The Internet of Things Defines the Future RTOS
The RTOS of the future will give embedded systems manufacturers a competitive edge in the IoT by helping them bring industry-leading devices to market faster while reducing risks and development and maintenance costs.
Driven by the convergence of cloud technology, rapidly growing data volumes and increasingly connected devices, the Internet of Things (IoT) poses new challenges and presents a host of new opportunities that businesses of all sizes and industries can seize right now. This system-of-systems is fundamental to realizing business value—unlocking the insight hidden in data, identifying and creating new services, enhancing productivity and e¬fficiency, improving real-time decision making, solving critical problems, and developing new and innovative user experiences. Billions of intelligent devices and systems make up the Internet of Things. The majority of these “things” are embedded systems, many of which are running a real-time operating system (RTOS).
To fully take advantage of the opportunity offered by the Internet of Things, manufacturers of embedded systems must meet multiple challenges:
• Bring connected devices to market faster
• Differentiate products with leading-edge features and capabilities
• Address security risks that pervasive connectivity of the Internet of Things entails
• Build flexibility into existing products so as to be able to tap new market opportunities as they emerge
• Ensure the product offering remains relevant and competitive as markets evolve
• Reduce system development costs and risks
To help manufacturers of embedded devices meet these challenges, an RTOS must evolve to deliver the scalability, modularity, connectivity, security, safety and a cutting-edge feature set that are demanded by the new, highly connected, security-conscious, remotely managed world of machine to machine (M2M) networks and the IoT (see Figure 1).
Figure 1: Core attributes and platform features of an RTOS for the IoT
The Internet of Things can create an incentive for manufacturers of embedded devices to maintain a broader product portfolio that includes different classes of devices ranging from small form factor, simple, single-application devices to large-scale, complex, multi-application systems. A single RTOS that can scale to meet the unique memory footprint, functionality and processing power requirements of multiple product classes can help manufacturers of embedded systems increase the return on their operating system investment, cut development costs by leveraging the economies of scope and reduce time to market (see Figure 2).
Figure 2: A modern RTOS must support these axes of scalability in order to deliver the most value
in the IoT
The IoT and M2M landscape is evolving faster than the release cycles for the traditional RTOS, which means the design and deployment of the RTOS need to adapt. Traditionally monolithic in nature, an RTOS has been delivered all at once as a large bundle of software, board support packages (BSPs), middleware, operating system and tools. Updates to this baseline have been mostly for bug and security fixes rather than to add new features due to the prohibitive amount of coding and testing required to implement them.
The days of dedicated functions with little or no updates or expansion are over. Intelligent devices need to adapt to changing needs in the network. The reinvented RTOS must be built on a modular, upgradeable, future-proof architecture that separates the core kernel from middleware, protocols, applications and other packages. The RTOS of the future will provide a stable core so that add-on components can rely on this stability for a relatively extended period of time; for example, three years. Middleware, new protocols and other packages can be added or upgraded without changing the core. Components for all aspects of the RTOS, above the base kernel, can be provisioned by an application store model.
A modular architecture of an RTOS will help manufacturers of embedded devices better differentiate their products and maintain them competitively over longer periods of time by enriching them with new features and capabilities without changing the system core as standards and market requirements evolve. The new RTOS will also allow manufacturers to extend the useful life of the system core to several generations of products, which increases the return on their investment in the operating system.
While traditionally isolated, embedded devices are increasingly connected to corporate or public networks for a wide range of applications that are forming the Internet of Things. Small standalone sensor devices are being connected together using low-power wireless technology. Industrial control systems are interconnected and controlled remotely. Medical devices used at the home send diagnostic data back to a hospital.
A reinvented RTOS for IoT needs to support industry-leading communications standards and protocols such as CAN, Bluetooth, Continua, ZigBee, Wi-Fi and Ethernet, and deliver high-performance networking capabilities out of the box. In addition, a modular nature of the new RTOS can help retrofit existing devices with the required connectivity options so that many of the previously disconnected devices can be brought online without reworking the core of their embedded software.
