There’s nothing like a common enemy to bring together companies that otherwise find themselves in competition with one another. In the still untamed world of the Internet of Things (IoT), however, it doesn’t require another company to trigger that kind of reaction, just a set of real-world challenges: complexity, confusion, and overwhelming choice.
After bold proclamations from an enormous range of sources about the nearly limitless opportunity that IoT was supposed to represent, the cold hard reality of modest deployment numbers has created a dark cloud over the tech industry. The promised land of billions or even a trillion connected devices that IoT was supposed to enable seems as distant as ever and some analysts are starting to walk back their overenthusiastic early proclamations.
That’s likely why the two leaders in major chip architectures for IoT (and virtually all!) devices—Arm and Intel—have come together to help break down some of the barriers that have held the industry back. As both companies clearly recognize, the opportunity enabled by IoT is still very real, but it turns out it’s a lot harder to achieve than many first anticipated. As with so many issues in the tech industry, much of the problem has to do with scale. Setting up a few connected sensors to measure important data and then drawing insights from that sounds pretty straightforward, and, in many early pilot tests, results were very encouraging. Nearly everyone involved in the industry, in fact, can point to a few great case studies of where IoT deployments have made a very positive impact.
Taking those principles into large, widespread deployments, however, has proven to be very difficult. From the enormous diversity of IoT software platforms and ecosystems, to an even wider range of device types (and chip architectures powering them), through the massive set of potential security challenges, many companies eager to leverage IoT have slowed or even halted their implementation plans.
One of the biggest challenges, it turns out, is actually one of the first things that has to be done: connecting the devices to the software tools that will collect the data they generate. While that may sound simple, it turns out there are quite a few steps to take and issues to consider when talking about quickly and securely connecting hundreds of millions of devices that will be built by tens of thousands of different companies.
Specifically, you have to consider the provisioning of a device—which is the process of setting it up to properly connect to a network—and ensuring that it’s connected to the right place, communicating securely, and updated with the latest device firmware, a set of tasks typically referred to as onboarding. In addition, you need the flexibility to connect those devices to any variety of different cloud platforms (especially in the multi-cloud era that many companies now find themselves in), and you need to ensure that the device hasn’t been tampered with at any point during its manufacturing, distribution, installation, or operation.
Again, multiply all those concerns by the billions and it’s easy to see that even the smallest delay or the slightest oversight in any step of the process could be very problematic. Acutely aware of these concerns, both Arm and Intel have introduced a variety of technologies to address them over the years. Notably, Intel’s provisioning system called Secure Device Onboard (SDO), leverages the company’s hardware root-of-trust based EPID (Enhanced Privacy ID) technology to cleverly mask the real identity of a device, while simultaneously assuring a connected network that the device is who it says it is and that it can be connected automatically to a trusted network. The net result is the ability to securely bring IoT devices online without any human interaction, also called zero touch, which is a huge timesaver.
In addition, Intel SDO features a capability called late binding that allows a device’s security credentials and intended network target to be added at any point in the supply chain. This allows device manufacturers, or companies who are piecing together IoT devices from a variety of different suppliers, to cost-effectively mass produce items that can be customized for specific applications or environments at a later date. This allows IoT device makers the ability to save costs, but not give up the critical security customizations necessary to avoid huge problems like the Mirai Botnet security attack that has hit many insecure IoT devices over the last few years.
Arm, for its part, recently unveiled their Pelion IoT Device Management service, which also has a zero touch provisioning feature (for Arm IP-based devices, such as those with chips featuring Cortex-M or Cortex-A processor cores), and provides device management capabilities. Like the Intel solution, Arm’s Pelion service is ultimately based on a hardware root of trust that’s built into the core design of Arm-licensed processors and microcontrollers so commonly used in IoT devices.
By getting these two solutions to work together, the companies are helping overcome a number of factors that individually they weren’t able to achieve. First, of course, is the fact that the solutions have now been extended to cover both x86-based Intel powered IoT devices and Arm core-licensed IoT devices—essentially just about every device imaginable. As a result, now both types of devices can be provisioned with zero human touch, both types of devices can take advantage of Intel’s late binding technology, and both types of devices can be managed through Arm’s Pelion Device Management service.
The ultimate result is that these steps should make it significantly easier for companies who may deploy a wide variety of different IoT devices, built with different components from different manufacturers, to quickly and securely connect to the right places in a consistent manner. This can not only significantly reduce potential friction points in large-scale deployments, but makes it much easier to manage, update, and work with them as a collective group. Plus, by making it more cost-effective (and more secure) for device manufacturers, it should lower the costs of large IoT installations, reducing yet another potential barrier to adoption.
The march to billions of IoT devices and the amazing ecosystem that it should enable is still bound to be a long one, but by combining the best capabilities of their respective IoT solutions, Arm and Intel are taking a major step together in clearing the road of potential distractions.