The Internet of Things (IoT), Cloud-based solutions and Big Data represent major challenges for future system designs. The Microsoft Azure cloud is providing a framework to encapsulate these paradigms in manageable chunks allowing them to be mastered in a straight-forward way. MSC Technologies, producer of embedded hardware, has now certified its most popular COM products for the Azure Cloud, and is offering the software suite ‘Easy IoT’ which is a ready-to-run application for Azure.

The future begins now, and if the current project is not yet an IoT project, then the next one is certainly going to be. Billions of interconnected node elements are forming the IoT, and concentrators near the edge of the Cloud are performing ‘Fog Computing’, effectively thinning down the steady stream of IoT data to a trickle which can be digested more easily by the Cloud’s servers. Despite this the amount of data arriving in the cloud is unbelievably large, and once stored it can be searched, digested, extracted and acted upon.

Among the Cloud service providers, Microsoft excels with leading growth rates of the number of users and of objects stored. Already in 2016, 57% of all ‘Fortune 500’ companies were using the Azure Cloud, while Microsoft reported revenue growth of 127% for the respective division.

Microsoft Azure is a steadily growing collection of Cloud services which may be used by system designers and IT professionals to collate and administrate their applications for Cloud data and the interconnected IoT devices in the field. In order to use the Azure Cloud, a ‘Global Cloud Services Provider Agreement’ (CSP) will be applied which summarises the expenses for the Cloud services in a simple way and makes them transparent. Avnet and MSC are Microsoft CSP partners enabling them to give advice to their customers for Cloud-connected hardware and the development thereof.

Using the latest computer modules from MSC will result in scalable, robust and future-proof solutions, which immediately will be usable for IoT purposes with the Cloud due to the existing certifications for Microsoft Azure. MSC has already certified all COM Express, Qseven and SMARC modules based on Intel Atom ‘BayTrail’ and ‘Braswell’ as well as the ‘Skylake’ Core processors, and recently the certification of Qseven modules with the NXP i.MX6 processor was finalised. All remaining latest modules will follow shortly so that customers will have the widest choice of COM modules for their Cloud-based applications.

For IoT applications with the Cloud, an Azure-compatible software stack is required to take over communications with the Cloud. MSC has adapted this package for its COM modules and then achieved the Microsoft certification for Azure. Customers of MSC can use this software free of charge and do not have to perform their own Microsoft certification.

Tim Jensen

'Easy IoT' – Turn-key access to the Cloud
MSC and Avnet have started the ‘Easy IoT’ program to assist customers with their entry in Cloud applications. As part of the program, the COM module and carrier board with Azure software stack is offered along with a demo application taking over the communication with the Cloud in the field element. As part of the software, telemetry functions are realised enabling remote status inquiry, and provisions are offered for customers to include their own extensions to achieve remote control of the IoT node. Finally, the ‘Easy IoT’ program also comprises an Azure base license valid for three months, and a web-based tool enabling full control of the IoT hardware in the field via the Cloud: the Avnet Azure on-boarding Tool (AAoT).

The AAoT provides a complete, ready-to-run test bed as well as a suite of functional building blocks to set up a proprietary IoT solution for target systems in the field consisting of COM products from MSC. To operate the AAoT tool, customers only need an arbitrary computer running a web browser enabling contact to the Azure Cloud. During the login procedure, the details of the Azure license will be required which for the ‘Easy IoT’ tool is free of charge in the first three months. Next the access details of the customer’s own hardware will be required before the status and data of the target application can be viewed or refined according to certain rules.

Next to showing the status of the target hardware, the AAoT also allows transmitting messages to the application. The sample application of ‘Easy IoT’ allows these to be read back at a later stage and displayed in the browser. This allows simulating ‘Cloud to Device’ Messaging as well as ‘Device to Cloud’ information exchange. This comes close to the ultimate goal of a telemetry operation based on the provision of trigger levels and limit, effectively realising an event-triggered monitoring of the target hardware via the Cloud.

As part of the ‘Easy IoT’ program, customers will receive a suitable Linux image for the COM-based target hardware (a Windows 10 version is being prepared) containing the Microsoft Azure software stack as well as the test application described above which provides data for the interrogation via the Cloud. This data carries a key which has been determined based on the board ID of the hardware, and which has initially been coupled once with the Cloud and the interrogating computer. This feature ensures that Cloud data is absolutely isolated and access is only possible for authorised users.

Peter Eckelmann

Security has always been a key concern for MSC, not only since MSC belonged to the first vendors of COM modules with an integrated security chip Trusted Platform Module and with an enhanced BIOS containing security features such as the ‘Chain of Trust’.

MSC’ robust COM modules are available long-term, and they are well suited for the realisation of IoT target hardware. This may be power-saving sensor nodes with Qseven or SMARC modules (based on ARM or x86 processors) or local concentrators based on COM Express (based on x86 Atom or Core processors) or sophisticated computers with the most powerful Core or Xeon CPUs implemented on COM Express modules. All modern COM products are now certified for use with the Microsoft Azure Cloud. For a smooth entry into Cloud-based developments, Avnet and MSC are now offering the ‘Easy IoT’ program which contains a collection of tools, and software to enable COM modules from MSC to communicate with the Azure Cloud more or less ‘out of the box’, and to get an easy start for customers’ own developments. The software is available at no charge, and also the Azure base license is free for the first three months – barring the usage charges of the Cloud. For customers who do not want to modify the sample software available from Avnet and MSC, a consultancy service is offered to create a bespoke solution.

Author profiles
Peter Eckelmann is product marketing manager of embedded boards at MSC Technologies and Tim Jensen is director of software solutions at Avnet Integrated Solutions.