Introducing Microsoft Azure Sphere

Microsoft just unveiled a mostly open source, embedded Arm SoC design with a custom Linux kernel.

Microsoft’s Azure Sphere announcement was surprising on many levels. This crossover Cortex-A/Cortex-M SoC architecture for IoT offers silicon-level security, as well as an Azure Sphere OS based on a secure custom Linux kernel. There’s also a turnkey cloud service for secure device-to-device and device-to-cloud communication.

Azure Sphere is notable for being Microsoft’s first major Arm-based hardware since its failed Windows RT-based Surface tablets. It’s also one of its biggest hardware plays since the Xbox, which contributed some of its silicon security technology to Azure Sphere.

Azure Sphere is not only Microsoft’s first Linux-based product, but also one of the most open source. Precise details await the release of the first Azure Sphere products later this year, but Microsoft stated is offering “royalty-free” licensing of its “silicon security technologies” to silicon partners. These include MediaTek, NXP, Nordic, Qualcomm, Silicon Labs, ST Micro, Toshiba, and Arm, which collaborated with Microsoft on the technology. Microsoft is not likely to build its own SoCs, but it has set itself up as an IP intermediary between Arm and the SoC vendors.

“Microsoft is putting Azure Sphere up against Amazon FreeRTOS, so I assume it will be pretty permissive open source licensing,” said Roy Murdock, an analyst at VDC Research Group’s IoT & Embedded Technology unit. “Microsoft has finally realized it doesn’t make sense to alienate potential embedded engineers. It realizes it can get more from licensing Azure cloud services than from OS revenues. It’s a smart move.”

Despite Microsoft’s embrace of Linux, Microsoft Chief Legal Officer Brad Smith couldn’t resist a backhanded compliment during the announcement. He chose to use the example of a toy from among the many potential targets for Azure Sphere, ranging from industrial gear to consumer appliances to smart city infrastructure.

“Of course, we are a Windows company, but what we’ve recognized is the best solution for a computer of this size in a toy is not a full-blown version of Windows,” said Smith at the Azure Sphere announcement, as quoted by Redmond. “It is what we are creating here. It is a custom Linux kernel, complemented by the kinds of advances that we have created in Windows itself.”

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