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Microsoft Takes On AWS In RTOS Space With Express Logic Acquisition

'This gives them a very good arrow in the quiver as they look to expand their IoT aspirations,' an analyst says of Microsoft's acquisition of Express Logic—a deal that will allow its Azure cloud service to challenge AWS in the market for resource-constrained IoT devices.

Microsoft's acquisition of Express Logic will allow the company to compete with a similar offering from Amazon Web Services that targets billions of resource-constrained Internet of Things devices, two analysts said.

The Redmond, Wash.-based tech giant announced its acquisition of Express Logic Thursday, saying that the company's real-time operating system (RTOS), ThreadX, will give Microsoft access to "billions of new connected endpoints" to connect to its Azure cloud service for enhanced capabilities. Financial terms were not disclosed.

[Related: What Microsoft VP Rodney Clark Learned From 1,000 IoT Deployments]

Microsoft's acquisition comes a little over a year after the company said it would invest $5 billion into IoT initiatives over the next four years—a move that is helping its Azure cloud service further contest AWS' dominance. Since then, the company has rolled out several new services and products, like Azure Security Center for IoT.

Express Logic's ThreadX RTOS is designed for IoT and edge devices powered by microcontroller units that run in resource-constrained environments, such as lightbulbs, temperature gauges, air conditioners and medical devices, according to Sam George, director of Azure IoT at Microsoft.

These devices, which can be constrained by low-power, low-memory and small-footprint requirements, could reach roughly 15 billion by 2020, according to a previous estimate cited by Microsoft.

Chris Rommel, an analyst at research firm VDC Research, said Microsoft's acquisition of Express Logic will allow the company to compete with FreeRTOS, AWS' non-commercial RTOS offering that targets small-footprint devices like ThreadX. His firm found that ThreadX has been used in more than 6.2 billion deployments over its entire lifetime, a figure that Microsoft cited in its announcement.

"This gives them a very good arrow in the quiver as they look to expand their IoT aspirations," he said.

Unlike AWS FreeRTOS, ThreadX is a commercial RTOS. But Microsoft's plans for ThreadX are otherwise similar to how AWS makes money from ThreadX: by selling products and services for connectivity, management and analytics that enhance the capabilities of devices running the operating system.

Samuel Hale, an analyst at IoT research firm MachNation, said his firm believes that "over the next 12 to 18 months "Microsoft will incorporate the ability to manage these new RTOS-equipped devices using the device management capabilities of Microsoft Azure IoT."

"Microsoft decided to join Amazon in providing its own IoT-focused, real-time operating system," he said in a statement. "An RTOS is used to virtually guarantee that certain actions can happen on IoT devices within defined time limits," he added, referring to the feature known as determinism.

Determinism is core to what separates an RTOS from a regular operating system like Linux and Windows, according to Rommel.

"It comes down to response time," he said. "Linux in most cases is not going to satisfy things in which you need high reliability and deterministic execution."

While Microsoft's acquisition of Express Logic marks the company's return to the RTOS market, it's not the company's only solution that targets IoT devices powered by microcontroller units. Last year, the company launched a "first-of-its-kind" solution for securing MCU devices called Azure Sphere, which consists of a custom Linux operating system, a new class of MCU chips embedded with Microsoft security technology and connectivity and a cloud-based security service.

With the acquisition of Express Logic, Microsoft said ThreadX is complementary to Azure Sphere and will be targeted for Azure Sphere devices that require real-time processing. While the company said it will recommend Azure Sphere for "customers' most secured connections to the cloud," it will offer ThreadX as a solution for highly constrained devices that can't use Azure Sphere. The company will also enable ThreadX-powered devices to connect to Azure IoT edge devices.

"Where Azure Sphere isn’t possible in highly constrained devices, we recommend Express Logic’s ThreadX RTOS over other RTOS options in the industry because of its additional certifications and out-of-the-box connectivity to Azure IoT Hub," George, the Azure IoT director, said in a blog post.

Rommel said while there is some overlap in the kinds of devices targeted for ThreadX and Azure Sphere, they are positioned for different kinds of requirements. However, he said, calling the two solutions "complementary" might be a bit generous.

"If they had done this acquisition a couple years ago, I don’t think they would have put out Azure Sphere," at least in its current form, Rommel said.

The primary goal for Microsoft, according to George, "is to simplify IoT — from the cloud all the way down to the smallest MCU-based devices."

“Express Logic’s technology and team will be an incredible addition to Microsoft in our quest to give every customer the ability to transform their businesses, and the world at large, with connected solutions,” George said.

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