Microsoft’s bid to secure the Internet of Things: Custom Linux, custom chips, Azure

Enlarge / The three parts of Azure Sphere. (credit: Microsoft)

The drive to connect everything to the Internet and build the Internet of Things has created a new security nightmare. Millions of devices with little to no active maintenance are now permanently online, enabling the creation of massive botnets as the devices go unpatched and unloved. Microsoft today announced its solution: Azure Sphere.

Azure Sphere has three components. First is a new class of microcontrollers (MCUs) that supports seven critical hardware features that Microsoft says are a necessary foundation to build secure systems. These include support for unforgeable encryption keys protected by hardware, the ability to update system software, and hardware-enforced compartmentalization between software components. Microsoft has some track record in building such systems, in particularly with the Xbox, which is designed to have tamperproof hardware that’s securely updateable.

The MCUs include Microsoft-designed silicon. The custom parts will be available royalty-free to manufacturers. MediaTek will ship the first such device, the MT3620, later this year. Microsoft calls it a “crossover MCU” that has the versatility and processing power of ARM’s Cortex A-series designs, with the small size and low overheads more typical of the Cortex M-series. Sphere MCUs incorporate an application processor, a real-time processor, flash storage, and memory, along with Microsoft’s security module (named “Pluton”) and network connectivity.

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