Interviews

Category: Interviews

VDC: Microsoft should “revitalize” Windows Embedded to compete with Amazon/FreeRTOS

VDC Research recently released a report calling on Microsoft to revisit Windows Embedded. PPR discussed the report with co-author Roy Murdock, Analyst, IoT & Embedded Technology at VDC Research. Murdock also discussed other embedded operating systems, including FreeRTOS, an open-source RTOS whose development is now controlled by Amazon. The following interview has been edited for clarity.

PPR: You and your colleagues at VDC have predicted open source embedded operating systems rising from about 30 percent to nearly 39 percent in just three years, seemingly at the expense of the commercial OSes and the bare metal/lightweight segments. How much of that growth represents the FreeRTOS system versus other open source embedded operating systems?

roy murdock VDC research
Roy Murdock

Murdock: FreeRTOS is definitely going to be a major player. The main factor behind it is that we expect to see growth of FreeRTOS unit shipments in line with the growth in the overall MCU market. And the MCU market is already shipping hundreds of millions of units every year. If FreeRTOS even ships a fraction of those, that’s already huge number of unit shipments every year. So we expect FreeRTOS just keeping up with the unit shipment growth in the MCU market and we expect that growth to be around 8 percent through 2021. So that should give a better sense of unit growth we are expecting from FreeRTOS, as it is one of the most popular and MCU-focused RTOSes.

However, we’ll probably see safety-critical and real-time RTOSes somewhat sheltered from the FreeRTOS growth. That is, those commercial RTOSes that ship into cars and jet planes and industrial equipment. Many of these systems are not really good candidates for FreeRTOS to displace commercial RTOSes, so we are seeing some protected pockets of growth there. It’ll be more in the in-house, chip/vendor-supplied, and the bare metal category that we see FreeRTOS coming in to take some share. WITTENSTEIN High Integrity Systems (WHIS) provides a solution for safe and certified implementations of FreeRTOS, but in many cases we see FreeRTOS as a solution more for the consumer electronics market.

PPR: Besides FreeRTOS, what are the other RTOSes or open source operating systems in that segment?

Murdock: Embedded Linux is the other main force. It’s becoming really popular. But as I mentioned before, it will ship into fewer units due to the lower number of embedded MPU systems, or full-resource systems that can run an OS like Linux. There are just far more MCU-based systems. We expect to see a higher unit shipment growth in FreeRTOS on the MCU side, but embedded Linux is the other side of the coin. In many cases, if engineers are able to switch to free, open source embedded Linux, we’re finding that they’re totally willing to and making plans to switch.

PPR: FreeRTOS has hooks into the Amazon cloud ecosystem. Can Linux compete?

Murdock: These are two very separate markets. Embedded Linux would be shipping into something with a memory management unit (MMU), with a bunch of memory, and a bunch of resources. It probably doesn’t have hard real-time requirements. It could be something that would have run Microsoft Embedded, a system with a GUI such as an ATM or a retail kiosk – something like that would be a good candidate for embedded Linux.

FreeRTOS wouldn’t run as the primary OS in one of these systems. It doesn’t have the capabilities required for that. It would be more for MCU-based systems where you don’t have a lot of memory to work with, but you really only are carrying out only a few functions. Something like a sensor or an insulin pump. A lot of consumer electronics, such as a smart toothbrush, could also be good candidates for FreeRTOS.

PPR: In VDC’s latest report, what are the recommendations for Microsoft?

Murdock: They’ve done a good job at supporting some of their more fully featured operating systems in the embedded world with Windows 10 IoT Core and Enterprise. But they’ve discontinued the development of Windows Embedded Compact, and switched a lot of people out of that to work on Azure.

Firstly, we think they should take the opposite approach, and instead go back to Windows Embedded Compact and revitalize that. Secondly, we think they should move into the MCU space and offer an RTOS that could compete with FreeRTOS down at the very bottom level of the OS stack.

They never had an MCU-focused RTOS before. That would be a big change. And Windows has never been considered a small footprint RTOS. But we think that if they’re going to compete with Amazon at the AWS IoT/Azure IoT Suite level, they really need to look into providing something that could compete with FreeRTOS.

