Getting Started with a Safe and Secure Internet of Things
Mitchell Gracie posted on July 31, 2019 |

The increase of Internet of Things (IoT) devices in industry and daily life is surrounding us with sensors. While so much data is being harvested, it can be intimidating to try and integrate IoT into one’s business. Moreover, out of all the options on the market, how does one decide which hardware or services will provide the most improved workflows? And lastly, once a business has decided to implement IoT solutions, how can the business help ensure that its data is safe and secure?

These questions aren’t just important to those who run businesses; they are also important to anyone who frequently crosses paths with these sensors and IoT-enabled devices. That is to say, even though we know that details about our lives are being recorded by sensors, are such details falling into the hands of malicious actors?

One such product that provides easy setup and end-to-end security of harvested data is the Avnet Azure Sphere MT3620 Starter Kit.

Board of Avnet’s Azure Sphere MT3620 Starter Kit. The MT3620 chip is the white module seen in the bottom left of the board. (Image courtesy of Avnet.)
Board of Avnet’s Azure Sphere MT3620 Starter Kit. The MT3620 chip is the white module seen in the bottom left of the board. (Image courtesy of Avnet.)

Security of IoT—Hardware, Software and the Cloud

The locus of security for the starter kit is the presence of the Avnet Azure Sphere MT3620 Module on the board. As discussed in a previous engineering.com article, Avnet and Microsoft have teamed up to provide a three-tiered security solution for IoT-enable devices and networks. The first step of this security solution is to ensure security at the silicon level.

Every Avnet Azure Sphere device has its chip authenticated with an identification number that is used to identify the module when it is interacting with the cloud or any other method of remote access. The protection at the silicon level is reinforced by the presence of the Microsoft Pluton security subsystem on all Azure Sphere-approved microcontroller units (MCUs). Pluton helps to “create a hardware root of trust, store private keys and execute complex cryptographic operations.”

At the software level, security is enabled by Microsoft Azure OS—the Linux-based operating system that has been integrated onto all Microsoft Azure-certified IoT products. The OS itself is built from four layers: security monitoring, a custom Linux kernel, on-chip connectivity services, and an application container for computing and real-time I/O.

At the heart of Microsoft Azure Sphere’s success is its three-tiered security: protection at the hardware level with secured MCUs, the encryption provided through the secured Azure Sphere OS, and the security of analytics from the cloud. (Image courtesy of Microsoft.)
At the heart of Microsoft Azure Sphere’s success is its three-tiered security: protection at the hardware level with secured MCUs, the encryption provided through the secured Azure Sphere OS, and the security of analytics from the cloud. (Image courtesy of Microsoft.)

One way to think of the OS is as a communicator between the hardware (including Microsoft Pluton) and the cloud (Microsoft Azure Sphere itself). The OS acts as a secure bridge between the two, enabling end-to-end encryption.

With Pluton guarding the silicon and the OS protecting any applications or data on the starter kit, the Azure Sphere cloud-based security solutions help ensure that any of your IoT activities— raw or processed—are protected. Moreover, the cloud services act as a sentinel for the starter kits by only allowing certifiably authentic software onto the MCU.

Just from a security point of view, the starter kit is a fantastic device for the range between beginners to startups to multinational companies that want to step up their IoT knowledge and experience.

Layout/Schematic Walkthrough

To get a better understanding of the starter kit, let’s investigate the board itself. According to CloudConnectKits.org, “the Azure Sphere MT3620 modules are based on the MediaTek MT3620AN SoC, which supports dual-band 802.11 a/b/g/n WiFi connectivity, a 500MHz ARM Cortex-A7 core processor for user applications, and two general purpose 200MHz ARM Cortex-M4F I/O subsystem cores designed to support real-time requirements.” That means the small little kit comes with enough punch to securely capture data and get it to the cloud with enough of a processor to leave room for any other extra processing that’s necessary.

Further, “the on-chip peripherals (GPIO, UART, I2C, SPI, PWM and ADC) can be mapped to dedicated I/O pins on the module for connection to external sensors, I/O connectors, or other user application circuits.” To aid users, the board comes with LED displays, inputs, ports and switches.

A top view of the starter kit and its simple layout, complete with USB and power inputs, the MT3620 Module, LED displays, microcontrollers and switches. (Image courtesy of Avnet.)
A top view of the starter kit and its simple layout, complete with USB and power inputs, the MT3620 Module, LED displays, microcontrollers and switches. (Image courtesy of Avnet.)

Unboxing, Features and How the Kit Works

The starter kit comes with the following:
  • A board that contains the MT3620 chip, which has been engineered with built-in Microsoft security and the ‘mind’ of an ARM Cortex-A7 processor that is supported by two ARM Cortex-M4F microcontrollers
  • A USB cable that can connect to the module
  • A Quick Start Card to help users get started with the software and the cloud
The box of the starter kit and its contents: (1) a board that contains the MT3620 chip, which has been engineered with built-in Microsoft security and the “mind” of an ARM Cortex-A7 processor that is supported by two ARM Cortex-M4F microcontrollers; (2) a USB cable that can connect to the module; and (3) a Quick Start Card—not shown. (Image courtesy of Avnet.)

The box of the starter kit and its contents: (1) a board that contains the MT3620 chip, which has been engineered with built-in Microsoft security and the “mind” of an ARM Cortex-A7 processor that is supported by two ARM Cortex-M4F microcontrollers; (2) a USB cable that can connect to the module; and (3) a Quick Start Card—not shown. (Image courtesy of Avnet.)

With so little in the box, the starter kit is true to its name with the simple packaging that is common to IoT devices. This means that users can get a quick start if they have sensors ready to link into the MT3620’s many inputs.

Use cases are relatively simple, as can be seen in Avnet’s webinar demo. It doesn’t take a lot of time to get from unboxing the device to hooking it up to something like a temperature sensor and fan. Moreover, the Quick Start Card enables new users to get into Azure Sphere’s cloud services and connect the device directly to a feed into the cloud.

What this means is that users can almost immediately create digital twins of their sensors or IoT setups using their Avnet Azure Sphere Starter Kits. With data protection a priority with Azure Sphere, users can even begin to run certified simulations on the digital twin, saving time and money on prototyping or developing.

Looking Forward

To get your hands on an Avnet Azure Sphere MT3620 Starter Kit, you can order one from here for about $75. The site also provides more in-depth information on the technical details and features of the starter kit. It’s never too late to start your pathway to integrating IoT solutions!


Avnet has sponsored this post.  All opinions are mine.  –Mitchell Gracie


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