected every minute by 2025. That is an extreme amount of IoT devices out there. And as I mentioned before, that’s a wide range of devices with those different requirements, and limitations, and use cases. These devices could be really small. They could be constrained. Think of fitness trackers as a great thing to think of when you think of small devices. Those have requirements where the batteries are small. It doesn’t have a lot of processing power because the device needs to be small itself. So those devices have resources that are constrained.

Then you have devices all the way up to industrial robots. These robots might need full operating systems, they might require a lot of processing power on the edge. They may be running these intense workloads. Lots of times you find them on factory floors. Lots of times they might need to run some cloud workload on the edge side on the actual device, which is bringing AI (artificial intelligence) to the device, which will also require beefy devices that can support that. And a lot of these devices, especially modern devices, so as I mentioned, small devices all the way to those big devices will probably require some sort of operating system. In simple terms, I just call them robot brains because I’ve taught electronics all the way from 5-year-olds to university and folks on production floors.

Lots of times these devices will need some sort of operating system.

Smedley:

I’m sorry to interrupt. When you talk about an operating system. When somebody’s thinking about that, do they get a little confused when we talk about the difference between … And may I ask this just quickly?

Cortez:

Yeah.

Smedley:

The difference between when you talk about an operating system, such as maybe Windows, or Unix, or when you talk about a realtime operating system. When we’re talking about … You said sensor, something smaller, like in a watch or something like that. In my mind, what I’m thinking about is something that’s non-deterministic.

Cortez:

Yeah.

Smedley:

Is there something that we need to be explaining to the listeners right now so that they understand what that might mean? Because I think, for me, that is where there’s a big difference… And those who are technical maybe get it, but those who are not may, not understand the difference.

Cortez:

Yes. You can imagine those industrial robots that I had just explained, they might require the full operating system. But what about those smaller, constrained devices? That’s where RTOS fits into this device story—so realtime operating systems. This is where these devices, they require a hard, realtime processing, they’re constrained. This realtime operating system, it’s really a system software that provides services and manages processor resources for applications. These resources can include processor cycles, memory, interrupt, provisional. So really, the main purpose of this realtime operating system is to allocate processing time and various duties in the embedded software that it must perform.

In high level, think this realtime operating system is small and fast, it has a dedicated purpose, it requires realtime capabilities, and you might not need a graphic interface. It doesn’t mean that all devices using RTOS doesn’t have a graphic user interface, but some don’t. So also something to keep in mind, that is one of the features of an RTOS system is to be able to support those really small constrained devices in a small footprint. You’re not going to be able to run Windows IoT, or Windows, the full operating systems, on a small, small device that requires that small footprint.

Smedley:

So, editing a document, or something in that kind of environment? Like what you were mentioning, precision of motor control or things that most of us think about.

 

Cortez:

Exactly.

Smedley:

Okay. I didn’t mean to interrupt, but I was trying to envision for someone. Because you were saying some of that and I was trying to help someone who was trying to follow through. So I didn’t mean to interrupt, so continue what you were describing with some of the other things that makes this story unique for some of the things that were going on that you see all of this happening right now. Because there’s a lot going on with the cloud and the edge, as you described, with Azure RTOS.

Cortez:

Exactly. And feel free to jump in any time Peggy. Yeah, even with Azure RTOS, one of things when we acquired Express Logic, which we’ll probably cover a little bit later, with Azure RTOS the word Azure is in there as well. A lot of these constrained IoT devices, they need to connect to the cloud but they have to have a small footprint. One of the things that we did with Azure RTOS is make it easy, with a small, small footprint, to connect to Azure IoT. And you can also connect to other cloud services as well with ThreadX, which is part of the Azure RTOS suite. But in order for you to be able to connect to the cloud, be able to monitor those devices, be able to collect intelligence or insights from those devices, you want to be able to bring that up to the cloud and do that in an easy-to-use manner. And that’s what Azure RTOS gives you the capability to do.

Smedley:

If we were to look at some of these things, talk to us a little bit about … Well, let’s go back to Express Logic joining the Azure IoT family, because that happened back in April of what? 2018? Is that about the right timeframe? Well, maybe that’s not right, because I guess that’s when Microsoft announced some of the big investments. And as a part of that, I think Express Logic seemed to be a natural fit to all of this, when all of these kind of big announcements were coming into play, that Microsoft said, “Look, we’re going to spend some big money.” $5 billion I think was a part of that whole big announcement. And then Express Logic just became a natural extension of that. When did all of this all kind of unfold as a part of all of this?