PPR: Last question: What about the vendors that make IoT devices or MCUs or the types of things that would use either a FreeRTOS or some sort of embedded operating system? How should they be positioning themselves in terms of the platforms that they align with?

Murdock: Many silicon vendors (Freescale, Intel, Renesas, SI Labs) have made OS acquisitions/partnerships in recent years. Many of the MCU vendors have also already decided to support FreeRTOS – there aren’t many alternatives for open RTOSs, and it made sense as FreeRTOS became more popular among their customers in the embedded engineer community.

That calculus in the ecosystem will change with this announcement – what the silicon vendors should or need to do to differentiate. They had looked at having more integrated stacks through OS acquisitions and development, but now you’ve got a much larger and more powerful entity, AWS, driving FreeRTOS forward and adding more software capabilities on top than would have happened organically.

In some cases, this may galvanize silicon vendors to get working on their competitive OS solutions, and to further invest in the software around their hardware offerings. In other cases, some vendors may fully embrace Amazon FreeRTOS if their customers continue to use and demand it. It’s still early and remains to be seen how the hardware ecosystem reacts.  

Interview: ProGlove’s Jonas Girardet

ProGlovePPR recently interviewed Jonas Girardet, the COO and cofounder of Munich-based ProGlove, which makes a wearable IoT device for manufacturing, logistics, and other specialized industrial uses. The system is already in use at BMW, Lufthansa Technik, and other manufacturers and retailers, and recently exhibited at CES. The following interview was edited for clarity and was first published in the PPR newsletter earlier this month. 

PPR: What does the ProGlove do?

Girardet: ProGlove connects the worker to the industrial IoT. We develop smart gloves that enable manufacturing and logistic staff to work faster, safer and easier. If you go to a factory, you’ll see more barcode scanners than any other digital device, such as tablets, smartphones, notebooks, or PCs. Our smart gloves have a connected barcode scanner comfortably attached to the back of the glove to work and scan at the same time and to help workers become more efficient. It makes fewer mistakes when scanning, compared to a normal handheld barcode scanner.

Integration is quite easy, as it’s just text that’s transmitted. It’s plug and play — basically, there is no IT work involved which is nice because the sales cycle gets shorter. And of course it’s nice for the customer, because he can basically rip off the existing scanner, put on the ProGlove, and continue working. You can do that during a coffee break. You don’t have to stop the line, or do a 12-month ERP project.

PPR: Is it complementary to other wearable IoT systems, such as Google Glass?

Girardet: We created ProGlove because of the fast integration and the immediate value to the customer. Today you need to grab the scanning gun, do the scan, put away the scanner, and then do your work. With ProGlove, it’s basically part of your normal movement, so with every scan, you roughly save four seconds. But you have thousands of scans per day. And that’s why production process managers really appreciate the idea, and understand the benefit. And of course we see it as complementary to Google Glass.

PPR: How is the platform being expanded?

Girardet: We will have more hardware products, and we are now developing software products on this hardware platform, that will connect the human worker with industrial IoT.

For 150 years, manufacturing and logistics has been optimized for efficiency. Now we have these highly automated lines and robots. But a robot is not made for a product lifecycle of three months, or a lot-size change within two days from one million to ten million. But you can actually do that with human workers. The downsize nowadays is that human-related work is kind of a black box. The problem is, there is no communicated status of the current work and progress, because the worker are not connected to the rest of the factory. They are left on their own with their fixed tasks. We can improve flexibility and reliability if we change this. not When we connect the human to the IT systems in the factory, we can give the worker real time guidance of his next tasks to do.

PPR: How does connectivity work?

So at the moment we are using a proprietary standard. The most obvious choice would be Bluetooth, but what we learned is that Bluetooth is not widely accepted in industry because it’s operating in the 2.4 Ghz band. Big OEMs try to avoid bringing any device into the industry that is operating in that band. ProGlove has an access point in a little box that connects with your PC or to your network, and then vis Sub 1 Ghz to Mark, which is the scan module.

It’s operating at 915 Mhz  in the U.S. and  868 megahertz in Europe, but the standard itself is a proprietary standard.

PPR: Are you planning to use other LPWAN technologies?

