Microsoft’s Next OS is Based on Linux, Not Windows

Posted on April 16, 2018 by Paul Thurrott in Internet of Things (IoT), Hardware with 89 Comments

Microsoft announced a new operating system for IoT called Azure Sphere OS. But here’s the shocker: It’s based on Linux, not on Windows.

I’ll pause a moment while you let that one sink in.

Ready? OK. Here’s the story.

During a live security briefing webcast today, Microsoft announced an end-to-end Internet of Things (IoT) solution that pairs its Azure-based cloud services with IoT devices.

“Of course we are the Windows company,” Microsoft’s Brad Smith said during the webcast while holding up a tiny IoT-optimized micro-controller unit (MCU) chip. “But what we’ve recognized is, the best solution for a computer of this size—in a toy—is not a full-blown version of Windows. It is what we are creating here.”

And what Microsoft is creating here is Azure Sphere OS, a new operating system aimed at tiny MCU-based IoT devices that is based on Linux.

“It is a custom Linux kernel complemented by the kinds of advances that we have created in Windows itself,” Smith continued. “For anyone who has been following Microsoft, I’m sure you’ll recognize that, after 43 years, this is the first day that we’re announcing that we’ll be distributing a custom Linux kernel. It’s an important step for us. It’s an important step, I think, for the industry. And it will enable us to stand behind the technology in a way I believe the world needs.”

To that last bit, Smith is referring to the 10-year support lifecycle for Azure Sphere OS, which of course matches the support lifecycle for Microsoft’s enterprise offerings.

Since this was a security webcast, you might be wondering what role security plays in all this. As it turns out, security is the third piece, after the Azure cloud and the Azure Sphere OS, in this puzzle. And Microsoft has created a new Azure Sphere Security Service that it says will guard every Azure Sphere device, securely broker device-to-device and device-to-cloud communications, detect emerging threats, and renew itself as needed.

I’m going to review this webcast with an eye towards better understanding this new offering. But it’s impossible to hear this news without thinking about the recent changes to Windows and my editorializing about Microsoft’s cloud- and IoT-based role in this next wave.

More soon.


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Comments (89)

89 responses to “Microsoft’s Next OS is Based on Linux, Not Windows”

  1. dnation70

    does it run better than we need to switch

  2. atulmarathe

    Could it be because there are more developers comfortable/available working on Linux than on windows, and Microsoft wants get as much data from multiple devices into Azure as possible. Moving to Linux would be the simplest choice.

    Will Microsoft release Linux drivers for their Surface devices? They need not officially support Linux on Surface devices, but I'm sure at least the developer community would love to run Linux on Surface, especially if all the hardware components start working in Linux as expected.

    • skane2600

      In reply to atulmarathe:

      I don't think it's clear if there's more Linux developers than Windows developers, but most rank-and-file developers targeting either platform don't necessarily have the skills for embedded work.

      • hrlngrv

        In reply to skane2600:

        I figure most developers under 40 last considered assembler and op codes back in college, just like professional statisticians haven't thought about surface integrals since their first multidimensional calculus class. Plus a true engineering mindset, trading off bytes and clock cycles, is difficult using modern languages and tools. Kinda like comparing the old PBS woodworking shows, one with the guy using all the power tools in existence, the other using only hand tools.

  3. mariusmuntensky

    :)))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))) While it does make sense, it makes them look more PATHETIC! One Windows on all device...yeah right..

  4. jimchamplin

    Okay! So for anyone who's super blown away by the concept that this can happen! That a *nix can be smaller than "all the work" that was put into "making Windows more modular" just remember...

    Linux can still run on a 386. There are distros out there which run from 50 MB ISOs. There are distros that RUN FROM FLOPPY DISKS.

    The user can compile Linux into whatever they need it to be. That's simply something that Microsoft will never allow with Windows. Good luck getting a build of Windows that doesn't have some kind of vestigial GUI support.

  5. RR

    This makes a ton of sense on so many levels.

    From a business perspective, Microsoft needs to respond to the successful attacks on their former OS dominance with low cost, fit for purpose solutions instead of expensive, properitary, originally-built-for-something-else thing like Windows. So this is nothing more than the Google mobile playbook applied to IoT. Microsoft saw how the movie played out last time, and looks like they are finally responding fundamentally.

    Of course each new thing has its own set of key factors, and I like that they seem to be building a complete business case, as they see it, here around security. You notice that the more successful players in the last 10 years or so, Amazon (commerce), Google (freemium, internet), Apple (premium, simplicity), all have a few, wide appealing things they are built around

    I have for a long time (many other as well) argued that it was Windows that blinded them to many opportunities they ended up missing, so, about time they cut off that sinning hand ...

