Azure Sphere—Microsoft’s answer to escalating IoT threats—reaches general availability

Today Azure Sphere—Microsoft’s integrated security solution for IoT devices and equipment—is widely available for the development and deployment of secure, connected devices. Azure Sphere’s general availability milestone couldn’t be timelier. From consumer device hacking and botnets to nation state driven cyberterrorism, the complexity of the landscape is accelerating. And as we expand our reliance on IoT devices at home, in our businesses and even in the infrastructure that supports transit and utilities, cybersecurity threats are increasingly real to individuals, businesses and society at large.

From its inception in Microsoft Research to general availability today, Azure Sphere is Microsoft’s answer to these escalating IoT threats. Azure Sphere delivers quick and cost-effective device security for OEMs and organizations to protect the products they sell and the critical equipment that they rely on to drive new business value.

To mark today’s general availability milestone, I sat down with Galen Hunt, distinguished engineer and product leader of Azure Sphere to discuss the world of cybersecurity, the threat landscape that businesses and governments are operating in, and how Microsoft and Azure Sphere are helping organizations confidently and securely take advantage of the opportunities enabled by IoT.


ANN JOHNSON: Let me start by asking about a comment I once heard you make, where you refer to the internet as “a cauldron of evil.” Can you give us a little insight into what you mean?

GALEN HUNT: Well, I actually quote James Mickens. James is a former colleague at Microsoft Research, and he’s now a professor at Harvard. Those are his words, the idea of the internet being a cauldron of evil. But I love it, because what it really captures is what the internet really is.

The internet is a place of limitless potential, but when you connect a device to the internet, you’re also creating a two-way street; anybody can come in off the internet and try to attack you.

Everything from nation states to petty criminals to organized crime is out there, operating on the internet. As we think about IoT—which is my favorite topic—being aware of the dangers is the first step to being prepared to address them.

ANN JOHNSON: When you’re thinking about folks that are in charge of security organizations, or even folks who have to secure the environment for themselves, what do you view as the biggest threats, and also the biggest opportunities for companies like Microsoft to address those threats?

GALEN HUNT: I think the biggest threat is—and I’m coming at this from the IoT side of things—as we’re able to connect every single device in an enterprise or every single device in a home to the internet, there’s real risk. By compromising those devices, someone can invade our privacy, they can have access to our data, they can manipulate our environment. Those are real risks.

In the traditional internet, the non-Internet-of-Things internet, the damage that could be done was purely digital. But in a connected IoT environment, remote actors are able to affect or monitor not just the digital environment but also the actual physical environment. So that creates all sorts of risks that need to be addressed.

In response, the power that a company like Microsoft can bring is our deep experience in internet security. We’ve been doing it for years. We can help other organizations leverage that experience. That’s a tremendous opportunity we have to help.

ANN JOHNSON: So, with that, walk us through what Azure Sphere is—how do you see our customers and our partners leveraging the technology?

GALEN HUNT: There are four components to Azure Sphere: three of them are powered by technology and one of them is powered by people. Those components combine to form an end-to-end solution that allows any organization that’s building or connecting devices to have the very best of what we know about making internet-connected devices secure.

Let’s talk about the four components.

The first of the three technical components is the certified chips that are built by our silicon partners, they have the hardware root of trust that Microsoft created. These are chips that provide a foundation of security, starting in the silicon itself, and provide connectivity and compute power for these devices.

The second technical component of Azure Sphere is the Azure Sphere operating system. This runs on the chips and creates a secure software environment.

The third technical component is the cloud-based Azure Sphere security service. The security service connects with every single Azure Sphere chip, with every single Azure Sphere operating system, and works with the operating system and the chip to keep the device secured throughout its lifetime.

ANN JOHNSON: So, you’ve got hardware, software, and the cloud, all working together. What about the human component?

GALEN HUNT: The fourth component of Azure Sphere is our people and all their security expertise. Our team provides ongoing security monitoring of Azure Sphere devices and, actually, of the full ecosystem. As we identify new types of attacks and new emerging security vulnerabilities, we will upgrade our operating system and the cloud services to mitigate against those new kinds of attacks. Then we will deploy updates to every Azure Sphere-based device, globally. So, we’re providing ongoing support, and ongoing security improvements for those devices.

