It’s been a while since the buzzword “Azure Sphere IoT Security Kit” started spreading around. But what is exactly Azure Sphere? Let’s try to clarify a bit for those more interested in IoT than to the mainstream operating system market.
What is Microsoft Azure
Microsoft Azure is a cloud computing service created by Microsoft for building, testing, deploying, and managing applications and services through Microsoft-managed data centers. It provides software as a service (SaaS), platform as a service (PaaS) and infrastructure as a service (IaaS) and supports many different programming languages, tools and frameworks, including both Microsoft-specific and third-party software and systems.
Azure was announced in October 2008, started with codename “Project Red Dog”, and released on February 1, 2010.
What is Azure Sphere
Directly from Microsoft: “Comprehensive IoT security solution—including hardware, OS, and cloud components—to help you innovate with confidence“. Sounds quite intriguing, huh? Sure, but… what does it really mean?
If you ask Wikipedia, the answer is the following:
Azure Sphere is a Linux-based operating system created by Microsoft for Internet of Things applications. It is the first time Microsoft has publicly released an operating system running the Linux kernel and the second Unix-like operating system that the company has developed for external (public) users – the other being Xenix. The name is derived from Microsoft Azure services. The first supported processor is the ARM based MediaTek MT3620.
The definition used by Microsoft for our question is:
Azure Sphere is a secured, high-level application platform with built-in communication and security features for internet-connected devices. A 3-part solution to create highly-secured, connected MCU powered devices. It comprises an Azure Sphere microcontroller unit (MCU), tools and an SDK for developing applications, and the Azure Sphere Security Service, through which applications can securely connect to the cloud and web.
A connected device that includes an Azure Sphere MCU, either alongside or in place of an existing MCU(s), provides enhanced security, productivity, and opportunity. For example:
- A secured application environment, authenticated connections, and opt-in use of peripherals minimizes security risks due to spoofing, rogue software, or denial of service attacks, among others.
- Software updates can be automatically deployed over the air to any connected device to fix problems, provide new functionality, or counter emerging methods of attack, thus enhancing the productivity of support personnel.
- Product usage data can be reported to the cloud over a secured connection to help in diagnosing problems and designing new products, thus increasing the opportunity for product service, positive customer interactions, and future development.
The Azure Sphere Security Service is an integral aspect of Azure Sphere. Using this service, Azure Sphere MCUs safely and securely connect to the cloud and web. The service ensures that the device boots only with an authorized version of genuine, approved software. In addition, it provides a secured channel through which Microsoft can automatically download and install OS updates to deployed devices in the field to mitigate security issues. Neither manufacturer nor end-user intervention is required, thus closing a common security hole (see also here).
This shed some light on our otherwise obscure concept. In other words, a 3-part solution devoted to highly secure IoT applications based on a cloud system.
The MCU secures from the silicon up. This class of MCUs now combines both real-time and application processors with built-in Microsoft security technology and connectivity.
An OS purpose is built for security and agility to create a trustworthy platform for new IoT experiences. A secured OS builds security innovations pioneered in Windows into an HLOS small enough for MCUs.
In the cloud, the Azure Sphere Security Service renews device security, identifies emerging threats, and brokers trust among device, cloud, and other endpoints.
As far as we can see, this looks like an interesting and secure environment to play with our remote devices and sensors. Without the potential issues connected to the transmission of possibly sensible data.
What is Azure Sphere Starter Kit
Introduced earlier in the year at CES in Las Vegas, the Azure Sphere Starter Kit is based around the Avnet Azure Sphere MT3620 Module.
The Avnet Azure Sphere MT3620 Starter Kit supports rapid prototyping of highly secure, end-to-end IoT projects using Microsoft’s Azure Sphere. The small form factor carrier board includes a production ready MT3620 Sphere module with WiFi connectivity, along with multiple expansion interfaces for easy integration of off the shelf sensors, displays, motors, relays, and more. The downloadable getting started tutorial guides developers through the development steps from board setup to application coding.
The production-ready Sphere MT3620 module is based on the MT3620 SoC, which includes built-in Microsoft security, WiFi connectivity and the combined versatility and power of asingle-core Arm Cortex-A7 processor running at 500 MHz with 4 MB of RAM with the low overhead and real-time guarantees of two Arm Cortex-M4F real-time core running at 200 MHz with 64KB RAM, and support for dual-band 802.11 a/b/g/n wireless.
A suite of on-chip peripherals, real-time clock, Flash, and RAM are also available. In addition to the MT3620, the 33 x 22 mm module includes a dual-band WiFi chip antenna and system clock. Up to 27 configurable GPIOs and three configurable serial ports (UART, I2C, or SPI) are provided as I/Os on the module.
The carrier board connects the Sphere module I/Os to two MikroE Click sockets, an I2C Grove connector, a connector supporting the addition of a 128 x 64 OLED graphical display, a 3D accelerometer, 3D Gyro, temperature sensor, and an ambient light sensor. Debugging is accomplished through a USB-to-UART interface, which also provides the necessary 5V power for the board.
Developers will use C using Microsoft’s Visual Studio IDE and the Azure Sphere SDK to create and deploy user applications for the embedded Sphere controller. Visual Studio provides a powerful, yet easy to use development environment for compiling and debugging application code. The combination of Visual Studio, the versatile carrier card, and the production ready Sphere module delivers a powerful starting point for IoT developers interested in learning, prototyping, and deploying Azure Sphere based solutions.
Key Features (the nerd section)
- Two MikroE Click board expansion sockets
- Grove expansion connector (I2C)
- On-board sensors
- 3-Axis accelerometer
- 3-Axis gyro
- Interface for optional OLED 128×64 display
- USB Interface
- Supports debug, service & recovery UARTs, and JTAG
- User push switches and LEDs
- 5V to 3.3V Power regulation
- DC Supply Input:
- USB 5V from host computer
- Terminal foot prints for external 5VDC and VBAT supplies
Azure Sphere MT3620 Module
- MT3620AN SoC
- 3x ISU interfaces pre-configured for UART, SPI, I2C
- ADC/GPIO: 3x 12-bit ADC inputs (or 3 GPIOs)
- PWM/GPIO: 9x PWM outputs (or up to 24 GPIOs)
- RTC (requires VBAT supply)
- Dual-band 2.4/5GHz 802.11 a/b/g/n WiFi
- Dual-band 2.4/5GHz chip antenna
Avnet and Microsoft just launched a contest that not only might bag you free hardware, but a share of $35,000 in prizes. Yes, you can win a Hololens 2, Microsoft Surface Laptop 2, or hundreds more prizes.
Tap the on-board Azure Sphere sensors or connect the kit to your own favorite ones. Showcase your secure and sensor-rich project and enter to win.
Or reimagine everyday products and mission critical system that can be more securely designed. Upload your projects and land major prizes.
Your project for the contest should integrate a new or existing Internet of Things edge device with the Azure Sphere, or secure a consumer electronics project. As a result, it should also show innovation around smart retail, factory solutions, buildings or home automation, or around renewables and energy solutions.
The focus of the Azure Sphere is to securely connect edge devices to the cloud. In fact, to be eligible for the top prizes your project should be able to stay online and connected for at least 15 consecutive days.
Submissions close on September 29th. The winners will receive their awards on October 17th. If you plan to learm and apply for the Azure Sphere IoT Security Kit, I guess this is the right moment.