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Microsoft Acquires RTOS Player Express Logic

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Microsoft is acquiring Express Logic, a company that specializes in Real-Time Operating System for IoT and embedded devices. But why does Microsoft need Express Logic when it already has its own Linux based Azure Sphere OS that is designed for microcontrollers and IoT?

We often overlook the IoT landscape, but in reality, we almost live in an IoT world – Ring doorbell, Nest camera or thermostat, Amazon Echo or Apple Homepod… Almost every device around us has embedded systems in it.

However most of these embedded devices lack any smart capabilities, they have an electronic heart powered by a microcontroller, but they are not connected to the information highway, they can’t talk to each other, they can’t talk to their mothership which could, in fact, make them smarter and more efficient.

There are billions of embedded devices that could be found on factory floors, shipping containers, transportation vehicle, security, and defense equipment. Literally, they are everywhere.

According to VDC reports, Express Logic itself has more than 6.2 billion deployments in the wild. It’s a massive reach, but these devices can’t reap the benefits of truly connected devices. Microsoft needs this reach and these devices need Microsoft’s help to become smarter. That’s what this acquisition is all about.

The future is IoT

It’s as much about today, as it is about the future. The future that we are building is all about connected devices – all the way from the industrial environment to our homes. Tesla cars are connected devices.

But not every IoT device is created equal. Not every device is as powerful as Model A or Google Home smart speaker.

While Microsoft does have Azure Sphere OS, which is designed for IoT, it’s not an RTOS. Which limits the reach of Microsoft into the IoT space. It can’t go beyond a device that is not powerful enough to run Azure Sphere OS. Billions of devices out of the reach of Microsoft.

“While we recommend Azure Sphere for customers’ most secured connections to the cloud, where Azure Sphere isn’t possible in highly constrained devices, we recommend Express Logic’s ThreadX RTOS over other RTOS options in the industry because of its additional certifications and out-of-the-box connectivity to Azure IoT Hub,” said Sam George – Director, Azure IoT.

Amazon, Microsoft’s closest competitor does have an RTOS (Amazon FreeRTOS) which gives it a clear advantage over Microsoft. With Express Logic, Microsoft is bridging that gap.

What is RTOS all about? What does it even matter?

As compared to general purpose OS like Linux, RTOS has a much smaller footprint, as a result, they could run on extremely inexpensive and smaller devices which are unable to run Linux.

In comparison to Linux (or Azure Sphere OS), Thread X requires a remarkably small 2KB instruction area and 1KB of RAM for its minimal footprint.  It runs on a wide range of 32/64-bit microprocessors including but not limited to Analog Devices, ARM, Cypress (RISC-V), Renesas, Xilinx, Wave Computing and so on…

It’s not just the footprint. RTOS also differ from general purpose OS in the sense that they are designed to execute code in real time through the specially designed scheduler.

“The scheduler in a Real Time Operating System (RTOS) is designed to provide a predictable (normally described as deterministic) execution pattern,” explains the FreeRTOS, “ A real-time requirement is one that specifies that the embedded system must respond to a certain event within a strictly defined time (the deadline). A guarantee to meet real-time requirements can only be made if the behavior of the operating system’s scheduler can be predicted (and is therefore deterministic).”

Even the Linux Foundation, home of the Linux kernel, hosts a project called Zephyr, which is an RTOS designed for use-cases, beyond the reach of Linux.

Some good example of such RTOS is smart gloves which with scanners built into them. On the factory floor, when workers pick components while wearing these gloves the objects are automatically scanned thus eliminating the need of wasting time in scanning.

Another great example of using RTOS in factory setting would be haptic feedback built into shoes of worker’s boots so they can be alerted in a very loud environment where you can’t hear or see alarms. There are many more such exciting use-cases of RTOS.

Express Logic brings these billions of devices, use-cases, and customers to Microsoft; and gives it an upper hand against Amazon. In return, Microsoft brings its cloud – Azure OS to customers of these devices. Everyone would kill to connect their embedded devices to the cloud so they can enhance the features and functionality of these devices.

“Our goal is to make Express Logic’s ThreadX RTOS available as an option for real-time processing requirements on an Azure Sphere device and also enable ThreadX-powered devices to connect to Azure IoT Edge devices when the IoT solution calls for edge computing capabilities,” said George.

Express Logic takes Microsoft where Azure Sphere OS can’t take it. Azure Sphere OS is designed with security as the #1 priority, but it’s not an RTOS; it offers full stack – hardware, OS and Azure-based services. It has big, but relatively limited market reach as compared to Thread X.

Real-Time Winner In The The battle of IoT

Microsoft is investing heavily in IoT and machine learning. Microsoft has committed to invest $5 billion in the IoT space by 2022. When you put Express Logics massive reach, Microsoft machine learning capabilities and Azure Cloud; you are looking a complete stack of building smart IoT devices.

With Express Logic, Microsoft has joined the other two cloud players in their race to real-time IoT.  Google is also building its own RTOS called Fuchsia. AWS didn’t build FreeRTOS; it was acquired. At times, it takes longer to develop things organically and acquisitions put you on the fast track. Microsoft organically built Azure Sphere OS and with Express Logic, it is skipping that slow route and jumping on the express highway of RTOS.

Now, it all starts to make sense.

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Swapnil Bhartiya
I have more than 12 years of experience covering Enterprise Open Source, Cloud, Containers, IoT, Machine Learning and general tech. My stories cover a very broad spectrum - traditional Linux, data center and Free Software to contemporary emerging technologies like 'serverless'. Widely Read: My stories have appeared in a multitude of leading publications including CIO, InfoWorld, Network World, The New Stack, Linux Pro Magazine, ADMIN Magazine, HPE Insights, Raspberry Pi Geek Magazine, SweetCode, Linux For You, Electronics For You and more.