ANN JOHNSON: I want to make this real for folks. Walk me through a use case; where would somebody actually implement and use Azure Sphere? How does their infrastructure or architecture fit in?

GALEN HUNT: Okay, let’s start with a device manufacturer. They say, okay we’re going to create a new device, and we want to have that device be an IoT device. We want it to connect to the internet, so it can be integrated into an organization’s digital feedback loop. And so, they will buy a chip, an Azure Sphere-based microcontroller or SoC, which will serve as the primary processing component, and they build that into their device. The Azure Sphere chip provides the compute power and secured connectivity.

Now, of course not everybody is building a brand-new device from scratch. There are a lot of existing devices out there that are very valuable. Sometimes they’re too valuable to take on the risk of connecting them and exposing them to the internet. One of the things we’ve developed during the Azure Sphere preview period is a new class of device that we call a “guardian module.” The guardian module is a very small device—no larger than the size of a deck of cards—built around an Azure Sphere chip. An organization interested in connecting existing devices can connect through the guardian module and pull data from that existing device and securely connect it to the cloud. The guardian modules, powered by Azure Sphere, are a way to add highly secure connectivity—even to existing devices—that’s protected by Microsoft.

ANN JOHNSON: Interesting, it solves a pretty big problem with device security, especially as we continue to see a massive proliferation of devices in our environment, most of which are unmanaged. What do you think is slowing the broad adoption of security related to connected devices?

GALEN HUNT: Well, there are a couple of things. I think the biggest barrier, up until now, has been the lack of an end-to-end solution. For companies that have had aspirations to build or to buy highly secured devices, each device has been a one-off. Customers have had to completely build a unique solution for each device, and that just takes an incredible amount of expertise and hard work.

The other obstacle I’ve found is that organizations realize that they need secure devices, but they just don’t know where to begin. They don’t know what they should be looking for, from a device security perspective. There’s a bit of a temptation to look for a security feature checklist instead of really understanding what’s required to have a device that’s highly secured.

ANN JOHNSON: I know you’ve given this a lot of consideration and your background gives you a deeper view into what it takes to secure devices. You wrote a paper on the seven properties of highly secure devices, based on a lot of research you’ve done on the topic. How did you coalesce on the seven properties and how customers can implement them securely?

GALEN HUNT: Yes, I’m a computer scientist, and for over 15 years I ran operating systems research in Microsoft Research. About five years ago, someone walked into my office with a schematic, or a floor map, of a brand new—actually, still under development—microcontroller. This was actually the very first of a new class of a microcontroller.

A microcontroller, for anybody who is not familiar, is a single-chip computer that has processer, and storage, memory, and IoT capabilities. Microcontrollers are used in everything from toys, to appliances, even industrial equipment. Well, this was the first time I had seen a microcontroller, a programmable microcontroller, with the physical capabilities required to be able to connect to the internet—built in—and at a price point that was just a couple of dollars.

When I looked at this thing, I realized that for the price of a cup of coffee, anything on the planet that had electricity could be turned into an internet device. I realized I was looking at the fifth generation of computing, and that was a terribly exciting thought. But the person who had come into my office was asking, what kind of code should we run on this so that it would be secure if we did want to build internet-connected devices with it?

And what I realized, really quickly, was that even though it had some great security features, it lacked much of what was required to build a secure device from a software perspective, and that set me off on journey. I imagined this dystopian future where there are nine billion new insecure devices being added to the world’s population, every year.

ANN JOHNSON: Sure, the physical risks of device hacking make nine billion insecure IoT devices a daunting thought.

GALEN HUNT: Well for me, that was a really scary thought. And as a scientist, I said, well we know that Microsoft and our peer companies have built devices that have been out on the internet. They’ve been connected for at least a five-year period and have withstood relentless attacks from hackers and other ne’er-do-wells. The driving question of our next phase of work was: why are some devices highly secure, and what is it that separates them?

And we did a very scientific study of finding these secure devices and trying to figure out the qualities and the properties that they had in common, and this led to our list of these seven properties. We published that paper, which then led to more experiments.