  6. Bart

    So that noise was another nail being slammed into the Windows coffin

  7. mikefarinha

    I thought it was a bad policy to place the Devices group under the Windows group, that is why I think the MS Band was cancelled; which was a bad decision. Yes the MS Band didn't showcase Windows OS but it did have the potential to showcase Azure AI, Cortana, and IoT.

    How many other potentially awesome products like the MS Band never saw the light of day because it didn't run MS Windows?

    Honestly, I'm glad the Windows reorg happened the way it did. It will let Windows be Windows and let other devices come to market.

    • Stooks

      In reply to mikefarinha:

      "It will let Windows be Windows and let other devices come to market."

      I think it is too late. Also I think they way Microsoft sees it...."Let Windows be Windows until its stops making money in 5-10 years and lets push everything to the cloud/subscriptions".

      New products at Microsoft will completely focused on cloud/subs. I don't say that as a negative because it is what will make money for them and that is the purpose of the business.

  8. carlman

    Will it run UWP? PWAs? Native ARM binaries? Native Intel? Will it have a version of the store? I think security has to be well thought starting with the answers to these questions...

  9. Graham Best

    So the next wave of computing are toys with the cloud? How many three year olds will be understanding when their favorite toy breaks because the DNS server needs to be resolved?

  10. Waethorn

    No sh*t....

  11. Biff Henderson

    This makes total sense. These devices are so tiny and powerless that they need a light weight operating system to be successful. I am more interested in providing a solution to our customers using Azure services than caring about the politics of the underlying bits. Don't get me wrong, we love Windows CE and Windows Embedded but politics prevent some companies from using "Windows" or "Microsoft". Thank you Azure (Microsoft)!

  12. YouWereWarned

    Linux--sure, makes sense, but don't bury the lede: "...certificate-based authentication of ALL communication" is most interesting as it portends what lies ahead for non-IOT traffic as well. These still-early days of a free-for-all internet will eventually end, for obvious reasons. Future servers and systems will not be afforded less protection than your doorbell or litterbox.

  13. VancouverNinja

    Geez wonder if Cortana is going to work well with this solution....

  14. bseigneurie

    I wonder if this will open the door for a full-fledged distro of Microsoft branded Linux a la Red Hat? "Winux" could come fully loaded with .net core, VS code, and other custom UX features like sets.

  15. g_howell

    It sounds to me like they're making Azure Sphere OS so that it can live happily in a very small SoC.

    Think about a very focused IoT device, possibly closer to an Arduino than a RaspberryPi.

    This is actually pretty amazing for IoT.

    * Security as a first principle

    * Updatable firmware. This is crucial for..

    * Security updates that outlive the interest of a fickle (or bankrupt) OEM.

    * SoCs in small devices no longer have to be black boxes, or tiny Linux distros with well-known security flaws. (See: Mirai botnet.)

    * If Microsoft has carried certain API calls from Windows over to this OS, it'll make transitioning to IoT easier for life-long Windows developers.

    * Even if the OEM goes belly up, it's possible for the SoC to continue getting security updates, and maybe even community support, from the Azure Cloud.

    I don't get all the questions about support for Android apps and/or a GUI. The point of IoT is smart devices, many of which, by design, will never have a screen and never have apps.

    The devices are then part of, for example, a whole house management system.

    Scenario: My house knows that I just left my house, thanks to awareness from cameras/cell phones/garage door sequence.

    My house also knows that my oven is still on, because of the Sphere SoC in the oven.

    My house tells me, "Hey! You left the oven on. Want me to turn it off?"

    I can then respond yes or no as appropriate.

    (I might be baking all day, and running to get a sandwich between batches, but not wanting my oven to cool down.)

    My apologies for explaining that to death.

  16. Stooks

    Socking! Not.

    The whole world runs on some form of "NIX" (Unix/Linux). Your cable/DSL modem, home router, smart home switches, PlayStation, TV OS, Apple TV, Roku, Smart Locks, Cameras, thermostats, Anything Amazon, Anything Google, Anything Apple, Anything Samsung, the entire network path to this site, the server this website runs on..... some form of "NIX".

    If you have a Windows PC or Xbox then that is Windows the rest...not so much.

  17. Tedzio Gibonni

    Except the first chip the MT3620 is no way small enough for most consumer devices. Product bill of materials (BoM cost) is directly related to the bottom line in these companies.

    MT3620 'MCU' has a Cortex A7 and two Cortex M4 cores - crazy big. Only the smallest Cortex M3s are just making it to white goods now due to insanely competitive silicon market (32bit processors pushed to less then $2). 

  18. James Wilson

    I wonder what EMC are going to say about this. Their vsphere virtualisation platform is also based on the Linux kernel.

  19. gabbrunner

    This may make no sense - I am not a programmer - but the first thing I thought was, isn't Android based on Linux? Are they keeping an option open there for Android app compatibility? Is that a possibility?

