Embedded systems in IoT product design

The Device Chronicle interviews Pejman Kalkhoran CEO at Boundary Devices. about the importance of selecting the right embedded systems at the start of an IoT product development project. The company designs and manufactures single board computers and System-on-Modules for the general embedded market.  These computers can be found in embedded systems in a variety of industries including digital signage, retail, access control, and casino gaming. 

Pejman has a background as an electrical engineer and worked previously as a semiconductor design engineer at Freescale. He knows the industry, the business models and crucially how to approach the engineering of embedded systems from a holistic perspective which involves looking beyond the hardware build to software updating and security considerations at the design stage of the project. 

The embedded systems challenge

For Pejman, software is always a huge hurdle for organisations as they try to get their IoT products to market. Pejman notes that there are lots of places where organizations can get stuck. They can easily make mistakes when it comes to selecting the right software for their project and handling its development. For example, if an organisation is 90% down the road to developing and releasing a product and they forget to integrate security into their plans, then that is a big strategic mistake. Organisations must focus on security by design in the initial stages of their IoT product design and planning. 

Join the Linux revolution for embedded systems

Pejman notes that open source has accelerated the availability of IoT capabilities and embedded systems for many more organisations. He observes that although it has been around forever, Linux’s rise in the last 3-5 years and its standardisation has had a tremendous impact on IoT. He continues “Before, what software would you use as an average-sized organisation trying to start an IoT project? Users were using home-brewed versions of different operating systems that they were hacking together to run IoT devices. Now with Linux becoming more prevalent and with these big distributions including Yocto, Debian and Ubuntu that millions of developers and engineers are contributing to worldwide, the opportunities to be successful are there. You really have something that is in good shape in 90% of cases so you can easily take it, make modifications, add the security and OTA software updates and you have a product. 

Embedded systems and security

Security still needs to be addressed further. Pejman believes that it’s not a discussion a lot of IoT project teams have when they are doing their strategic planning for embedded systems. If they do address security, then they try to solve security by making sure their network is secure rather than looking at each individual connected device. Pejman believes that organisations need a partner that has a security platform that will automatically patch their Linux kernels and will close these vulnerabilities within their IoT ecosystem. But unfortunately, many organisations with IoT projects do not ask the questions about security. 

Security options for embedded systems

The embedded systems hardware available on the market has the capabilities to provide necessary security protections. Pejman notes that all the processors used by Boundary include security features. “Organisations can sign the operating system and keys.” The hardware processor offers features such as high assurance booting. A user can sign keys to ensure that the operating system that is being loaded is indeed the one that is being loaded. A user can also create these kinds of chain of trust. Boundary partners with NXP for processors, it addresses security through partnership with companies such as for robust and secure OTA software updates as another provider that has an automated platform that offers a finished product.

Interesting IoT use cases in embedded systems

Use cases in access control and facial recognition are growing in use. The embedded hardware has integrated neural processing units which with machine learning algorithms can process things much faster. There are challenging use cases that can now be solved. “We see that nobody likes to wait in a line at an airport or a stadium for security reasons, so the question is how do you optimise that process to be able use facial recognition and other types of object detection and AI tools to be able to quickly process people through?”

Growth of personalisation

Pejman also sees growth in the personalisation IoT use cases. He provides the example of a casino application, where there are slot machines now that will know who the player is as they walk up to them providing personalised services such as personalised playlists, perspectives on the game, bonus points and players club benefits. 

Growth of convenience

Convenience services are also on the rise. “Restaurants are now using lockers where food is placed in lockers. The customer or the delivery agent can scan a barcode from their phone, the locker opens and they can get their food. This helps to streamline the restaurant’s operations.”

Control with insights to optimise

Pejman says he also sees franchise owners using IoT to maintain high standards in their franchisee’s operations. For example, one franchise with over 10,000 restaurants is using an IoT application to ensure that every one of the franchise stores is using the right quantity of ingredients to make their food. This allows the franchise owner to retain control over the quality and quantity of the ingredients that goes into the cooking process. There is an IoT device determining the quantity of ingredients being used, sending it to the HQ “mothership” with AI to improve cost, product quality, and brand experience. Optimised equipment maintenance is another use case growing in popularity. 

Think about the bigger picture

The IoT project leaders and engineers must think about the whole software stack and not just the board builds in isolation. Pejman believes to be truly strategic and to ensure successful outcomes from the project, they must look to work with best of breed partners who will help them ask the right questions and help them to get the right answers. He says “Remember BoB vendors such as Mender have seen all the potential problems and pitfalls a thousand times or more.”

Purpose-built solutions

Pejman also advises that purpose built hardware includes purpose built software so that software is designed to meet the precise needs of an organisation’s application. “You must have the software packages you need, the OTA software updates you need, the security platform you need and an expert to guide through the process.” 

Planning for OTA software updates

Over the air software updates is also a crucial consideration in the IoT product planning phase. Pejman has encountered organisations that were ready to deploy 10,000 widgets in the field, only then did they think about OTA software updates. Now this is a disaster waiting to happen. Pejman refers to one organisation who still ships USB sticks with software upgrades out in the mail to their customers so they can do the necessary software upgrades and auto updates to the software on the boards! There is a gap there, not enough people are thinking about it in the design stage.

Words of wisdom

Pejman concludes with 3 key pieces of advice for those embarking on an IoT project:

  1. Technology is changing monthly, try to design for what you need for the next 6 months. If you try to future proof too much you’ll end up sandbagging your project.
  2. Don’t reinvent the wheel. Why try to do your own OTA software updates for example? Companies such as Mender have already solved the OTA software updates problem. The same logic applies to the user interface, the interface design in small device volume environments, security, kernel modifications and so on.
  3. Partner up and find the best in design, manufacture, software maintenance, and that delivers the best product at the end of the day. 

Read another inspiring interview with an IoT executive

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