Microsoft's chip push continues with Azure Sphere: Securing gadgets with chips and Linux

Announcing MediaTek as a chip vendor suggests Microsoft's Azure Sphere means business.

Microsoft continued its unexpected push into the chip business by announcing “Azure Sphere,” combining a chip design, a cloud security service, and even a Linux (!) kernel to better secure billions of IoT devices around the world.

In 2016, Microsoft announced that it had co-designed an FPGA, a specific type of programmable chip that would enhance the intelligence of its cloud servers. Although Microsoft engineers had undoubtedly influenced the designs of various components, from mice to the Xbox, the FPGA was the first instance we know of where Microsoft claimed ownership of a chip. Now there’s a second: The Azure Sphere includes a fixed-function microcontroller (MCU) that Microsoft is licensing, royalty-free, to whoever wants it.

Microsoft azure sphere chip diagram Microsoft

Microsoft unveiled a basic chip-level diagram of Azure Sphere.

The Azure Sphere chip, according to Microsoft president Brad Smith (pictured up top), will be built by and ship from MediaTek in 2018. “More hardware will follow,” he added. Smith did not disclose any details about the Azure Sphere chip, merely claiming that it would be “five times” as powerful as those on the market today. He did not comment on the chip’s architecture, but said only that its design would have networking functionality built in.

Microsoft published more details about the Azure Sphere chip on a separate page though, saying that it “combines the versatility and power of an [ARM] Cortex-A processor with the low overhead and real-time guarantees of a [ARM] Cortex-M class processor.” Its built-in Pluton security system creates a hardware root of trust, stores private keys, and executes complex cryptographic operations, the page says.

What this means for you: Microsoft already provides security solutions for 90 percent of the Fortune 500 corporations, Smith said, and Microsoft clearly wants to widen its reach. The inevitable conclusion, of course, is that a connected gadget will have to be considered as yet another vulnerable hole into your household, one that will have to be patched and updated as conditions require. 

A one-stop security shop for connected devices

The idea, Smith said, is a “need to build security from the chip all the way up to the cloud.” Azure Sphere is an end-to-end security solution for the emerging market of 9 billion or so IoT products shipped this year. Many won’t be connected, but that’s changing, he said at a presentation at the RSA Security conference in San Francisco.

Microsoft azure sphere overview Microsoft

Microsoft envisions Azure Sphere as more than just a chip.

In 2016, for example, the Mirai malware took down hundreds of thousands of connected IoT devices, transforming them into a botnet that attacked security researcher Brian Krebs. Other IoT attacks have included reports of baby monitors being hacked. Azure Sphere would recognize and quash attacks of that sort before they could sprout, grow, and spread.

Microsoft already develops sophisticated software and services to protect PCs and enterprise services, some of which Microsoft said it had improved. Microsoft now provides automated tools for IT admins to “phish” employees with fake emails, called Attack Simulator, and a Secure Score tool quickly assesses the state of the enterprise’s security. But Smith said that Microsoft drew upon many different aspects of its business to come up the Azure Sphere solution.

Chances are that consumers won’t directly experience Azure Sphere, in the sense that it won’t be a product that consumers will be asked to configure. What’s surprising, though, is that Microsoft decided to ditch its own IoT efforts and simply write a custom Linux kernel that will power the initiative. An Azure Sphere security service will round out the solution.

“The best solution for a computer of this size is not a full-blown version of Windows,” Smith said, noting that it was Microsoft’s first custom Linux kernel in its 43-year history. In all, Smith said, Azure Sphere represents a solution that “really no company has done before.”

Join the newsletter!

Or

Sign up to gain exclusive access to email subscriptions, event invitations, competitions, giveaways, and much more.

Membership is free, and your security and privacy remain protected. View our privacy policy before signing up.

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags Microsoftazure

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.
Mark Hachman

Mark Hachman

PC World (US online)
Show Comments

Cool Tech

Toys for Boys

Family Friendly

Stocking Stuffer

SmartLens - Clip on Phone Camera Lens Set of 3

Learn more >

Christmas Gift Guide

Click for more ›

Brand Post

Most Popular Reviews

Latest Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Aysha Strobbe

Microsoft Office 365/HP Spectre x360

Microsoft Office continues to make a student’s life that little bit easier by offering reliable, easy to use, time-saving functionality, while continuing to develop new features that further enhance what is already a formidable collection of applications

Michael Hargreaves

Microsoft Office 365/Dell XPS 15 2-in-1

I’d recommend a Dell XPS 15 2-in-1 and the new Windows 10 to anyone who needs to get serious work done (before you kick back on your couch with your favourite Netflix show.)

Maryellen Rose George

Brother PT-P750W

It’s useful for office tasks as well as pragmatic labelling of equipment and storage – just don’t get too excited and label everything in sight!

Cathy Giles

Brother MFC-L8900CDW

The Brother MFC-L8900CDW is an absolute stand out. I struggle to fault it.

Luke Hill

MSI GT75 TITAN

I need power and lots of it. As a Front End Web developer anything less just won’t cut it which is why the MSI GT75 is an outstanding laptop for me. It’s a sleek and futuristic looking, high quality, beast that has a touch of sci-fi flare about it.

Emily Tyson

MSI GE63 Raider

If you’re looking to invest in your next work horse laptop for work or home use, you can’t go wrong with the MSI GE63.

Featured Content

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?