Girardet: We are definitely looking into Bluetooth, because Bluetooth has evolved. When I talked about the spectrum problems, that was Bluetooth 2.1. Now the technology has evolved and is more stable. And we have customers, especially in the fast-moving consumer goods category, and they don’t they don’t have that problem of too many device conflicts because they have only scanners — there is no machinery or tools operating in these frequencies. And of course for us it’s about software that will be able to integrate deeper into manufacturing systems and ERP systems. From a pure hardware standpoint, it will always be Bluetooth or WiFi.

PPR: So ProGlove basically is replacing a standard barcode scanner. But in the future, the platform will bring the data or maybe some other information that’s being captured into other types of systems.

Girardet: That’s the vision. The first step is hardware, and barcode scanning. The second step will be connectivity, so you connect the worker with the system. The worker with the warehouse management system, and the warehouse management system with the worker. So you scan the barcode, and then immediately determine if it’s the right barcode or not. And then you can start to think about data flow.

Our customers at the moment are just thinking about step one. They are starting to think about step two. The data is definitely part of the vision – the human hand can generate a lot of data.

PPR: Talk a little bit about the number of installations or the verticals that you’re really heavily present in.

Girardet: We are from Munich, Germany, and the automotive industry is really strong there. We started to develop our product with BMW and Festo. You can say, almost every BMW from a German factory is built with ProGlove.

So the majority of our customers are in the automotive industry or their suppliers, but also fast-moving consumer goods, such as Rewe-Penny (German Wal-Mart) in Germany, which are using our products in supermarket warehouses. When a supplier ships yogurt to the warehouse, they want to be sure it’s the right kind of yogurt, and the right amount of yogurt gets shipped.

There is also pharmaceuticals. All over the world, laws have changed, so they really need to document more information, such as where the pharmaceutical goods come from. That’s why they scan a lot of barcodes.

As for the number of installations, it’s a few hundred warehouses and manufacturing sites in Europe that are using our product. Germany is our core market, but also the UK, Eastern Europe, and France. But now we are getting ready to jump into the U.S., one of the biggest manufacturing markets. The product is already used here, at the pilot stage.

ProGlove BMW
ProGlove in use at a BMW parts warehouse.

PPR: Does the ProGlove require a systems integrator?

Girardet: Basically it’s plug and play. You can plug it in next to a preexisting barcode system. And it can work with big industrial OEMs.

You can order the US version, we will ship it to you, and you can install it. However, normally we work together with our champions who want to work with the product, so we will do a proof of concept with them. The champion might buy a few units for two or three stations, which will generate a lot of data to see how much time is being saved, economic improvements, and worker acceptance. He can then convince IT, QA, and finance. And then it can scale.

PPR: Can you talk about efficiency metrics?

Girardet: We have the numbers confirmed by OEMs in Europe that it’s basically bringing down the duration of barcode scanning by 40 percent.

Of course, barcodes are only part of the process. But if you think about an auto manufacturing site that has a cycle time of 50 seconds, every 50 seconds the car moves, and then the operator does the same step again. And when they are installing an air bag, they basically have three or four things to do and one these things is scanning a barcode. There might be two barcodes, one on the car and one on the part. And one barcode scan takes eight seconds. And you basically save 40 percent of these 16 seconds, out of a 50-second cycle time. That’s really a lot of time.

That’s really why we have big returns on investments for our customers. There’s always a case for ‘Are you saving money? Are you really more efficient?’ You don’t buy it because it is cool, fancy stuff. You buy it because it is more efficient.

PPR: Last question: where do you see this technology in five years?

Girardet: In manufacturing, and supply chains, there is so much value being added compared to the consumer sector. That’s why I think wearables will really play a massive role in the future of the industrial world. Then of course one of these things will be Glass, something that’s in your eyesight, and the second thing will be in the form of a glove, or on your hand. Think about displaying more information, and also having feedback on the hands.

 

Parsing Amazon’s FreeRTOS announcement: Interesting, “but kind of strange”

roy murdock VDC researchThe December 4 edition of PPR talked about some of Amazon’s IoT and cloud announcements at the AWS Re:Invent conference in Vegas. Amazon’s move to take over development of the FreeRTOS embedded operating system was a surprise to many. PPR reached out to Roy Murdock, Analyst, IoT & Embedded Technology at VDC Research, to get some context around Amazon’s FreeRTOS announcement. As Murdock notes, it’s not just the vendors for sensors and microcontrollers that will be impacted.

