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15 May 2015

Ubuntu, Microsoft, General Electric form (yet) another IoT alliance

In what would have been an unexpected move just 2 years ago, Microsoft has partnered with open-source powerhouse Canonical (the company behind Ubuntu), as well as industrial giant General Electric (GE) and consumer electronics maker Acer – as well as DataArt, which is contributing its DeviceHive platform to the cause. The end goal is to create a predictive maintenance for the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT).

Under its new CEO Satya Nadella, Microsoft appears to have opened up to new cloud-based opportunities – trying to push Windows to as many screens and platforms as possible. Consequently, partnering with one of the biggest players in Linux is both a sensible and not entirely unexpected move, especially as Canonical’s Snappy Ubuntu Core distribution threatens to gain some serious cloud services penetration –

Canonical and Microsoft are currently working on bringing the former’s Juju DevOps developer tools to Windows, as well as porting Windows Server to OpenStack. With DataArt, the two are combining their offerings with the DeviceHive platform – an open-source project to connect devices regardless of their network location.

DeviceHive was unveiled back in November 2012, as a free open-source cloud-based M2M communication framework. With a management portal to handle open-source libraries, APIs, and protocols, the platform aims to allow users to control their devices in a network-protocol-agnostic manner.

“Whether it’s an iPhone app talking to a smart energy thermostat via a ZigBee gateway connected to the cloud, or a fleet tracking device connected over a 3G network talking to Google Maps – we have it covered,” declared DataArt’s CIO and co-founder Artyom Astafurov. “DeviceHive eliminatges the time-consuming burden of developing messaging protocol and communication libraries.”

In terms of operational workflow, the system will be using Snappy Ubuntu as the IoT device’s operating system, which will then send its collected data back to an Ubuntu-based OpenStack cloud, via DeviceHive’s M2M communications. Once in the OpenStack environment, the Juju Charms in Azure will plug the collected data into the required data analysis application or platform.

“With devices becoming smarter and smaller, and cost points dropping with increasing scale and demand, we are seeing exciting innovation in the IoT market,” said Anko Duizer, Microsoft’s EMEA director for technical evangelism and development. “Smart industrial systems need secure information flow from and to millions of devices and systems to gain and act on data driven insights. DataArt, with their development of the DeviceHive platform, combines specialized technology and vertical expertise that can now be easily consumed via the Azure Marketplace.”

Playing a rather lesser role than might be expected given its Predix data analytics platform, GE comes into play with the news that it will be demonstrating the first commercial implementation of the platform with its ChillHub connected refrigerator – which runs Snappy Ubuntu Core. The ChillHub is being pitched as an open development platform for others to use for tinkering, but it will also sell for just shy of $1,000. More Ubuntu-powered GE appliances are due to hit the market in the coming quarters.

Somewhat separately, Acer’s involvement sees it pair with Canonical to unveil a prototype unit for Acer’s new aBeing platform – which uses Snappy to run Acer’s Open C&C Platform 3.0. The Acer project is part of its Bring Your Own Cloud (BYOC) initiative, and the prototype aBeing unit is being billed as a control center that consumers can use to control all of their IoT devices – via Acer’s hardware.

For developers, Acer says aBeing provides a platform for easier research and testing, minimizing costs for working with cloud platforms to target connected IoT apps. Mark Yang, Director of IoT Solutions at the BYOC Business Unit at Acer, said “we’re collaborating at a time when IoT projects are starting to become commercial realities. Our aim is to accelerate time to market for all those who are investing time, energy and creativity in IoT projects. Working together we can combine clever technology like Snappy with go-to-market experience, incentivizing the developer community to design more and more innovative Snappy apps to run on Acer hardware.”

Snappy Ubuntu Core:

After enjoying the fortunate release schedule of Ubuntu Core, which coincided with industry-wide enthusiasm for container-based cloud installations, Canonical launched its IoT focused flavor of Ubuntu Core – aimed directly at the devices that will coordinate local IoT communications.

Ubuntu Core has a history in mobile, where it was geared towards updating firmware and the operating systems of devices over the air. Using transactional updates, to avoid bricking a device with a faulty update package, Core has now evolved into the IoT-focused offering.

In these deployments, Snappy Ubuntu Core will act as the OS for the IoT hubs that route and backhaul data from the smallest devices to the largest cloud-instances. Thanks to the design of Ubuntu Core, the OS can be continuously updated in the field, so that security vulnerabilities can be patched and mitigated as they are discovered; a very important requirement for high-value deployments in businesses or people’s private homes.

The new strategy sees the lightweight Ubuntu Core installed on customer premises equipment and larger appliances. Ubuntu is then able to install the necessary software libraries, on an as-needed basis, so that any device in the home can talk to another via the Ubuntu-powered device – be it a set top, router, or even an old PC tucked away in a closet.

In this implementation, Ubuntu is effectively acting as a universal translator that can download any language it needs to translate the messages that a lightbulb might be sending to a set of automated window blinds. As long as the device developers can write a software library and/or application framework for the individual radios or radio protocols, the coordinating Ubuntu device can route the data.

Eliminating these translating controllers, which take a radio protocol and allow it to talk to a smartphone in most cases, will go a long way towards reducing the cost of an IoT device – a major benefit to consumer adoption of smart home tech, as well as businesses looking to improve efficiency and profit margins via automation.

Another advantage of this library and framework approach is that the battle-lines being drawn by the likes of Qualcomm’s AllSeen Alliance, the IIC, the OIC and Google’s Thread suddenly look less like the beginning of a protracted war of attrition. With a platform such as Ubuntu Core, a coordinating hub just has to ensure it has downloaded the necessary library (ZigBee, Z-Wave, Thread, AllJoyn, IoTivity, etc.) to counter the issue of incompatible device communication protocols.

Snappy Ubuntu Core is a container-based version of the regular Ubuntu Linux distribution. It can be thought of as a stripped-down version that contains only the required software libraries to operate on servers. Additional libraries are added as needed, but the software is geared towards running applications on cloud servers in a container-based environment – which keeps the core OS separate from the applications it is running without having to run multiple virtual machines on the server, which benefits run-time efficiency and security.

The term snappy describes the fundamental difference between this one and the PC flavor of Ubuntu. Snappy describes how apps can be snapped into place on the read-only OS without interfering with other systems. They can just as easily be snapped out of place when they are no longer needed, without compromising the system’s integrity – as each app runs independently of the others and can’t interfere with the OS. The approach arose from Ubuntu’s ongoing mobile phone endeavors, which have yet to bear fruit in the form of an Ubuntu Touch handset.