Cortez:

Yeah. As you mentioned, back in 2018 we did that huge investment with that $5 billion, and that was really for us to invest in IoT and intelligent edge. In that time, from 2018 to now, we invested in Azure Sphere, which for listeners, if you don’t know what Azure Sphere is, it’s Microsoft’s offering for turnkey device, security solution, that is purposefully built to allow any developer to create a connected device that’s highly secure by default. And then we also invested in Azure Digital Twins, Azure IoT Edge, which is an open source run-time, great for connecting those edge devices, to bring AI to the edge, and they’re great for offline capabilities as well. And then we also invested in Azure Map and Azure IoT Central.

We did that, but we also acquired Express Logic, and this was really important to us. We actually acquired them about a little over a year ago. I think it’s about a year and a couple months. The reason why we did that is because Express Logic is actually one of the leaders in the realtime operating systems, for IoT. That even includes edge devices powered by microcontroller units. But also, what was really important to us was that Express Logic already had 6.2 billion deployments, and they’ve been running for a really long time, over 23 plus years. So, they were definitely one of those companies that have built strong partnerships and made sure that these devices that need to have realtime capabilities on constrained devices, their expertise was really important to us. And that’s why we did the investment. And we also felt that we wanted to create a really strong story on connecting these constrained devices to Azure IoT. So, if we could find a way to make it even more simple, or simplify it, we wanted to be able to do that.

Smedley:

When you look at their MCUs (microcontrollers) that you just mentioned, and you look at what they have overall, is that story what you’re saying right now is what companies are having to think about based on all these little devices that we’re seeing, that we’re connecting to the edge? Is that really what’s going to power all of these devices that you’ve just been talking about? Is what’s changing the way we think about the Internet of Things?

Cortez:

Yes. It could be devices anywhere from fitness trackers, to medical devices. We even worked with NASA and Ball Aerospace on their Mars orbiter, which is one of my favorite customer and partner stories with Azure RTOS. Devices requiring RTOS crosses many different vertical markets, so it’s not just fitness devices, it also includes retail consumer devices, even your mobile phone has an RTOS use case, and it’s actually one of the biggest use cases we have for Azure RTOS is using that with mobile phones and our partnership with Qualcomm. And, of course the industrial automation space as well as many other verticals. So it’s not just limited to really small things, even your smart alarm systems or thermostats can benefit from realtime operating systems. And you can see a lot of thermostats are now becoming connected to the cloud, that was you can get the information, pull it up on your cellphone, or change the setting from your cellphone, the temperature from your cellphone, have that go over the cloud, connect to the thermostat. All of that can be ran off of RTOS, Azure RTOS.

Smedley:

Are those the best types of customers and partners using Azure RTOS? Some of those that you just described there? Or are there others and we’re going to see even more as we continue better scenarios for addressing this as time goes on?

Cortez:

With the growth of smart consumer electronics, you’re going to see even more growth of products using and needing realtime capabilities, which Azure RTOS can provide. You can imagine smartwatches, you can imagine cameras, like security cameras like GoPros, they’re going to want something where it’s a constrained device, but you still need to have that realtime capability and all of the benefits of having an RTOS system as I highlighted before. So, you will see more and more products that will have that requirement where they don’t need a full operating system, but they need some sort of ability to have an operating system for the benefit that comes with it. Even printers is a great use case. We worked with Hewlett Packard, some of their printers have licensed ThreadX, which is one of the components of Azure RTOS, for their all-in-one devices. It doesn’t even have to be for IoT devices, it could be for devices that don’t need to be connected to the cloud too that are constrained but need those benefits.

Smedley:

When we look at all of this right now, and we’re talking about Express Logic customers, and they’re trying to think about things. When customers are trying to figure this all out, and they’re sitting there saying, “Hey, the benefits of all of this right now.” Are we talking about basically things like we’re saying it’s … The modularity, are we saying it? Are we saying it’s easier testing? Are we saying it’s code reuse? I mean, what are we really saying? It’s keeping us closer to the edge? What are we saying is the best? Is it idle processes? What are we really saying for somebody who says, “For us, it’s the basic open approach?” Is there just a whole plethora of things that right now this is what’s coming out of it? What do you tell customers about what they need to be thinking about right now?

