The Future of the RTOS is Driving the Internet of Things

The Future of the RTOS is Driving the Internet of Things

Bill Graham

Real-time operating systems (RTOS) are having to become increasingly sophisticated – they must satisfy performance demands, offer hard real-time response and handle memory constraints, but increasingly they also need to deliver capabilities demanded by the new, highly connected, security conscious, remotely managed world of machine to machine (M2M) networks and the Internet of Things (IoT).

Intelligent devices and systems make up IoT, and the majority of the billions of these “things” that make up the connected world are embedded systems, many of which are running an RTOS. It is critical that these embedded systems are scalable, secure, safe and reliable.

Scalability is multifaceted, it means scaling from small devices to larger, scaling from single systems to complex systems, and from simple software applications to multi-application devices. A modern RTOS needs to support these axes of scalability in order to deliver the most value in the IoT.

Security is a critical aspect of IoT, and next generation embedded systems must be designed with security in mind. While traditionally isolated, embedded devices are increasingly connected to corporate networks or to the Internet directly for a wide range of applications that are forming the Internet of Things. This higher connectivity results in a substantially larger exposure to threats.

A modern RTOS needs to support security features to protect against malware and unwanted or rogue applications, secure data storage and transmission and tamper-proof designs. Operating system support for these features is critical since adding them at the user or application level is ineffective, expensive and risky.

Security threats and vulnerabilities are ever changing. Connected devices must support remote management and updates in order to efficiently and accurately deploy software and firmware updates. RTOS support for remote management and updates is critical to keeping devices secure.

Safety is also paramount in many embedded systems because they control machines that can endanger life or their malfunction can cause injury or death. Although well established in aerospace, medical and industrial markets, regulators are looking to apply safety standards in new markets or looking for better applications of existing standards to software such as home-based systems like smart grid meters or medical devices. How new security threats and increased connectivity affects safety is a growing concern. As standards emerge, manufacturers increasingly look to RTOS vendors to have the appropriate safety and security capabilities and certifications.

It is conceivable that an RTOS can support all of these requirements for IoT. However, the past has taught us that market requirements change. In fact, the IoT and M2M landscape is evolving faster than RTOS release cycles, which means the design and deployment of the RTOS need to adapt.

Traditionally monolithic in nature, an RTOS is delivered all at once as a large bundle of software, board support packages (BSPs), middleware, operating system, and tools. Updates to this baseline are for bug and security fixes. Functionality updates are few and far between due to the nature of RTOS development.

The RTOS of the future needs to provide a stable core so that add-on components can rely on this stability. Components for all aspects of the RTOS, above the base kernel, can be provisioned by an application store model. RTOS customers can pick and choose components to add to their embedded software platform. Different subsystems can use different component sets.  Equally important, is that partner third party software can leverage this stable core to provide value-added components. The RTOS vendor and partner companies can leverage the same component delivery model.

The redefined RTOS needs to provide the scalability, security and safety of today’s RTOS while leveraging a new delivery model to improve on these key characteristics. In fact, the advantage of a redefined deployment and delivery model does exactly this. RTOS vendors can quickly react to changing security threats or requirements, provide certified components for new safety standards and update and expand existing functionality to better scale the system. The future for the RTOS is bright and its critical role in the Internet of Things is assured.

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