ARM builds an OS for the Internet of Things

ARM's mbed OS will be free for use on ARM chips when it's released next year

Diagram of the mbed OS architecture

Diagram of the mbed OS architecture

Chip design company, ARM, is stepping outside its area of expertise to release a new operating system that could play a big role in building out the Internet of Things.

Called mbed OS, the operating system aims to provide a common software layer for securing and connecting the mass of devices expected to be hooked up to networks in the coming years, ranging from streetlights and gas meters to home appliances and pacemakers.

Along with the OS, ARM plans to sell a piece of back-end software, called the mbed Device Server, that companies will use to collect data from IoT devices and make the data available for use by other services, such as analytics programs.

Those devices run a hodgepodge of OSes today, and ARM thinks there's a need for a dominant player that developers and service providers can work with. It says mbed OS will help companies make better use of the data produced by those smart connected devices.

For example, mbed OS might be installed in streetlights in a city, providing a way to collect data about how many pedestrians pass by and when the lights need to be on or off, to help save save electricity.

Mbed OS will be made available next year, free of charge for use on ARM-based chips, ARM CTO Mike Muller told reporters. It's being announced Wednesday at ARM's TechCon conference in Silicon Valley.

ARM is best known for its Cortex-A processor designs used in smartphones, tablets and wearables. But those devices already have operating systems in the form of Android and iOS.

ARM also makes a family of microcontrollers called Cortex-M. They're less powerful chips found in embedded equipment like parking meters and antilock braking systems. It's those chips that mbed OS is aimed at.

It's a big step for ARM, which has never tried to develop and support a widely used operating system before. As the devices its chips are used in become more capable and varied, the company is being forced to play a bigger role in software.

It started developing mbed in 2006, initially for use by students and artists who wanted a way to program electronic devices they were building, Muller said. The mbed device server was developed by a company called Sensinode that ARM acquired last year.

A lot of partners are backing the mbed OS effort, including software vendors IBM and Salesforce.com, which will make sure their applications can connect to mbed servers to pull in data, and ARM chip makers like Freescale. There are still some notable names missing, such as the chip maker Broadcom.

Mbed is an event-driven OS that supports several connectivity standards for pushing data up to the cloud, including Wi-Fi, Bluetooth Smart, Thread, and a sub-6GHz version of 6LoWPAN that works over longer distances. It also supports LTE and several other ceullar standards.

The mbed OS takes up a scant 256KB of memory or less so it can be installed on tiny devices such as sensors. It includes C++ programming interfaces, an event framework, a communication manager and support for cryptography, among other things.

ARM says most, but not all, mbed OS software will be open source. In theory, Imagination or Intel could port mbed OS to their own chip architectures if they wanted to, though ARM made a point of saying it's free for use on ARM chips, implying others would need to pay a fee.

James Niccolai covers data centers and general technology news for IDG News Service. Follow James on Twitter at @jniccolai. James's e-mail address is james_niccolai@idg.com

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James Niccolai

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