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27 February 2015

ARM stokes interest in mBed OS with IBM cloud deal

In targeting the IoT, ARM has gone well beyond its usual remit and is attempting to create an entire platform for its customers, incorporating development tools, multiple levels of security and the cloud-based mBed OS system to tie all the sensors, devices and gateways together, and secure them. It knows the real IoT power will lie in such frameworks and is keen to tie this to its processor platform, rather than ceding that point of control to Intel, or to a player higher up the stack, such as Canonical.

The full release of mBed OS is not due until October, but the underlying mBed software and developer tools have been around for a while and will be implemented on various devices in the run-up to full OS availability. The first such announcement is an ‘IoT starter kit’, launched at Embedded World this week in partnership with IBM and clearly designed to convince customers in the enterprise and industrial spaces – where the serious IoT money is going to be – that mBed OS is real and usable, not just a roadmap.

The kit consists of a development board, the mBed systems software and access to IBM’s BlueMix cloud-based back end services. The board is made by Freescale and runs on the Cortex-M4 microcontroller core. (Other elements include RAM and Flash memory, 128 x 32 graphics LCD, joystick, two potentiometers, speaker, accelerometer, RGB LED and temperature sensor.) Data from the board can be moved to IBM’s IoT Foundation service, for storing in the cloud.

The kit is designed to simplify or eliminate the developer’s effort to support device-sensor communications or data transmission to the cloud. Users can set up the board and start feeding data to BlueMix within three minutes, according to ARM.

The current version has Ethernet connectivity but in future there may be options to use cellular, WiFi, Bluetooth or Thread. Later updates will also run the full ARM mBed OS as that becomes available, and use the related cloud back end, ARM mBed Device Server, to deliver a range of security, communication and device management features.

The IBM arrangement is not exclusive and ARM hopes to make similar alliances with the main IoT-focused cloud providers in order to maximize the flexibility for its licensees’ chips to be included in enterprise-class products. It is sure to have EMC’s Pivotal platform in its sights, since this is a key element of the GE-led Industrial Internet Initiative, perhaps the most influential activity in the big-industry side of the IoT (GE invests in Pivotal). The BlueMix tie-in also clarifies how ARM will use mBed OS to support a wide range of cloud services that go well beyond its own capabilities, while adding its own ingredients, notably in security at both chip and software levels.

The BlueMix PaaS (platform as a service) aims to rival Amazon Web Services as a developer-friendly cloud, running on IBM’s SoftLayer cloud computing platform. At the tail end of last year, the company launched the IoT Foundation to act as a repository for all the device data generated by the system, and to provide a secure way to share that data between services. It enables connected gadgets – in this case, those running on ARM microprocessor and microcontroller cores – to send encrypted data to the BlueMix database where it will be linked to other services via APIs, and stored. Developers will then be able to access that data and, if permitted, control devices which they do not manufacture.

It is important for ARM to get the boards out in advance of full mBed OS, to encourage developers to experiment – another echo of Intel with its Galileo Quark-based single-board computer. Freescale referred to the new ARM kit as “an Arduino for the industrial internet”, and the partners want to boost the same kind of experimentalism that such boards stimulate – though clearly targeting enterprise focused professionals rather than hobbyists. But those will include start-ups and individuals too, even in the industrial space. IBM said: “There are completely new companies coming into this space, people with start-ups and Kickstarters are going to be trying to create solutions and if we don’t lower the barriers to get them started we might see a stagnant IoT ecosystem.”

Zach Shelby, VP of marketing at ARM, said about 100,000 developers now use mBed tools and about 45 available development boards. The most popular applications so far are for smart city systems and beacons.