App processors/GPUs IoT applications Security

ARM pushes further into IoT with new security platform

ARM, like Intel, knows that processor cores do not win markets on their own any more, and is developing entire platforms around the internet of things (IoT) and security.

Of the announcements at its annual conference this week, one with significant long term potential to impact the IoT was the extension of its TrustZone security architecture to a hardware implementation in its ARMv8-M 32-bit microcontrollers. This brings hardware-based security to every part of the core, but with only slight impact on real time operations, said the firm, and as such, it extends the highly strategic TrustZone initiative into the darkest corners of the IoT.

TrustZone for ARMv8-M includes new instructions plus techniques that shift functions which would run in software on Cortex-A microprocessor cores into hardware to reduce software overhead where real time response is required. In 64-bit systems, a hypervisor handles the switching between secure processes in the TrustZone, and insecure processes outside it. In the new 32-bit version, no hypervisor is needed and the mechanisms run in hardware. Secured and unsecured code can run in parallel.

The technique relies partly on Amba 5 AHBA 5, a secure version of one of ARM’s on-chip interconnects, based on AMBA 3 AHB-Lite with support for more types of memory and transactions.

This highlights ARM’s recent moves to increase the functionality of its Cortex-M microcontroller platforms to support a middle way between more basic MCUs and full microprocessors. This middle ground will be suitable to a large number of emerging IoT device chip categories, and is also the target area for the mBed OS.

At the TechCon event, ARM added to that ambitious IoT operating system effort by releasing a technology preview version of the upgraded mbed OS together with additional reference designs. It claims there are now 55 partner companies in the initiative, and 150,000 developers.

The stripped-down OS for ARM Cortex-M microcontrollers is designed to add to the capabilities of those chips, bringing them closer to microprocessors while keeping the software overhead and power consumption very low. New features include management functions and the first native OS support for Thread, the Google/Nest-driven personal area network protocol which is also heavily backed by ARM for smart home applications, in particular.

The new reference platforms are for wearables, based on a wrist-based connected device with eight weeks of battery life; and infrastructure monitoring, using 6LoWPAN and CoAP mesh network protocols to manage large numbers of devices in a smart city or smart factory context.

Related new products include mbed Device Connector, a free service for companies to connect and manage their IoT endpoints securely. Available at, mbed Device Connector is free for developers to use on up to 100 devices, handling up to 10,000 events per hour.

Krisztian Flautner, general manager of ARM’s IoT business, said the platform was designed to accelerate the creation of new hardware so developers could focus on differentiation, while reducing cost and time to market, and access the tools “to scale deployments from a single cloud-connected sensor to a host of more intricate devices that enterprise-grade IoT solutions demand”.

“ARM is enabling developers to prototype complex end point interactions while simultaneously creating allied web services in the cloud,” said Paul Teich, principal analyst at Tirias Research, in the ARM release. “mbed Device Connector can be used for free with up to 100 devices, handling up to 10,000 events per hour, and this will allow developers to take products to a fairly advanced stage before they need to decide on their next step. This is going to have an effect on the rate of innovation as it reduces the risk for everyone.”

But ARM remains a company whose fortunes are built on smartphone processor cores and, at its annual TechCon conference this week, it duly unveiled the latest member of the family, the smartphone-oriented Cortex-A35, which brings 64-bit capabilities to entry level devices. This is the new low end member of the 64-bit range and targets the area of the smartphone market whose growth is not yet flatlining – the affordable segment, mainly for emerging markets. ARM believes this category will grow at 8% a year between now and 2020 and reach one billion devices by then.

However, with smartphone growth slowing – with the effects felt in the quarterly results of many players from Qualcomm to Samsung – ARM is diversifying like mad, upwards into cloud and broadband infrastructure, outwards into the IoT and non-mobile devices. So it is pushing the power efficiency of the A35 as a good solution for other embedded products such as set-top boxes. The smallest configuration would consume less than 90mW of power when running at 1 GHz, and just 6mW at 100 MHz, said ARM. Up to four cores can be clustered together.

In a 28nm process an A35 should be around 25% higher in performance, 32% lower power and 25% more efficient than the midrange 64-bit core, the Cortex A53, the company claimed. Compared to the 32-bit A7, the A35 is rated to deliver 16% higher performance with 10% less power consumption.

The A35 has already been licensed by “several” unnamed vendors and should appear in commercial system-level products in about a year’s time.

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