Off-the-shelf IoT development platforms can enable businesses deliver a secure and efficient solution with a significantly reduced time-to-market. Renesas Synergy Platform is a complete embedded-development platform accessible through a common API layer, aiming to optimize complex solution development processes. Rahul Chopra, Editorial Director, EFY Group, talks to Peter Carbone, Vice President, Synergy Platform Business Division, Renesas Electronics Corporation and Yashoranjan, Director, GP Sales and Marketing, Renesas Electronics India to understand the full capabilities that Synergy Platform offers to the developers.
Q. How important has IoT become for Renesas?
A. Peter: IoT, by itself, is a very generic word. But, with the Renesas Synergy™ Platform, we are focusing on the security aspect of IoT. India is a good example of connected infrastructure. IoT is playing a huge role in the nation’s economy. However, there is frustration with the time it takes to get in the connected zone, since India has a gigantic population. The Synergy Platform was developed with that problem in mind that helps in connecting millions of objects in a secured, managed way that really reduces the development time as well as the development cost. The Synergy Platform takes the most common basic building blocks of the connected device, by providing our complete and qualified platform where the developers can start their designs immediately at the API level. Our existing customers are excited about the new development experiences on the Synergy Platform, which reduces the risks, development costs, and allows the customer to go-to-market faster and easier.
Yashoranjan: A lot of Indian government initiatives are happening under the banner ‘Digital India’, and most of them work when connected over cloud. To avoid cyber-attacks, high security is desired. The Synergy Platform can deliver the security needed to safely operate in the new Digital India programme. We are currently participating in many projects in India for security, especially in the biometric fingerprint application domain.
Q. Talking about the TCO (total cost of ownership), is it a zero-cost development for smaller organizations?
A. Peter: It is virtually zero upfront cost for customers to execute their software development. This means with the purchase price of just a single Synergy MCU or any Synergy Kit, the Synergy Platform is available for development with all of the Synergy Software Package (SSP), a choice of premium development tools with virtually no limit to the number of development seats, plus ongoing updates and maintenance of the SSP and tools, year after year with no fee. The SSP includes all of the software functions typically needed by the majority of developers who build embedded systems and IoT devices such as a premium real-time operating system (RTOS), a network stack, a USB stack, graphics library, file management, drivers and much more. These functions are carefully integrated within software frameworks to simplify implementation of common tasks such as playing audio from a variety of sources, establishing a Wi-Fi connection, reading capacitive touch buttons, and many more. And for specialty software functions that are not included in the SSP, we have a network of partners who provide Verified Software Add-ons (VSA) that are verified to be SSP-compatible. An example of a VSA is a communication stack for the BACnet industrial protocol.
Bottom line, this saves the cost of licensing all that software and all those tools plus annual maintenance renewal. The Synergy Platform also saves a lot of time because developers do not have to go to their purchasing and legal departments to write licensing contracts – instead they can click-through a license agreement in minutes on our Synergy Platform Gallery. Additional time is saved because developers don’t have to integrate software and tools from multiple vendors, write software to optimize and “glue” functions together, test and document the software, and maintain it. All that saved time ads up to a lot of money saved over the lifetime of a product. Just think of what companies could do with that saved time and money – perhaps they use that advantage to get to market sooner, differentiate their product further, or use the engineering talent to work on another project in parallel. When developers don’t have to worry about low-level software, they can use their skills to do more valuable tasks.
Q. Talking about security, there are a lot of software vendors who position themselves in that space. So, are you creating an alternative solution to those vendors?
Yashoranjan: Security is a very broad term and it has many different levels. There are many software vendors who offer security packages. However, in case of the Synergy Platform, most of the security is built into the hardware level and enabled by the Synergy Software Package. And because Synergy is a platform, software solutions from other vendors are very compatible. You can see this in our VSA partners’ offerings. Additionally, the Synergy Platform offers key advantages of having hardware-based security in the MCUs where you get better speed, less power consumption, and the keys are secured in hardware. Security is now so core to an IoT device, it just doesn’t make sense anymore to use security from a separate IC – it should be integrated into the main MCU. Usually, the kind of systems that provide hardware-level security are very high end and costly, but we have developed it on mid-range MCUs. That is the beauty of this platform.
Peter: The root of trust starts with hardware when it comes to security, and then we build services on top of that in the form of a secure connection and secure remote updates. This way you can start building secure products, which ultimately end-customers can use and find significant benefits.
Q. How does the Synergy Platform simplify life-cycle management of devices?
A. Peter: For the most part when our customers build a product, they get the software, develop the product and then they ship it. When their end-customers need something new, they buy the product again and replace the old product. That’s how it works today for many products.
However, best case moving forward is that deployed end-products connect to the internet to download the latest version of its software. Second, that remote updating capability enables periodic software updates to the product later on to fix defects or add the latest security measures. And third, the supplier of that end-product can offer upgrades of additional features or capabilities if the end-customer pays for it, which is a relatively new business model.
To implement this flow, suppliers have to figure out how they can securely manage millions of deployed products in the field. Remote software updates must be done such that the source software is authentic, has not been modified, and in many cases, it is important that the software was not copied while in transit or in place. It is a huge challenge to do this cost effectively at such large scale.
Q. Can one debate that software updates potentially leads to major security hacks?
A. Yashoranjan: For the fear of security hacks, we cannot stop ourselves from upgrading our products. The challenge is how to manage the product lifecycle management, and upgrade it in the most secured manner.
Q. How does the Synergy Platform provide enhanced security at the chip level?
A. Yashoranjan: Synergy MCUs support a secure boot feature which in turn establishes a root of trust that can be used to identify the device uniquely and securely. Without this root of trust, all security measures that come afterwards are less secure.