Cortez:

Yeah, there’s a couple things. I think really that high level is that, do you have a device that is resource constrained that requires that hard, realtime processing? If that is a requirement, then considering Azure RTOS would be an appropriate way to go, because there are a lot of different device requirements and use cases out there. If you are looking for … Another great thing for Azure RTOS really is it’s a full embedded development suite that makes it easy for building with embedded sensors in those devices. It really depends what type of device and what your needs are if it makes sense on using RTOS system. If you have that dedicated purpose, if you know you have a small device, you need it to be fast and high performance.

Also, maybe you have to go through some sort of certifications as well, and make sure that it’s safe. For example, Azure RTOS provides safety-related certification if you use Azure RTOS, because we do meet stringent requirements that … These certification requirements are part of the medical field, energy, consumer safety standards, railroads, so it also just depends on if you have to have that safety-related certification for your device, because sometimes those certifications can be really complex. So having an RTOS that already has those safety-related certifications makes it easier for you to go from proof of concept to production with your device.

Smedley:

That makes me think about something a little bit more. Because I think some of the things that we think about, we have certifications right now, we have safety. Talk to me a little bit about security right now, because I think sometimes we always leave out a lot of the security when we’re thinking about connecting devices, and I think everybody gets lost in that right now where we race to get products to market. How does this play into some of that? Are we thinking about security enough? Or does this help us think about that already because of the way this already has brought things together a little bit?

Cortez:

Yeah. Well, any part of the IoT, and especially Microsoft and any company really needs to be thinking about this with security. It’s extremely important for whenever we’re building these applications or working with devices, what are some of the security features that we can enable? For Azure RTOS we like to say that we do have support for security there. If we’re going to go super technical we have support for the socket layer security via TLS and some other protocols as well. The cloud protocols are certified to ELL4. We do have some certification there. We also have an IP layer security via IPV6, so we do look at security. Then on top of that, we do have support for Azure RTOS when it comes to the Azure Security Center for IoT.

That, we’ve had the actual Azure Security Center support for a while now for Azure IoT, but now in public preview, we have that support for Azure RTOS. What that means is that you’re able to use Azure Security Center to prevent, detect, and actually do something about the attacks of your IoT deployment component, and that includes Azure RTOS. But that also includes your component and your cloud services as well. You can use Azure Security Center to continuously monitor the security of IoT devices, your machines, your network, and your other Azure services. We do have support there in public preview.

Smedley:

Is this like … And again, I’m not a programmer, so I’m going to try to help for those who are all out there saying this. It fits within the IoT portfolio and integration with some of the other services… If you have the Azure IoT device SDK, is that the set of libraries now to simplify the process of sending messages to and from the Azure IoT hub service?” How much is all of that coming into play with all of this? Are we seeing a lot of that with different variations? I mean, how does this all come together?

Cortez:

….With the Microsoft portfolio we do have a couple of different supports for devices, and one of them is the SDKs. We just announced in public preview, a new CSDK, which is called an embedded CSDK, it’s a smaller footprint. We do have Azure RTOS support for that embedded CSDK through the convenience layer, trying to keep it as high level as possible, to make it easy to connect to Azure IoT. And so we do have support for Azure RTOS to connect to our IoT services like IoT Hub, through our SDK.

Just think of Azure RTOS as a suite of products and components, and with our SDKs…it’s just an easier way to communicate to Azure IoT Hub. And if you’re not familiar with IoT Hub, really think of IoT Hub as this cloud gateway. It’s a way to be able to receive messages and send messages. So just think of that support with Azure RTOS plus the Azure IoT SDK, really is a set of libraries that’s designed to simplify the process of sending messages and receiving messages to the cloud.

Smedley:

Is the ultimate goal here then, if I’m understanding this correctly too, is that all of these things that … You’re embedded CSDK, all of these things, your IoT Hub, all of these will be simplified through all of this? So what anybody’s doing is how to choose the right IoT Hub tier? All of these will be able to work easier so that your SDK for C… Again, these were some of the questions that some of my listeners were asking about and trying to understand in watching. Some of these when they were watching MS Build, some of these things will be happening is that a lot of this will be happening that it’ll be easier for everyone? The idea is that Microsoft is trying to make it so that more things can be done, more IoT products can be brought to market, but yet in a secure, easier way, and maybe faster and better, quicker, as we say, things to the edge?