A critical aspect of IoT is security, and next-generation embedded systems must be designed with security in mind as their pervasive connectivity results in a substantially larger exposure to threats. A winning RTOS for IoT would give customers the flexibility to design their embedded system to the necessary level of security by leveraging a comprehensive set of built-in features covering (see Figure 3):
Figure 3: Four pillars of RTOS security
A good RTOS needs to support security features not only to protect against malware and unwanted or rogue applications, but also to deliver secure data storage and transmission and tamper-proof designs. Operating system-level support for these features is critical since adding them at the user or application level is ineffective, expensive and risky. Take, for example, sensor hubs that aggregate a representative data set from numerous packets of sensed data. These RTOS-based devices will require the logic to open those packets, validate their integrity, analyse their contents and verify that these actions have taken place securely. Security threats and vulnerabilities are ever-changing. An RTOS needs to support the secure upgrade, download and authentication of applications to help keep devices secure going forward.
Safety is paramount in many embedded operating systems because they control machines that can endanger life, or their malfunction can cause injury or death. Although well-established in aerospace, medical and industrial markets, safety standards are being applied by regulators to new markets. Also, better applications of existing standards to such systems as smart grid meters or medical devices are sought. As standards evolve, manufacturers increasingly look to RTOS vendors to deliver the appropriate safety and security capabilities and certifications, so as to make it easier for them to obtain required safety and security certifications for their end products.
Cutting-edge Feature Set
A broad feature set delivered by the modern RTOS and its ecosystem of compatible third-party applications is essential to enabling manufacturers of embedded systems to create a differentiated product offering and secure a sustainable competitive advantage.
• Rich user interface. With customer experience and user interface becoming key differentiating features for products ranging from mobile phones to medical devices to industrial control systems, powerful human-machine interaction capabilities are becoming a must for an RTOS for IoT. This includes quality 2D and 3D graphics engines, support for multiple monitors and touch screens, as well as rich graphics designer tools.
• Custom-tailored RTOS. Embedded systems manufacturers who are early adopters of IoT in industries such as networking, industrial and medical can enjoy even faster times to market by leveraging an RTOS that has been purposely customized and packaged to address the needs of their industry out of the box. For example, an RTOS for the industrial vertical would provide industrial device manufacturers with essential multimedia and connectivity middleware, including drivers and protocols for connected devices on the factory floor, wireless peripherals and other devices within the network infrastructure. An RTOS customized for medical devices would incorporate technology solutions designed to meet the unique needs of medical device manufacturers related to getting approvals from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. A platform for network equipment manufacturers would enable them to rapidly create, test, deploy, maintain and manage high-quality wired and wireless infrastructure devices. Such a platform would also offer an extensive suite of security protocols to protect network data.
Compatible Software and Hardware Ecosystem
In addition to delivering rock-solid real-time performance and other cutting-edge features, an RTOS of the IoT era must support a broad ecosystem of tested and verified complementary hardware and software solutions. This would allow device manufacturers to differentiate their product offering with leading-edge features and capabilities, accelerate time-to-market through rapid, lower-risk integration of best-in-class third-party technology and cut costs by deploying systems integrated and validated out-of-the-box.
The era of the Internet of Things requires a modular, configurable and expandable RTOS.
The reinvented RTOS will add improved scalability, connectivity, security, safety, and an extended feature set to the solid real-time performance, low latency and multi-core processor support of the RTOS of today. The RTOS of the future will give manufacturers of embedded systems a competitive edge in the world of IoT by enabling them to bring industry-leading devices to market faster while reducing risks and development and maintenance costs.
Prashant Dubal is a product owner at Wind River managing VxWorks, development tools and the infrastructure product management team. He has held several roles at Wind River, including technical account manager and solution architect. Dubal has 13+ years of experience in the embedded industry, and holds a bachelor’s degree in electronics engineering from Mumbai University, India.