Q. Any additional benefits associated with Synergy Platform?
A. Yashoranjan: We are seeing more and more IoT applications in India. We’ve had a variety of industrial customers who adopted the Synergy Platform. The Synergy Platform also offers a full-featured HMI support package especially for industrial and medical applications that is very attractive for Indian customers. Because it provides many local fonts, customers get a complete graphic library for applications that need localization. So, you can say that the Synergy Platform offers a ready-made package that helps customers immediately create a proof-of-concept. We consider this to be a major benefit highlight of the Synergy Platform.
Q. How are you seeing the Synergy Platform being adopted across the globe?
A. Peter: We introduced the Synergy Platform in the U.S. in October 2015 and then gradually rolled out the launch in other regions. Europe in early 2016, and then later across Asia in August 2016. Since introducing the Synergy Platform, we have witnessed a very strong uptake. We are seeing a good adoption among customers of different sizes. For smaller customers, the Synergy Platform means being able to do more with limited resources. For larger customers, it solves the challenge of getting to market faster and provides a positive impact on their total cost of ownership.
Q. Are there any products that have been built on this platform that are already out in the market?
A: Yashoranjan: There are customers in India who are using this platform for medical applications. We have customers who are using the Synergy Platform in the security application area also. Many people talk about security, but the beauty of the Synergy Platform is we have packaged high-end security. So even if you do not understand some of the key technologies, you can still proceed easily at a high level and that is the key success of Synergy Platform. With the Synergy Platform, customers do not need to understand the complexity of these things, yet they can easily achieve security as most of it is in hardware backed by the SSP.
Q: In terms of the Indian market, where do you see the highest customer base?
A: Yashoranjan: From the Indian customers’ perspective, we currently see a lot of customers in the medical application field. Plus, most of the national e-governance projects are one way or another linked to Aadhaar, and what we see is that Aadhaar is no longer business-to-business, as it has moved to business-to-customer. We foresee that Aadhaar will give rise to popular peripherals like handheld terminals and attendance recorders. Therefore, the more things get connected, the more security is needed.
Q: Is there any role of Open Source in the entire stack?
A: Peter: We do not contribute Synergy Platform to the open source community. However, we provide the Synergy Platform software to the open source people to view. You can see all the code. We provide mechanisms within our development tools to make all the code viewable but for some portions of the code you cannot copy or change it. In fact, it is not required to change those protected portions in order to develop products. Just as you typically do not need to change the code inside Windows 10 before you use Outlook, and you don’t need to change Windows 10 to develop an application that runs on a Windows notebook, similarly one does not need to change the base code in Synergy Platform software in order to make an application that runs on a Synergy MCU.
Q: Do you have a development board or a starter kit for engineers to try this platform?
A: Yashoranjan: We have Synergy Platform Development Kits (DKs), Starter Kits (SKs), Target Board Kits (TB), Application Examples (AEs), and Product Examples (PEs). All come with pre-built software. You do not have to waste your time building the software. You can simply download the software with a SSP evaluation license and immediately start the project. As you approach production, you will apply for the SSP production license that is applicable for the software that you already have, with no fee. Besides, we know you are going to use our platform for your production, you will automatically be on our list, enabling you to get priority updates, bug fixes, and important notifications.
Q: What would be the hypothetical premium one has to pay for the entire platform as compared to a simple chip?
A: Yashoranjan: We believe, it’s not the price premium that people look for now-a-days. The customer is more interested in the total-cost-of-ownership. If I was a developer of an IoT solution using a standard MCU, I would have to contact multiple vendors (whose software is ported to this standard MCU) to get these software updates from them, respectively. We are providing all those integrated through one platform, the Synergy Platform. Frankly, it is very difficult to put a price to it.
Peter: Adding to Yashoranjan, and hypothetically speaking, for 10,000 units the premium is around 20 percent.
Q: What is the roadmap for the Synergy Platform?
Peter: In respect to Synergy Platform, there are couple of things coming up in the near future. You’ll see more robust security, which in turn will provide for higher-level management and services. We are also going to see further integration of wireless connectivity within the platform. So far, we have released eight different Synergy MCU products groups with three more groups to release to market over the next nine months. In early 2018, we’ll launch a completely new Synergy Platform website to make it extremely easy to learn, search, download, and develop. The new website will also provide a new way to access products and services from many Synergy partners that have been pre-validated to be compatible with the platform.
Q: What are the challenges that the Synergy Platform needs to overcome—for it to become the de-facto standard for engineers working on secure IoT solutions?
A: Peter: Because the Synergy Platform has so many solutions and functions within it – meaning software, MCUs, kits, and tools – it is a continuing challenge for our business division to simplify, package, qualify, document, deliver, and maintain the platform in such a way that it continues to bring value to our customers at the high level we’ve chosen. What helps us is that in the beginning, all the elements of the Synergy Platform were defined from a clean sheet of paper, and are modular in nature. This enables us to grow and expand in a scalable way, otherwise, it would be too much to keep up with. This modular approach works well with Synergy partners because they can integrate their specialized solutions into our platform easily, which helps our partners sell their products, and benefits our customers (developers) using the Synergy Platform to have many solution choices to meet their needs. A good example is our Wireless Framework for the SSP that enables developers to quickly and easily swap in and out various Wi-Fi modules from different vendors without re-writing code. This is good for the vendors and good for the developers, both of which builds momentum toward becoming the de-facto standard. Our primary objective of the Synergy Platform is to give back time and resources to our customers, so they can do what they do best – innovate and differentiate.