When Mark Shuttleworth founded Canonical in 2004, the idea behind the company was simple – promote the use of Ubuntu Linux as a desktop operating system. Fourteen years later, things have gotten a lot more complicated, as the prominent open source software vendor eyes the IoT market.
Canonical’s still flying the flag for desktop Linux, but the company’s real business is in the cloud – it claims that Ubuntu accounts for about 60% of all Linux instances in the major public clouds – and it’s hoping to make its mark in the next-buzziest part of the technology sector, the Internet of Things.
According to Mike Bell, Canonical’s executive vice president for devices and IoT, the way businesses have begun to develop software for IoT devices has been advantageous for them – companies have started to take server or desktop distros and cut them down into software that works on embedded devices. Since Ubuntu is a familiar and well-known framework, it was a natural choice as a starting place.
“We can see a growing market and it’s kind of a no-brainer that we needed to enter it,” Bell told Network World. “But we felt we had to do more than just cut down an operating system, so we focused on some of the main challenges facing embedded devices like security.”
That’s a well-known issue in IoT for a whole host of reasons, including the fact that embedded and IoT gizmos tend to be a lot more physically accessible than a server locked away in a data center, as well as the fact that they’re far less capable computing devices, less able to handle their own security.
Canonical developed Ubuntu Core, which the company pitches as a "tiny, transactional" version of the Linux OS. It's currently used across a wide range of device categories, from drones to aquaculture to signage. Canonical doesn’t sweat the very smallest-scale stuff on the IoT – Bluetooth-enabled lightbulbs aren’t high on the priority list for Ubuntu Core – but items with a little bit more capability are in the wheelhouse. Bell’s examples included everything from smart speakers, home and IoT gateways, to top-of-rack switches in the enterprise.
“We’re more into the architecture around security – isolation, containment, where the applications are restricted in what they can do unless you get the rights to do so – so we implement a level of access control at the kernel level,” he said.
Software is the key weakness in the security stack for IoT, the product of rushed development cycles and an inability – or unwillingness to invest the necessary time and effort – to update some connected devices remotely. But that’s a problem that Linux is well-equipped to address, Bell notes.
“We have a whole division of people who are just focused on patching and security,” adding that that functionality doesn’t really scale well for a device maker. “Think of like a smart Wi-Fi camera on a building – if you break that through a bad update, you do not want to be getting a ladder out and all your customers having to pull them down off buildings – that’s something that doesn’t sit well with customers.”
One of the other big challenges facing enterprise IoT pros is quantifying the return on investment for any given opportunity, he argued. He offers the example of a refrigerator manufacturer that wants to add connective features to its products in order to glean a better understanding of how they’re used.
“You instinctively know that having telemetry on a device would be very useful and would help me in terms of product development, but without it, you don’t know what you don’t know,” Bell said.
Working with companies on IoT products has its challenges for a company unused to the marketplace, of course – Canonical is used to a relatively orderly 5-year support cycle for Ubuntu, but that’s often not enough time for enterprise IoT deployments, which can have lengthy potential service lives.
“You can get a legacy version of Ubuntu Server and buy another couple of years of support,” Bell said. “This is nothing new in the enterprise market, but yeah – when it comes to embedded applications, the challenges are different. We are getting to grips with that.”