On April 18th, Microsoft has announced the acquisition of Express Logic, a San Diego-based embedded software company, for an undisclosed sum.
Since its entry into the IoT market through Azure and Windows 10 IoT Core, Microsoft has been making significant investments. Last year, Julia White, CVP for Azure, announced an investment of $5 billion in IoT over the next four years. The latest acquisition of Express Logic indicates the commitment of Microsoft towards building an end-to-end IoT platform.
Why did Microsoft acquire Express Logic? How does this acquisition help the company and its partners?
Here is an attempt to address these questions.
Express Logic – An embedded OS company
Express Logic has been building and deploying real-time operating system (RTOS) since 1996.
An RTOS is a niche, specialized, purpose-built operating system designed exclusively for constrained devices such as microcontrollers. Unlike general purpose operating systems like Linux and Windows, RTOS manages the OS and the code written explicitly for the device in real-time. Think of it like a firmware that can be flashed into a device.
Express Logic has an RTOS called ThreadX that’s been deployed in over 6.2 billion devices. With a small footprint of 2KB, the OS can be deployed in resource-constrained devices including microcontrollers. THREADX runs on most popular 32/64-bit microprocessors, out-of-the-box, thoroughly tested and fully supported.
ThreadX is the foundation of Express Logic’s X-Ware IoT Platform, which also includes embedded file support (FileX), embedded UI support (GUIX), embedded TCP/IP and cloud connectivity (NetX/NetX Duo), and USB support (USBX). All the components are built in a modular fashion that can be assembled to form a platform.
Though not open source, ThreadX is distributed through a model in which source code is provided and licenses are royalty-free. It is available for a variety of platforms including ARM, Intel, NXP, TI and Xilinx. It even supports the most recent FPGA platform from Intel based on Arria 10.
NASA used express Logic’s ThreadX in the Sensor Data Acquisition (SDA) component of Deep Impact, a spacecraft designed to study the interior composition of the comet Tempel 1.
Why did Microsoft buy Express Logic?
The Express Logic acquisition is strategic to Microsoft which will help the company in connecting millions of devices to its Azure cloud platform.
Microcontrollers are cheap electronic chips that are found almost everywhere. From TV remote controllers to microwave ovens to even doorbells, all modern electronic devices are based on microcontrollers.
With the rise of smart devices, consumers want to control everything from the Internet. The mobile phone is transforming into a universal remote control. Even in industrial environments, connected factories and machinery is becoming the norm. Microcontrollers are at the front and center of the connected world.
Traditional electronic and device manufacturers are not equipped to deal with connected platforms. They are looking for a turnkey solution that will help them build smart devices that take advantage of the cloud and IoT ecosystem.
With the Express Logic acquisition, Microsoft is going to turn ThreadX into an RTOS ready for smart devices. Microsoft will make ThreadX the cloud-enabled RTOS by extending the kernel to include libraries that talk to Azure IoT. Each device powered by ThreadX will gain secure and instant connectivity to Microsoft Azure IoT Hub. When deployed in highly resource-constrained devices, ThreadX will enable the devices to discover and communicate with Azure IoT Edge devices. This architecture and topology can connect every ThreadX-based device with Azure IoT Hub.
Microsoft will exploit the popularity and the reach of ThreadX in on-boarding millions of microcontrollers to its IoT platform. This move will also help Microsoft in countering the threat from AWS IoT. Two years ago, Amazon acquired FreeRTOS to augment its kernel with capabilities to talk AWS IoT Core and AWS Greengrass. Microsoft is all set to do the same with Express Logic’s ThreadX RTOS.
What happens to the Azure Sphere?
Almost a year ago, Microsoft announced Azure Sphere, a secure software platform for microcontrollers.
Azure Sphere has three components – certified microcontrollers, secure OS and cloud connectivity service. The researchers at Microsoft worked on all the layers to deliver an end-to-end stack that’s secure from the ground up. Microsoft has partnered with silicon manufacturers such as MediaTek to build Azure Sphere chips.
Why did Microsoft invest in Express Logic when it has Azure Sphere? Azure Sphere is an integrated stack designed to run on specialized microcontroller exclusively designed for it. Due to the emphasis on security, not Azure Stack OS cannot be used with every microcontroller. This is where Express Logic’s ThreadX comes into the picture. It lowers the bar to onboard pretty much any microcontroller to Azure. Due to reduced security policies and prerequisites, all the devices powered by ThreadX can be easily connected to Microsoft’s Azure IoT.
How does this impact Microsoft’s IoT Strategy?
The Express Logic acquisition extends the reach of Microsoft Azure IoT to the last mile. It gives Microsoft access to millions of devices that are waiting to turn into smart devices.
Express Logic ThreadX, Azure Sphere, Windows 10 IoT Core, Azure IoT Device SDK, Azure IoT Edge cover the entire spectrum of microcontrollers and devices. Devices that are powerful enough will consume Azure IoT services directly while the constrained devices will talk to the nearest Azure IoT Edge device for connectivity.
The investments in embedded software and RTOS combined with a scalable and secure IoT platform on Azure transform Microsoft into a leader in industrial IoT and automation.