Now, the devices we found that had these seven properties were devices that had hundreds of dollars in electronics in them, and, you know, that’s not going to scale to every device on the planet. You’re not going to be able to add hundreds of dollars of electronics to every device on the planet, like a light bulb, in order to get security.

Then we wondered if we could build a very, very small and a very, very economical solution that contained all seven properties. And that’s what ultimately led us to Azure Sphere. It’s a solution that, really, for just a few dollars, any company can build a device that is highly secured.

ANN JOHNSON: So, the device itself is highly secured; it has all these built-in capabilities, but one of the biggest problems our customers face is fundamentally a talent shortage, right? Is there something that we’re inherently doing here, with Azure Sphere, that could make it easier for customers?

GALEN HUNT: Yes. Fundamentally what we’re trying to do is create a scalable solution, and it is Microsoft talent that helps these companies create these highly secure devices. There’s something like a million-plus openings in the field of security professionals. Globally there’s a huge talent shortage.

With Azure Sphere we allow a company that doesn’t have really deep security expertise to draft off of our security talent. There are a few areas of expertise that one has to have in order to build a highly-secure device with similar capabilities to Azure Sphere.

Sometimes I’ll use the words technology, talent, and tactics. You have to have the technical expertise to actually build a device that has a high degree of security in it. Not just a device with a checklist of features, but with true integration across all components for gap-free security. Then, once the device is built and deployed out into the wild, you need the talent to fight the ongoing security battle. That talent is watching for and detecting emerging security threats and coding up mitigations to address them. And finally, you’ll have to scale out those updates to every device. That’s a really deep set of expertise, talent, and tactics and, for the most part, it’s very much outside of what many companies know how to do.

When building on top of Azure Sphere, instead of staffing or developing all of this expertise outside of their core business, organizations can instead outsource that to Microsoft.

ANN JOHNSON: That’s a really great way to put it. It also gives you that end-to-end security integration, right? Because I would imagine Azure Sphere is going to integrate with all of Microsoft’s infrastructure and services?

GALEN HUNT: In building Azure Sphere, we leveraged pretty deeply a lot of expertise and a lot of talent that we have at Microsoft. Take, for example, the infrastructure that we use to scale out the deployment of new updates. We leveraged the infrastructure that Microsoft created for the Windows update service—and, our operating system is much, much smaller than Windows. So now we have the capability to update billions of devices, globally, per hour. We also have a place where we can tie Azure Sphere into the Azure Security Center for IoT.

We also really drew on all of the expertise around Visual Studios for very scalable software development. We brought that power even to the smaller microcontroller class devices.

And the hardware root of trust that we put inside of every single Azure Sphere chip. That hardware root of trust is not something that we just created, just woke up one day and said, hey, let’s build a hardware root of trust from scratch. We actually built it based on our learning from the Xbox console.

The Xbox console, over 15 years has made three huge generational leaps. Those consoles can live in hostile environments—from a digital security perspective and a physical security perspective. So, we’ve taken everything we’ve learned about how to make those devices highly secured and applied it to building the hardware root of trust inside Azure Sphere. These are some of the ways that we’re really leveraging a lot of Microsoft’s deep expertise.

ANN JOHNSON: Today, marks the general availability of Azure Sphere—which I’m super excited about, by the way! But I know you’ve been thinking for a long time about how we solve some of these bigger problems, particularly the explosion of IoT, and how customers are going to have to think about that within the next two, to three, to five, to ten years from now. What are the challenges you see ahead for us, and what are the benefits our customers will be able to realize?

GALEN HUNT: We’re excited as well—it’s a huge milestone for the team. Even at this point, at GA, we’re only at the beginning of our real journey with our customers. One of our immediate next steps is scaling out the silicon ecosystem. MediaTek is our first silicon partner. Their MT3620 chip is available in volume today, and it’s the perfect chip, especially for guardian modules and adding secure connectivity to many, many devices.

With microcontrollers, there are many, many verticals. They range in everything from toys to home appliances, to big industrial equipment. And no single chip scales across that entire ecosystem effectively, so we’ve engaged other silicon partners. In June, NXP, the world’s number one microcontroller manufacturer, announced their timeline for their very first Azure Sphere chip. And that chip will add much larger compute capabilities. For example, they’ll do AI, and vision, and graphics, and more sophisticated user interfaces. And then in October, Qualcomm announced that they’ll build the very first cellular native Azure Sphere chip.

