ARM creates operating system for 'internet of things'

By Leo Kelion
Technology desk editor

image copyrightARM
image captionCities are using internet-connected sensors to monitor traffic, pollution and other activity

British computer chip designer ARM is creating an operating system to power new kinds of internet-connected devices.

The company is designing the mbed OS software to require as little battery power and memory as possible, and will not charge for its use.

It said the code would allow developers to create products more quickly.

However, it will work only with kit fitted with chips based on ARM's Cortex-M designs.

That means that despite the Cambridge-based firm's stated aim of addressing "fragmentation" in the so-called "internet of things" (IoT) market, the code will not work on devices that use Intel's Quark and Atom chips or Imagination's Mips processors.

image copyrightARM
image captionARM licenses its Cortex-M designs to chipmakers who then make and sell processors to device manufacturers

Hardware manufacturers will have access to the software before the end of the year, and the first devices to use it are expected to launch in 2015.

'Internet of silos'

The "internet of things" refers to the idea that a wide range of everyday objects will soon be connected to the net to allow their status to be monitored and possibly remote-controlled.

This ranges from large machines such as cars, fridges and traffic lights, to smaller things such as thermostats, light bulbs, garden sprinklers and stand-alone sensors.

More than three million developers will be involved in internet-of-things activities by 2019 - about double the number today - according to a recent forecast by ABI Research.

ARM says that at the moment a lot of companies are creating what it terms "internet of silos", because the various teams involved are each creating and using different code to power their products.

image copyrightThinkstock
image captionARM says its code can lead to quicker development of "smart home" and similar products

"Part of the reason that we felt the need to do an operating system was because there's a lot of fragmentation in the marketplace," Krisztian Flautner, the firm's vice-president of research and development, told the BBC.

"An important aspect of that is productivity. Instead of having large teams spending years designing a product, we'd like to turn that into months, so that you can take the [hardware] components, assemble the right ones, connect the device and focus on the problem you are solving and not the means to getting there."

While PC and smartphone operating systems typically take up gigabytes of storage, Mr Flautner said mbed OS had been deliberately designed to require a fraction of the amount.

"We're talking a few hundred kilobytes here," he said.

"It's much smaller, but that doesn't mean it's less complex. There's still a lot of software components that have to work together.

"[And] of course when you do it on these very constrained devices, an operating system becomes much more configurable. So, you can choose to leave bits out to reduce the memory footprint."

One expert said he expected that most hardware developers would welcome the release, but cautioned that the OS would not address everyone's needs.

"As critical as the operating system is for a lot of these devices, it is itself no longer a differentiating technology. It's an enabling one," said Chris Rommel from the VDC Research Group.

"It's a platform that is needed to serve as a foundation for internet-of-things functionality and services.

"By offering a solution down to the smallest class of devices that would use M-class chips, ARM's potentially setting up the success of its partners as they pursue IoT technologies.

"However, there will likely never be any one operating system - or even two or three - that can satisfy the broad ranges of needs of all the various devices that compose the internet of things. They are just too different."

ARM said its launch partners for mbed OS included IBM, Telefonica and chipmakers Marvell, NXP and Freescale.

Server software

While ARM will not charge manufacturers to use mbed OS, it will charge for the use of associated computer server software, which is designed to allow developers to securely manage the data transmitted back from their devices.

image copyrightARM
image captionARM-based chips already power most smartphones, tablets and smart TVs on sale

This product is based on technology it acquired when it bought Finnish start-up Sensinode Oy last year.

Although it will still be possible for tech firms to create and use alternative server software, ARM expects many will opt for its solution, providing a potentially lucrative new revenue stream on top of the licensing fees it already receives from chip manufacturers that use its designs.

Mr Rommel noted that an added benefit for ARM was that its products should also become more "sticky".

"Sensinode is a great way that ARM can get people to buy into its ecosystem, even more so than the traditional investments that developers made in one processor architecture.

"So, it can potentially increase the likelihood of a customer's future designs also being based on ARM, and specifically lock out Intel from moving in and offering its own internet-of-things services and solutions."

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