11 Jun 2015

Internet of Things stipulates RTOS specification

Prashant Dubal, of Wind River looks at how the correct real time operating system can assist the development of IoT applications and hardware.

The embedded systems market can look forward to a sustained period of growth thanks to the Internet of Things (IoT). The forecast billions of devices, typically called edge nodes, make up a considerable part of the IoT, and in some cases, simple devices are key to unlocking new business models and increasing operating efficiency.

Harnessing vast volumes of data in this system-of-systems is crucial to providing the insight within the hidden data and bringing about real-time decision making. Every aspect of the IoT relies on reliable connectivity, cloud service provision and the constant stream of data from the embedded edge nodes.

These embedded devices will exhibit a lot of diversity, some being simple sensors reading temperature, humidity etc., while others will be more complex and involve more decision making intelligence and systems control. For these more intelligent devices, it is highly likely they will require a real-time operating system.

Requirements

Whatever the purpose or architecture that a particular IoT application takes, the manufacturers of such embedded systems need to juggle a number of businesses and design considerations in order to bring their solutions to market quickly. Given the openness of the IoT it will be particularly important for connected devices to be brought to market as quickly as possible in order to drive broad market adoption. And at the same time, these products need to have features and capabilities that help differentiate them from other competitor products. From the technical perspective, device security will be paramount. Suffice to say that managing these above challenges, while aiming to keep development costs and risks to a minimum, will be keep engineering teams busy.

Using pre-certified compute and wireless modules will significantly aid developers with the hardware challenge, and using an RTOS might well assist in developing a secure, modular and scalable operating environment on which to base their design. But what are the key aspects of an RTOS that an IoT application should review when selecting one?

 Key platform features and attributes of an RTOS for the IoT

Figure 1 Key platform features and attributes of an RTOS for the IoT

In the context of IoT or machine-to-machine (M2M) systems, connectivity is a crucial component. Low power wireless modules and sensors are being used across the world of IoT, from industrial controls, medical and healthcare diagnostics, automotive safety and domestic appliances. As a consequence, an RTOS needs to include native support for all the leading communications standards and protocols such as ZigBee, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and CAN.

IoT RTOS security

With connectivity being omnipresent, security will be at the forefront of the engineering specification. The selected RTOS needs to encompass security across the operational life cycle of the device, including during configuration, while booting, normal operation, power-down, and, not forgetting, disposal. The RTOS should provide security not only against malware and unwanted or rogue applications, but also deliver secure data storage and communications. Provisioning such security features at the operating system level in place of add-on software is essential.

Four pillars of RTOS security

Figure 2: Four pillars of RTOS security

The RTOS-based devices will require the logic to opening those packets, validating their integrity, analyzing their contents, and verifying that these actions have taken place securely. Security threats and vulnerabilities are ever changing, so an RTOS needs to support the secure upgrade, download and authentication of applications to help keep devices secure going forward.

The IoT and M2M landscape is evolving faster than the release cycles for the traditional RTOS, which means the design and deployment of the RTOS need to adapt. Traditionally monolithic in nature, an RTOS has been delivered all at once as a large bundle of software, board support packages (BSPs), middleware, operating system, and tools. Updates to this baseline have been mostly for bug and security fixes rather than to add new features due to the prohibitive amount of coding and testing required to implement them.

Updates required

The days of dedicated functions with little or no updates or expansion are over. Intelligent devices need to adapt to changing needs in the network. The reinvented RTOS must be built on a modular, upgradeable, future-proof architecture that separates the core kernel from middleware, protocols, applications and other packages. The RTOS of the future will provide a stable core so that add-on components can rely on this stability for a relatively extended period of time, for example, three years. Middleware, new protocols and other packages can be added or upgraded without changing the core.

For many developers and engineering teams, the attraction of establishing a platform approach for all your IoT devices, whether edge node sensors, gateways or data servers makes a lot of business sense. Being able to provide a broad product portfolio catering for small form factor single-application devices to large-scale more complex systems means that you need to select a single RTOS that can scale accordingly. A single RTOS that can scale to meet the unique memory footprint, functionality, and processing power requirements of multiple product classes can help manufacturers of embedded systems increase the return on their operating system investment, cut development costs by leveraging the economies of scope, and reduce time to market (see figure 3).

 modern RTOS must support these axes of scalability in order to deliver the most value in the IoT

Figure 3: A modern RTOS must support these axes of scalability in order to deliver the most value in the IoT

Aside from the key factors mentioned above there are a number of other considerations that developers should investigate. One of these is the aspect of functional safety as stipulated in ISO 61508. Machines, appliances or equipment controlled by an embedded device might malfunction and cause injury or death. The norm in highly regulated industries such as aerospace and automotive, safety standards are now being applied to many other industries. As these evolve, manufacturers increasingly look to RTOS vendors to deliver the appropriate safety and security capabilities and certifications, so as to make it easier for them to obtain required safety and security certifications for their end products.

Broad feature set

A broad feature set delivered by the modern RTOS and its ecosystem of compatible third-party applications is essential to enabling manufacturers of embedded systems to create a differentiated product offering and secure a sustainable competitive advantage. Other desired features might have support for provisioning a rich user interface for example.

With customer experience and user interface becoming key differentiating features for products ranging from mobile phones to medical devices to industrial control systems, powerful human-machine interaction capabilities are becoming a must for an RTOS for IoT. This includes quality 2D and 3D graphics engines, support for multiple monitors and touch screens, as well as rich graphics designer tools.

The era of the Internet of Things requires a modular, configurable and expandable RTOS. It will add enhanced scalability, connectivity, security, safety, and an extended feature set to the solid real-time performance, low latency and multi-core processor support already needed today. Such an RTOS for your future embedded applications will give them a competitive edge in the world of IoT by enabling them to bring industry-leading devices to market faster while reducing risks and development and maintenance costs.

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About the author

Prashant Dubal is a director of product management at Wind River managing VxWorks, development tools and infrastructure products. He has held several roles at Wind River, including technical account manager and solution architect. Dubal has 14+ years of experience in the embedded industry, and holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Electronics Engineering from Mumbai University, India.

Wind River, a wholly owned subsidiary of Intel Corporation, is a world leader in delivering software for the Internet of Things (IoT). The company’s comprehensive product portfolio, Wind River Helix™, addresses the emerging needs of the IoT, from the secure and managed intelligent devices at the edge, to the gateway, into the critical network infrastructure, and up into the cloud. Wind River technology is found in nearly 2 billion devices and is backed by world-class professional services, award-winning customer support, and the industry’s broadest partner ecosystem. Wind River delivers the technology and expertise that not only enables the deployment of safe, secure, and reliable intelligent systems, but also harnesses the intelligence in those systems to drive innovation and business transformation.

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