Several years ago, Amazon acquired the open source operating system FreeRTOS and with it, launched a new operating system named Amazon FreeRTOS, which provides developers working on IoT devices an integrated path to connect with Amazon Web Services (AWS). The idea seems simple: Provide developers with a free method to connect to the cloud and Amazon might generate more cloud revenue, or at least ease the burden for current AWS users who are developing IoT edge devices.
For years, Amazon has run this vertical integration strategy on its own, but Microsoft is now challenging Amazon’s dominance with its recent acquisition of the RTOS and middleware provider Express Logic, heating up the “cloud wars” between the tech giants. Details on what will become of Express Logic’s assets still have not been released but there are several interesting possibilities that could have dramatic ramifications across the embedded industry.
So, what could all of this mean for embedded developers?
What if Microsoft Maintains the Status Quo?
The first, and least likely, outcome is that Microsoft will allow Express Logic to operate the way that it always has and will simply include its software assets in one of its premiere Azure packages that will allow paying customers to easily integrate to Azure. This would provide IoT developers with several potential benefits such as:
- Decreased development time to connect to the cloud
- Access libraries that abstract cloud functionality
- Faster development time
- Decreased development costs
- High-quality, certified RTOS and middleware
Undoubtedly, existing clients could still purchase licenses and interact with the integrated Express Logic team in a similar fashion as before. However, there could be changes to the software assets such as removal of the unbiased, third party hooks to third party cloud providers such as AWS.
This option doesn’t seem to be a value-add to Microsoft because it only augments its cloud offerings, but doesn’t do anything to help it really compete against major competitors. The Express Logic assets are all integrated and certified components, including the ThreadX RTOS and certified middleware components such as a file system, GUI run-time, network stack, TLS, IoT protocols, and USB host and device components. This is a high-quality, commercial-grade solution that is quite different from the non-certified Amazon FreeRTOS solution, which includes the FreeRTOS scheduler and various open-source components that are cobbled together to provide an example solution. If Microsoft wants to really shake up the market, there is a much more interesting possibility: ThreadX and its associated middleware could become free.
Is Microsoft “FreeThreadX” Coming?
It’s quite intriguing to consider that the real value in acquiring Express Logic is to provide developers with a free, certified, embedded IoT solution that can enable IoT developers to more easily, and inexpensively, access the Azure cloud. Acquiring Express Logic is not so much a play to get into the embedded space as it is to compete with AWS and increase cloud sales. This is the next move in the big tech cloud wars, which is the response to Amazon acquiring FreeRTOS.
Microsoft could have pursued an open-source solution like FreeRTOS. Instead, it raised the stakes by acquiring a company that is well known in the embedded industry for its quality software, which it proves through numerous certifications and deployments, even in safety-critical applications. These are points that Amazon can’t match with its current solution, which is open source and not certified to any standard that I am aware of.
If Microsoft were to go this route, there are several different licensing options that it could implement for the Express Logic assets. For example, it could provide binary images with licenses for individual microcontrollers. While this would be a viable solution, one could argue that this would not be going quite as far as Amazon did with FreeRTOS, which could leave developers wanting more.
This brings us to the second option -- to open-source ThreadX and its associated middleware. While this would make the commercial software an open hand, it would satisfy many developers who need to see the source code. Without the source, developers are wary to use a piece of code and often refuse it outright.
While the idea of a “FreeThreadX” is intriguing, there would certainly be some limitations. For example, even if the code was open-sourced, maintenance would undoubtedly need to be done by Microsoft in order to ensure that the stringent coding standards were still followed in order to maintain safety and security certifications. After all, I see these as being the major benefits and differentiators over using FreeRTOS, especially if cost is removed from the equation. We may even see an open-source version that includes object releases for certified components. That way, there can be an assurance that the code has not changed for the product release. At the end of the day, Microsoft needs to leverage these assets as a cloud-enabling technology, just as Amazon did with FreeRTOS. The cloud has far more potential to generate revenue for Microsoft than selling individual licenses for an RTOS or middleware.
What Does This Mean for the Embedded Systems Industry?
No matter which way Microsoft decides to go, the industry will forever be impacted by the Express Logic acquisition for several reasons. First, as time goes on, there will be fewer and fewer independent companies offering high-quality, real-time software stacks and operating systems. They’ve been slowly acquired over the last several years, and while new candidates continue to pop up, I feel like they are mostly just “me-too” solutions that offer little extra value over what is already available.
With this acquisition, there may be fewer companies willing to risk using these solutions if they remain a “pay-to-play” solution. There also will certainly be one less third-party that can provide access to any cloud provider of a developer’s choosing, since support for non-Azure clouds will undoubtedly be discontinued.
Next, ThreadX is a leading RTOS with more certifications for software and safety than any other RTOS I’m familiar with. If Microsoft makes it freely available, with all of its certifications, there would be very few reasons why anyone would use any other commercially-available or open-source RTOS. It’s ARM-PSA certified and designed for use in safety-critical systems. Anyone using FreeRTOS would have to upgrade to SafeRTOS, which would require an additional fee or royalty (whatever the model is), which wouldn’t make sense if there is a high quality, certified RTOS that was available for free. Developers, in my opinion, would flock to Microsoft for this embedded solution, which by association, would result in more Azure users and greater revenue.
Finally, the acquisition could also disrupt the third parties that are still doing business in the middleware and RTOS space. An open-source, free, or even cloud-amortized model would make it far more difficult for other companies to compete in the embedded space. We could see a sudden decrease in the number of viable companies and eventually the embedded space may just become an extension of the three big tech companies that provide cloud services. As developers we would have to hope that quality remains a priority in the cloud wars. If it does, the end result for the embedded systems industry could be higher quality, more reliable embedded systems, and greater standardization around just a few high-quality operating systems.
The consolidation within the embedded systems industry continues and the latest acquisition of Express Logic shows us that the cloud wars between the tech giants is not just intensifying but potentially impacting the way embedded systems engineers build systems. We can continue to see big tech intervening in the embedded space, especially as the IoT gains momentum and control of not just the cloud, but the edge. What Microsoft will do with its new software assets is still up in the air, and to date I have not heard any announcements, but the possibilities are extremely interesting and without question will escalate the cloud wars between the tech giants. It will be fun to see in the coming months how things shake out and how it will affect how we all build our embedded systems.
Jacob Beningo is an embedded software consultant who currently works with clients in more than a dozen countries to dramatically transform their businesses by improving product quality, cost and time to market. He has published more than 200 articles on embedded software development techniques, is a sought-after speaker and technical trainer and holds three degrees which include a Masters of Engineering from the University of Michigan. Feel free to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, at his website website. Also, sign-up for his monthly Embedded Bytes Newsletter.
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