Mentor Graphics Connects IoT Devices, Gateway to Cloud

Mentor’s IoT system development kit (SysDK) provides edge-to-cloud connectivity and focuses on details that matter to run a real IoT network.

The phrase “Internet of Things (IoT)” is wearing me out as the number of connected devices has gone from 5 billion to over 20 billion and keeps rising. Tastes great! Less filling! Enough superlatives. The forecasts now predict that every electron on earth will be connected to every other electron by 2020. Imagine that! Maybe I’m exaggerating. The IoT hype should move from “Won’t it be great!” to “Here’s what you’re really going to need to do to create a useful network of end-node sensors blasting data 24/7 to the cloud.”

EDA and systems expert Mentor Graphics is one of the few companies that seem to understand how to build an IoT network, as announced at last Fall’s ARM TechCon 2015. In case you missed it (or just need a refresher), here’s a recap.

Well, Maybe a Little Hype

I’ll skip the usual IoT hockey stick charts but include one from VDC Research (2015) that focuses on IoT Gateways instead (Figure 1). The gateway is the almost-edge point that aggregates dozens of sensors into a data stream transportable to the cloud. End nodes and sensors that wake occasionally to report in (such as traffic lights or parking meters) don’t need expensive, power-hungry TCP/IP servers.

Figure 1: The growing IoT gateway market. (Courtesy: Mentor Graphics and VDC Research.)

Figure 1: The growing IoT gateway market. (Courtesy: Mentor Graphics and VDC Research.)

These nodes can stick with proprietary and low data rate interfaces that connect to a gateway that does have the TCP/IP hardware and software necessary to chat on the Internet to some cloud entity. Intel, by the way, is investing heavily in gateways because it’s the best edge-node fit for the company’s higher power devices (compared to ARM-based SoCs). The gateway is an interesting device that’s more than just a bridge between local, sometimes bespoke devices, and the heavier-weight Internet hardware most embedded systems expect.

Those 10 or 20 billion IoT nodes are going to be of mostly low intelligence, rarely updated software-wise, and inherently insecure in their legacy electrical and protocol connections to the gateway. But at the gateway, the nodes’ data needs to be secured for transport to/through the cloud. As well, local gateway decision-making is essential to avoid cluttering the cloud with trillions of useless “keep alives” or “hello world” messages per second.

As well, those sensors need diagnostics, occasional updates and after updating will need re-provisioning to assure proper authentication and operation. In short: the gateway provides the “bigger brain” to the IoT’s end nodes and is responsible for a lot of processing, security, diagnostics and communication. Intel’s definition of a gateway is here, and ARM has quietly added the mBed Device Server gateway to its Intelligent Flexible Cloud vision of the IoT.

Secure Gateway via SysDK

Mentor Graphics, a company long associated with EDA tools for SoC devices, has been evolving its product line from System-on-Chip (SoC) IC design to bigger system design. For the last 24 months or so, the company has dusted off and significantly enhanced its Nucleus RTOS in parallel with its acquired Embedded Alley Linux offerings. In 2015, Mentor teamed up with Icon Labs to include the company’s Secure Defender product as part of Mentor’s software suite, rounding out Mentor’s software stack from the kernel nearly up to the application layer. From a gateway standpoint, the Mentor stack is ideal because the gateway now becomes secure while relying on ARM’s TrustZone in devices so equipped (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Mentor Graphics’ vision of a secure gateway, from end-node sensor to the cloud, and further beyond to displays like mobile devices. (Courtesy: Mentor.)

Figure 2: Mentor Graphics’ vision of a secure gateway, from end-node sensor to the cloud, and further beyond to displays like mobile devices. (Courtesy: Mentor.)

So what’s Mentor playing at? With a system infrastructure oriented around high-volume SoC designs, the company isn’t getting into the LinkSys router business despite what the cute graphic depicts. Rather, Mentor has a two-pronged approach that mirrors its EDA tools model:

  1. sell Mentor IP licenses for all the (rather substantial) software pieces in the gateway;
  2. sell Mentor design services.

Mentor’s total system solution comprises a gateway system development kit, a cloud backend, and runtime software on which to build IoT edge devices. Devices can range from the nearly “stupid” 8-bit MCUs that will make up the majority of the IoT, up to the latest 64-bit devices.

At the gateway, according to my discussion with Mentor’s director of product marketing Warren Kurisu, “Mentor is focusing on the customizable, security-oriented intelligent gateway,” growing at 14.5 percent CAGR per Figure 1. This design target maximizes Mentor’s value-add, from the OS (Nucleus or Linux), to the middleware such as Mentor’s Multicore framework—with more announcements expected, and down to the tools needed to design and/or debug the actual SoC running the gateway.

Figure 3 shows Mentor’s Freescale i.MX 6 SysDK development board, which sells for around $399 (“nicely equipped”) that’s based upon ARM Cortex A9 and Cortex M4 processors. The SysDK and associated software can be used to build an end-to-end IoT framework that covers data at rest, data at work, and data in transit. These are the areas most vulnerable for embedded devices deployed into the IoT; in fact, the list of three covers the entire spectrum of IoT data.

Figure 3: Mentor’s SysDK intelligent, secure gateway development system. (Courtesy: Mentor Graphics.)

Figure 3: Mentor’s SysDK intelligent, secure gateway development system. (Courtesy: Mentor Graphics.)

Mentor’s gateway security framework relies on secure boot, crypto, access control, mutual attestation and ARM TrustZone to provide security around protected devices, secured devices, and managed devices. The SysDK is available for development and deployment, but is most useful as a reference design to help target Mentor customers get their own designs running. As part of Mentor’s business strategy, the company will modify or substantially design a gateway to meet any IoT needs. Mentor’s Kurisu told me, “It’s not unusual for a customer to be up and in production [with their own design] in eight weeks.”

This is a credible statement, coming from Mentor, since the company has used this same kind of model in the EDA market for years. As well, Mentor has successfully targeted the automotive market—zeroing in on Tier 1 automobile OEMS—with a similar style dev kit and rich software suite.

I’m thrilled to see Mentor wade into this space. I predict more announcements and partnerships from Mentor as the IoT moves from hype to hip. If anyone can bring myriad H/W and S/W to bear on the IoT, it’s Mentor.

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