Cortez:

Yes. I love how you phrased it. One of the things that we’ve noticed, and I’ve noticed with coding with partners and customers, is one of their biggest challenges is it can be really complex to build IoT solutions, especially taking it to production. It’s definitely one of our goals to simplify that experience all the way from the device side to the cloud side. I recommend people check out this research that Microsoft did, we released it about a year and a half ago, it’s called IoT Signal. What we did was survey about 3,000 IoT decision makers, these are from smaller companies to larger companies, to get what are their biggest challenges, get their key insights on building IoT solutions and implementing it, and production. One of the top things we heard was that there’s a huge IoT skills gap, and because of that it is extremely hard to go from PLC to production due to not having a lot of skilled workers. And so the workers that they do have, they need to be able to build quickly, and we have to have our tools easy to use.

And so with Azure RTOS we wanted to create this suite to make sure that that experience is easier using RTOS. For example, Azure RTOS is actually made out of many different components. One is ThreadX. I consider this kind of the heart of the Azure RTOS suite. This is really the actual RTOS itself, and it’s designed for these embedded applications. It provides realtime multi-threading, memory management, and it also has a lot of advanced features. I don’t want to name them all, I’m getting too deep into the technical terms. But just know it has all that extra support for RTOS and it is an actual RTOS, ThreadX is. Then you have all these other components, for example like SOL Access, which makes it easy, and has a small footprint, and has high performance, and it makes it easy to work with file allocation and compatible file systems. That’s nicely integrated, you can use that component with ThreadX.

You also have components like GUIx, so if you need a graphic user interface we have a component that can help you with that. And so you can imagine if you have a thermostat that has an LCD, you can use GUIx to create those visualizations and have a nice way for the user to interface with the device. And then we also have TraceX, we have NET Fuel, USBx, we have these other components to support building for these embedded devices. And so I wanted to mention that because lots of times when you’re building for embedded devices you might need to pull from all different types of solutions to actually finally get everything you need to build an application. With Azure RTOS you get the full suite of things that are needed when building for IoT devices across these different types of use cases, which is really nice, and it helps these developers and businesses to be able to go from a proof of concept into production because they have a full suite of tooling, they have a full suite of example code, and components to help them go faster.

Smedley:

You mentioned something, when we look right now with the worker of the future right now. We have people working at home, we have people who are now interested in building, and creating these solutions. Do we have to worry that we’re not going to have that skilled workforce that’s going to be able to do the things that you just described? That are going to bring the new innovative ideas and solutions or products to market? I mean, do we have to be concerned about that? Or are we going to have these young creative minds that are going to bring, so we don’t have to worry about the next pandemic coming that’s going to stop us all in our tracks like what we’ve just all been experiencing?

Cortez:

Yeah, I think it’s a couple different things. I think one is, how do you train those who are very interested in developing IoT solutions and working on the device side? How do you train those folks? And we’re addressing that by providing online training, from folks who might have never touched RTOS, or ever worked with Azure RTOS or some of the other offerings out there. So creating content, like getting guides, with our partners which include ST, MicroChip, NXP, Renaissance, these top silicon partners, and creating guides where they can get started. And then full training material where they can get hands-on experience and learn the ins and outs to quickly build. Then the other part of it is making the products that you’re using easier to use. I can tell you, I’ve been developing for IoT solutions for a really long time, and it was a nightmare before.

Even as basic as connecting to the cloud was difficult. We’re past that hurdle. You should be able to send messages and receive messages, but sometimes … When I say we’re past that hurdle, I mean the products are there, but actually connecting it to different types of devices can be challenging if you don’t have support, library support, tooling support with toolings that developers are already using. I’ll even elaborate on that even more. If you are an embedded developer that has never worked with the IoT, that might feel challenging. And now, you can actually use the tooling that you might be familiar with. If you work with partners, if you work with ST product line, maybe have a Discovery dev kit and you are very familiar with building these embedded systems but not connecting it to the cloud, we have provided those library supports in using the tooling you’re already using. So if you’re already using a certain tooling that you’re familiar with, with ST, or MicroChip, or any of the hardware partners, you can use that same tooling that you’re used to and be able to have the support from Azure IoT products and services to connect it to the cloud with Azure RTOS. Which I think is really important because it’s one thing to learn a new product, it’s another thing to start using different tooling that you’re not familiar with. It’s another thing to pick up different languages.

