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Microsoft Patches, Open-Source Code and the IoT

Microsoft’s software patching expertise combined with their code donations to AllJoyn and others suggests a significant commercial presence in the IoT.

By Christopher R. O’Dea, Contributing Business Editor

It raised eyebrows when Microsoft this summer contributed open source code to one of the projects aiming to bring the promise of the Internet-of-Things to life.

Open source isn’t the first idea that springs to mind when one hears “Microsoft.”  A more ready association might be “patches,” reflecting the experience of Microsoft’s long march to dominance when the guiding principle for Windows seemed to be ‘release now, code later.’

Expertise in patches, essentially fixing gaps in critical software on the fly, might seem applicable to in the IoT realm, which in its most optimistic formulation promises that virtually every device or system that uses electricity will one day be linked to a network that gives users the ability to control heating and cooling plants, security systems and cappuccino makers from a remote device. Surely the software required to talk to each device would look like a series of patches.

Not to worry, says Microsoft. In what looks to be a major step forward for IoT implementation, Microsoft contributed code for a “device system bridge,” or DSB, to the AllSeen Alliance, a cross-industry collaborative project of The Linux Foundation that counts more than 170 companies as members. It’s a key part of the project’s open source IoT software standard, AllJoyn (see Figure 1), that connects AllJoyn devices in local networks to external networks,  enabling remote access, device management and security control.

alljoyn_dsbarch

Figure 1: Non-AllJoyn and AllJoyn-supported endpoints can be connected via a device system bridge.

The AllJoynDSB acts as a “superconnector” that links existing devices using other standards to the AllJoyn network as if they were just additional AllJoyn devices. Microsoft’s code thereby goes a long way towards solving one of the biggest obstacles to the expansion of practical IoT operability – the vast universe of devices and control networks across the economy.

The AlljoynDSB will help achieve “significant savings for companies that bridge existing automation systems and devices to leverage their existing infrastructure and put it to work in IoT,” said Jason Farmer, AllSeen Alliance Gateway Working Group contributor and Lead Program Manager at Microsoft.

Other tech firms are pushing standards projects to allow consumers to use the internet to link devices into networks that let them tell the devices what to do and when to do it. Intel and other chip makers are developing Iotivity, Apple offers HomeKit, and Google is devising Brillo, a memory-lite IoT operating system separate from its Nest smart home division.

While current hype is focused on which IoT project will be the first to let a homeowner run lawn sprinklers, central air conditioning and a Keurig from a remote device, Microsoft appears to have bigger game in its sights. Alljoyn supports home control applications, but the new bridge is aimed at helping companies build IoT networks in the consumer, healthcare, industrial and governmental sectors. And while its recent embrace of open source development may be an effort to make up lost ground in a world that’s increasingly Linux-driven, Microsoft didn’t wind up defending its dominant position without first becoming, well, dominant.  It knows a thing or two about setting global standards in the IT world, and it plays to win in the corporate world (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: There is a wide range of devices that need to be connected to each other to make the IoT operational.

Figure 2: There is a wide range of devices that need to be connected to each other to make the IoT operational.

The IoT battle is shaping up along similar lines. The code Microsoft contributed to Alljoyn supports the existing BACnet protocol, which gets passing mention in open source blog posts as a software used by building operators. But that just scratches the surface – no pun intended – of BACnet’s influence.

Developed under the auspices of the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), BACnet is an American national standard, a European standard, a national standard in more than 30 countries, and an ISO global standard. In short, building engineers are already using BACnet to run an awful lot of the “things” that will make up the IoT.

The engineering and IT worlds are already collaborating to ensure that BACnet and internet standards mesh smoothly. BACnet task forces have developed techniques to convey messages containing the large amounts of data required for IoT operations, without raising the risk of errors than can arise from long data lengths.  In March, the ASHRAE assigned a new “extended frame type” to the Internet Engineering Task Force that will enable BACnet MS/TP to integrate the  Internet Protocol over legacy networks using slower speed twisted-wire connections. The goal, says BACnet, is to facilitate “the use of IPv6 over MS/TP, which many believe will be a standard way for implementing the so-called “Internet of Things.”

And with a boost from Microsoft’s new found interest in writing open source code, significant commercial IoT implementations may be closer than ever.

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