The other place we see ourselves growing is in adding more enterprise readiness features. As we’ve engaged with some of our early partners, for example, Starbucks, and have helped them deploy Azure Sphere across their stores in North America, we’ve realized that there’s a lot we can do to really help integrate Azure Sphere better with existing enterprise systems to make that very, very smooth.

ANN JOHNSON: There’s a lot of noise about tech regulations, certainly about IoT and different device manufacturing procedures. How are we thinking about innovation in the context of balancing it with regulation?

GALEN HUNT: So, let’s talk about innovation and regulation. There are times when you want to step out of the way and just let people innovate as much as possible. And then there are times as an industry, or as a society we want to make sure we establish a baseline.

Take food safety, for example. The science of food safety is very well established. Having regulations makes sure that no one cuts corners on safety for the sake of economic expediency. Most countries have embraced some kind of regulations around food safety.

IoT is another industry where it’s in everybody’s favor that all devices be secure. If consumers and enterprises can know that every device has a strong foundation of security and trustworthiness, then they’ll be more likely to buy devices, and build devices, and deploy devices.

And so I really see it as an opportunity whereby collectively and, with governments encouraging baseline levels of security, agreeing on a strong foundation of security we’ll all feel confident in our environment, and that’s really a positive thing for everybody.

ANN JOHNSON: That’s really a great perspective, and I think that we’ve always been that way at Microsoft, right? We view regulation in a positive way and thinking that it needs to be the right regulation across a wide variety of things that we’re doing, whether it be AI, just making sure that it’s being used for ethical use cases.

Which brings me to that last-wrap question, what’s next, what are your next big plans, what’s your next big security disruption?

GALEN HUNT: We recently announced new chips from NXP and Qualcomm, we’ll continue our focus on expanding our silicon and hardware ecosystem to deliver more choice for our customers. And then beyond that, our next big plan is to take Azure Sphere everywhere. We’ve demonstrated it’s possible, but I think we’re just starting to scratch the surface of secured IoT. There’s so much ability for innovation, and the devices that people are building, and the way that we’re using devices. When we’re really able to close this digital feedback loop and really interact between the digital world and the physical world, it’s just a tremendous opportunity, and so that’s where I’m going.

ANN JOHNSON: Excellent, well, I really appreciate the conversation. Azure Sphere is a great example of the notion that while cybersecurity is complex, it does not have to be complicated. Azure Sphere helps our customers overcome today’s complicated IoT security challenges. Thank you, Galen, for some great insights into the current IoT security landscape and how Microsoft and Azure Sphere are advancing IoT device security with the broad availability of Azure Sphere today.

If you are interested in learning more about how Azure Sphere can help you securely fast track your next IoT innovation.

About Ann Johnson and Galen Hunt

Ann Johnson is the Corporate Vice President of the Cybersecurity Solutions Group at Microsoft where she oversees the go-to-market strategies of cybersecurity solutions. As part of this charter, she leads and drives the evolution and implementation of Microsoft’s short- and long-term security, compliance, and identity solutions roadmap with alignment across the marketing, engineering, and product teams.

Prior to joining Microsoft, her executive leadership roles included Chief Executive Officer of Boundless Spatial, President and Chief Operating Officer of vulnerability management pioneer Qualys, Inc., and Vice President of World Wide Identity and Fraud Sales at RSA Security, a subsidiary of EMC Corporation.

Dr. Galen Hunt founded and leads the Microsoft team responsible for Azure Sphere. His team’s mission is to ensure that every IoT device on the planet is secure and trustworthy. Previously, Dr. Hunt pioneered technologies ranging from confidential cloud computing to light-weight container virtualization, type-safe operating systems, and video streaming. Dr. Hunt was a member of Microsoft’s founding cloud computing team.

Dr. Hunt holds over 100 patents, a B.S. degree in Physics from University of Utah and Ph.D. and M.S. degrees in Computer Science from the University of Rochester.