Microsoft

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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.  

Platform dynamics: OPC Classic vs. OPC UA

Recently, I had to dig into OPC Classic vs. OPC UA specifications, which are part of a series of frameworks for industrial interoperability. Yes, the reading on this topic is very dry, but it points to an ongoing shift in the way PLCs–and machinery they control–are connected to applications, data management tools, and each other.

The quick history: OPC (OLE for Process Control) was the 1990s love child of a team at Microsoft and various industrial automation vendors. Novotek outlines some of the technology history.

Microsoft was actually pushing OLE in various industrial and business segments–this ancient article from my old employer Computerworld shows MS getting three dozen players in CAD lined up behind The Borg in providing OLE-compliant software.

It’s important to note that Bill Gates circa 1995 wasn’t a soft and cuddly figure like MIcrosoft’s current CEO, Satya Nadella. Gates was all about platform control, something he had engineered so well with the Windows-dominated PC platform, with some timely incompetence from IBM. Gates wanted to extend control to profitable verticals–even if MS didn’t write the applications, with OPC they could still dictate the platform architecture to other vendors and thus encourage deep-pocketed business and industrial companies to sign up for Windows NT and other Microsoft products and services.

Stacking up the specs: OPC Classic vs. OPC UA

OPC Classic flavors (including OPC DA and HDA) ruled the roost for more than a decade. Besides being Windows-centric, they also used Distributed Component Object Model (DCOM) for data transportation, which could be difficult to configure. In the late 1990s, the OPC Foundation was established at ISA Chicago and began work on creating a new set of specifications, including OPC UA. Benefits of the new spec would include:

  • Support for operating systems other than Windows

  • Ability to integrate open source contributions

  • Support for a wide range of hardware platforms

  • Web services instead of DCOM

  • Improved security features

  • Better networking support

The OPC Foundation is now making a play for OPC UA to become a “universal protocol” for IIoT/industrial connectivity and Industry 4.0.

Endpoint: After reading this, half of you are probably saying “who cares?” while the other half wants to school me on some obscure yet important technical detail that I missed.

But there’s a bigger lesson here: Companies gain power and profit by controlling platforms and associated standards, and can set the stage for control for years. Microsoft wanted Windows and related software and services to dominate the industrial market, and its actions to steer development of OPC Classic standards helped it achieve control over the market for industrial automation software.

Looking to the future of IoT and connected industry, the battles over communications standards and advances in artificial intelligence will determine which companies have control over the next 10-15 years. Specifications could end up looking more like OPC Classic, with dominance by a single powerful company … or they could be more open, like the OPC UA model. Time will tell …

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.