PPR: What’s Amazon’s big play here with FreeRTOS?

Roy Murdock: One of the reasons we saw this as a really interesting (but kind of strange) move is that the IoT & Embedded Operating System (OS) market is a mature market that’s in decline right now in terms of revenues.

One of the numbers that we cite in terms of more recent revenue figures is that from 2015 through 2020, we expect the compound annual growth rate on average for that market is really only around 2 percent. It’s not a high-growth market, and it’s really not a market that a lot of companies are looking to get into right now.

In fact, a lot of acquisitions and mergers are happening right now are talked about in the IoT & Embedded OS market. So there’s a lot of consolidation going on. It’s an uncertain time for the companies in that marketplace.

It’s interesting that Amazon has decided to get into this marketplace given the low growth expectations. But in terms of your original question why would they be doing that, while revenue growth is pretty slow, is muted, is slowing down, expected to slow down, unit growth is actually growing very strongly.

So given IoT, given the ubiquity of sensors and MCUs and small chips and whatnot going into devices these days, which all require operating systems (usually an RTOS for a lot of these really small MCU/DSP-based systems) the unit growth is actually very strong.

We see in the future Amazon taking a lead in RTOS by unit shipments such as FreeRTOS which you know doesn’t generate much revenue for the company given that it’s free, but does capture a large share of the unit shipments, and taking those unit shipments and trying to get some of those devices onto AWS to generate services revenue.

So that’s what we think Amazon’s long-term play is. That’s what they’ve said their long term play is, it is really not too much of a secret. They’re providing a free onramp for a lot of those small devices to get hooked up and start generating data and generating services revenues through AWS.

PPR: One thing that was missing from the announcement page on the Amazon Web site is there weren’t any other vendors that were mentioned.  

Murdock: They do have a few vendors in place, one off the top of my head would be NXP. So they do have a few hardware vendors in place that are set up to kind of support this announcement.

And one of my coworkers was joking. He is more on the hardware side, but he was joking, ‘Everybody is going to want to slap an AWS FreeRTOS sticker on their hardware in the days to come.’ Especially some of these guys like NXP who are making MCUs and some of the smaller-resource hardware.

PPR: The other part of this announcement concerns AWS Greengrass, which puts a local instance of AWS, so it doesn’t have to be connected to a public cloud. Is that what it’s all about?

Murdock: That’s exactly what it is. FreeRTOS would be running on an MCU, or Greengrass would be running on a gateway, a Linux-based system usually with 128 megabytes of memory or more. So, a pretty high-resource system, but it would be running a local instance of AWS IoT which is the data ingestion/data sync portion of AWS’ service.

So the idea there was mostly that there are a lot of companies that would want gateways running locally that might have that might be in environments where they’d have spotty connectivity. So devices at the edge could sync up to Greengrass which wouldn’t have to Always be connected to AWS, the cloud portion of the IoT deployment.

So when the device communicates into Greengrass, it could store some of this data locally. And when that connection to AWS IoT in the cloud is available, then push that data to a cloud and sync things up.

And it could also run some edge compute locally instead of having to send everything to the cloud. You could run an algorithm to say ‘hey, this is the data I want to send up to the cloud.’ You can run edge analytics with Greengrass.

PPR: There’s a lot of vendors out there, and a lot of choice that these vendors have. Is the Amazon FreeRTOS announcement a real game changer, or vendors can already go to somebody else if they want to have this type of MCU/operating system/software stack behind it?

Murdock: I think it’s a real game changer for two different types of competitors, in that these two groups of competitors should be scared given this announcement.

Number one would be your traditional kind of MCU/RTOS vendors. In the past that would have been Micrium and Express Logic, vendors that ship hundreds of millions of RTOS systems into MCUs every year. Those guys have already been under attack by FreeRTOS for a long time. Of course, they had some protection in the types of systems they’re getting into that required safety certification or required some type of commercialization effort.

And then Micrium had actually gotten acquired by Silicon Labs last year. So they were they’re no longer really challenged by this announcement because they’re out of the game now, they’re under a hardware makers wing, so to speak. Express Logic is definitely feeling the heat right now, as are a few other smaller MCU vendors. That would be the first class of vendor that’s looking to be acquired or looking to really get out of that space, because Amazon is going to make it extremely hard for them to compete against (the already very-popular) FreeRTOS.