For example, our SDKs support ForeSee, supports for Python, it supports for Java, C-sharp. So you don’t have to learn a brand new language that you might not know. There’s a lot of steps in simplifying this process and really reaching developers who need to learn this now and quickly, using things that they already have in their toolbox. I think there’s two parts, one training, and one making sure any developer coming from the embedded side or even the cloud side can use products that make sense and that they can learn quickly.

Smedley:

So if I’m hearing you right, it sounds like you’re saying Microsoft wants to be the company behind RTOS, is just as important as the company selecting the correct RTOS. So ideally you want to be able to build that relationship with you as the supplier that can support not only the current product or whatever they want, but able to build the products for the future. I mean, is that what I’m hearing you say? For anyone who’s trying to do that?

Cortez:

Yes. I always think of the IoT as a partner ecosystem. And the reason why I say that is because if you’re a company and you choose, let’s say you’re building a device and you need a certain microcontroller to embed in your device and use. It’s important for Microsoft and others to partner together across these different partners and customers to make the process easier for everyone. It’s not just Microsoft providing all of the support and services, it’s also working with silicon partners. I mentioned before ST, MicroChip, NXP, Renaissance, partners like Qualcomm, where we can come together and make it easier to use Azure RTOS because we’re using those hardware partners, the silicon partners’ tooling, and those developers who are already in those companies using those toolings can have a nice experience working with Azure RTOS.

Smedley:

It’s an interesting space, because the partnerships are just as essential to make all of this work. It’s not one-stop shop anymore, everybody’s got to work together. That’s really interesting. I’m kind of curious, now, when we look at STEM today, and we look at being able to … And we’re talking about how important is that to really make sure we keep that going? And making sure that we have that going on in the schools and everything that we’re doing?

Cortez:

That’s extremely important. Before Microsoft I was with a company called SparkFun and I did a lot of STEM training. And at Microsoft, we do a lot when it comes to STEM. It’s really important to get more and younger kids and teenagers interested in coding, and hardware, and understand why it’s important so we can grow how many people are interested in the STEM field. So there’s a lot of amazing programs being ran out there. There’s a lot of support for teachers, if they want to bring hardware into the classroom. When I say support, I mean there’s resources out there, but there’s a lot more we need to do in that area. And especially, there’s a lot of schools who can’t afford hardware, who might not be able, the teachers are overloaded and so how do you make content that the teachers are learning with the kids at the same time?

So there’s a lot of challenges in that, but it’s extremely important for us to be able to grow more folks, and give opportunity too for folks who maybe never thought becoming electrical engineers could be possible. I think for myself, I’m very passionate about getting females and underrepresented minorities into STEM, because it helps to not only have more folks in the field, but also it helps to be able to change the wage gap on certain things. It gives you that ability to realize that it is possible to get into that field. For example, for myself, when I was younger I didn’t actually think electrical engineering was something I was going to get into. Anything I saw coming from the Midwest was normally a male-dominated field. I was always told that it’s better for me to go into being a nurse and that’s a really respectful field. But I didn’t even know that was an option. So I think having STEM in more schools across the country is important to let kids know that that’s even an option and that everyone is welcome to do it.

Smedley:

And these are exciting times. We’re seeing … We’re in challenging times right now, but it’s a great opportunity to be able to innovate and create. The Internet of Things is opening a lot of opportunities for everyone of any type if they want to really have the challenge to be able to take it and grasp it right now.

Cortez:

Exactly. I love the fact I see all the time, young kids doing the IoT, because the experience is easier now. You have a lot of folks like Adafruit, Microsoft, and other companies and organizations out there who are trying to make it more accessible for everyone, and doesn’t have an electrical engineering degree, or are just getting started, or maybe they do have a degree and don’t know where to get started on the cloud side. So it’s definitely been really amazing thing to see, especially in the last five years, where this space has gone, and opening it up to more folks.

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