The second class of vendors that should feel the heat, and should kind of re-evaluate their OS strategy in light of this, would be Google and Microsoft. So the the cloud competitors on the Amazon side. And obviously both of them have OS ecosystems. Microsoft has Windows, and has Windows 10 IoT core, which is it’s not exactly an MCU-class operating system ecosystem, but it is a kind of smaller-scale Windows. And Google has Android.

So they both have operating system ecosystems to play with. But neither of them has just the sheer reach in the MCU engineering space that Amazon now has with AWS FreeRTOS. So they should both be kind of concerned about how many devices Amazon is really going to be able to drive onto AWS through this acquisition.

PPR: What about other cloud vendors out there on the enterprise side? Off the top my head I’m thinking IBM, Oracle, and there’s some other enterprise players. Do they have any kind of operating system partnership or assets that they could bring to the fray?

Murdock: Good question. Nothing that would call to mind the direct control that Microsoft and Google have over operating system ecosystems. So I would say that is kind of a secondary thought. I mean it is a good point. IBM, Oracle some of those other kind of enterprise cloud guys could have also benefited from an OS partnership like this one.

PPR: What does this mean for the actual companies that will be using these sensors and MCUs. The OT staff or the IT staff. Does it really make much of a difference to them about about this type of announcement from Amazon?

Murdock: I think it will make the migration path a lot easier. Especially in the OT side who are just looking to get sensors hooked up to their machinery on the work floor or shop floor. I think it will create a much easier path to get the devices onto the cloud, and that obviously continues to be a huge friction point. Especially in safety-critical or time-sensitive networking environments.

So I think you’re going to see Amazon pouring a lot more more investment into that path of getting those types of engineers, getting their sensitive data or running analytics into the cloud. Otherwise it wouldn’t make sense financially for them to do this acquisition.

Reaction to Triconex breach: “We have to isolate safety from all other systems”

In the wake of a serious security breach involving Schneider Electric’s Triconex industrial safety system at a “critical infrastructure” facility overseas, Priority Payload Report talked with Joe Weiss, managing partner of Applied Control Solutions and the author of Protecting Industrial Control Systems from Electronic Threats. Weiss has decades of experience in the energy industry and serves on the ISA99 committee of the International Society of Automation

PPR: Why is the incident involving Schneider Electric’s Triconex safety system such a big deal?

Weiss: Triconex and Siemens have a large segment of the safety systems worldwide and Triconex also happens to be used in many U.S. nuclear power plants as Triconex has been certified by NRC for nuclear safety applications. Schneider for years has said you can’t hack Triconex because it’s triple-redundant. Triple-redundant improves reliability but does not address cyber security.

PPR: What is a typical industrial scenario that would require the triple-redundant PLC?

Weiss: In a refinery, you would use this to make sure that the safety valves would open if the pressure got too high, so a pipe doesn’t burst. Safety systems are used to make sure that you don’t have a pipe break, or a valve releasing toxic chemicals, prevent trains from crashing, etc.

PPR: So this isn’t about IT security, but facility integrity and human life at risk.

Weiss: Safety systems are to protect facility integrity and human life, not for data.

PPR: We don’t know all of the details of the incident, but is this a situation in which air-gapping that particular PLC could have prevented the breach?

Weiss: We have to isolate or air gap safety from all other systems. Today, non-nuclear safety standards allow safety to talk to non-safety. Nuclear does not allow safety systems to mix with non-safety. The nuclear plant approach must be extended to non-nuclear safety systems.

PPR: If a manager or engineer at a power plant came to you and said, ‘I just heard about this incident involving Triconex, which we have implemented in our facilities. What should I be doing now?’

Weiss: The very first thing is make sure safety doesn’t touch non-safety including basic process control systems much less the business network..

PPR: So other than nuclear, there’s no there’s no requirements to have this kind of separation.

Weiss: No, that’s part of what we’re going to have to address in the new ISA Level 0, Level 1 Task Force.

Weiss has also blogged about the Triconex events and associated safety issues at Implications of the Triconex safety system hack – Stuxnet part 2?