  20. Tony Barrett

    So, while there a 'Windows company', what they're basically saying is no matter what they do, Windows doesn't scale down that low, even the 'nano' version doesn't. Windows just isn't fit for IoT use then - it doesn't meet the the required criteria, but Linux does. No surprise there then.

    As an aside, the 'Azure Security' sounds great, I just don't believe a word of it.

  21. JudaZuk

    What is so shocking ? Microsoft is a software company ..not a Windows company . They will pick the right software for the job, simple as that.

  22. Gavin Groom

    Is the site still hacked? <g>

  23. Yaggs

    They are not ditching Windows IOT... this new OS is for tiny chips inside devices... this makes total sense... why surrender that whole part of the market to someone else.

    I have done a bunch of development with Windows IOT on Raspberry Pi 3's... it actually works pretty great. Done a bunch of custom dashboards for customers to run on displays. Very easy to develop for... but certainly too big much for these tiny chip things.

  24. slbailey1

    Another reason why Windows OS has been moved to be in the same division as Windows Server and Azure.

  25. will

    The next step might be some flavor of Azure OS for desktops. Maybe a longer term migration plan, but start with integration the components into Windows now and then have a new OS available for use within a year or so on newer devices. Cloud connected, cloud managed, and pretty much the Microsoft version of ChromeBooks even more than Windows 10 with S mode.

    You pay for a subscription to Microsoft 365 and based on that subscription it will determine what version of OS/features you get with your device. Sort of the same as today, just more connected to the cloud for compute and storage.

    Heck, if Microsoft does their Xbox Cloud service soon, why even need a high end graphics card if you can just stream and play your games on a Surface Whatever!

  26. F4IL

    If msft trust linux more than windows for their IoT efforts, i don't see this as much of a surprise. Linux is a really modular and powerful kernel that powers pretty much anything these days.

    • Jarrett Kaufman (TurboFool)

      In reply to F4IL:

      I don't believe "trust" was the factor at all. I think SIZE was the factor. They couldn't get Windows svelte enough to run on these devices.

      • F4IL

        In reply to TurboFool:

        From the outside it's a bit difficult to really tell, but to me this looks like trusting linux over Windows Core. Why would they choose linux over their own, in-house OS? Don't they believe in Windows Core to be the superior choice? Judging by their blog post, they seem to trust linux enough to build an ecosystem around it.

        • skane2600

          In reply to F4IL:

          If you look at the description of Windows Core, it seems rather large (although potentially a lot smaller than full Windows) and includes stuff that probably is not that useful in a small embedded system. On the other hand, some of these customized Linux kernels are pretty small (sometimes I wonder what the minimum set of characteristics needed to classify a kernel as "Linux" really are).

      • hrlngrv

        In reply to TurboFool:

        I doubt couldn't is the right word. I figure it'd be too expensive to make Windows Core sufficiently modular to allow its use on smaller embedded systems.

        • skane2600

          In reply to hrlngrv:

          Of course it depends on the required size. Just two years ago I worked on an embedded project that used an MCU with 4K of RAM and 64K of Flash (Flash is used for the program). I don't think any amount of money would make it possible to get Windows Core to fit on it.

          • hrlngrv

            In reply to skane2600:

            I doubt any Linux kernel could fit in 64KB of storage and use just 4KB RAM.

            It's depressing NASA hasn't monetized some of its operations by selling Apollo command module and lunar lander simulators so we could see how many orders of magnitude more memory and storage such simulations would need compared to the 8-bit systems on those space craft.

            • skane2600

              In reply to hrlngrv:

              "I doubt any Linux kernel could fit in 64KB of storage and use just 4KB RAM."

              I agree. Of course I've worked on products with much fewer resources, the least of which had a 4-bit processor with 512 bytes of 8 bit ROM and 32 nibbles (4-bit) of RAM.

              • hrlngrv

                In reply to skane2600:

                As I mentioned, NASA put men on the moon using 8-bit computing.

                Depressing that today's programming tools produce stand-alone Hello World .EXEs which couldn't fit on the floppy disks of 3 decades ago.

                • skane2600

                  In reply to hrlngrv:

                  Well, a hello world program that runs on a modern OS has to be compatible with the larger "agenda" of an OS. Funny too, because historically most embedded systems couldn't run a hello world program because they didn't have any way to display text.

                  But like black and white photography before color and command line interfaces, NASA didn't use highly optimized 8-bit code as a design choice, but out of necessity. It doesn't make sense to not take advantage of cheaper resources and more productive computer languages to satisfy some obsolete engineering criteria.

  27. JerryH

    Well, I guess they aren't as late on this as they were on phones. But still late. Google has had their IoT OS plans out for some time. But at least this one isn't laughably late. We'll have to see how well they scaled it down for low power devices. Without reading any detail on it, it would seem that even a custom Linux kernel is too big and heavy for devices that need to run on battery for a long time (think a device like the original Ring Doorbell that could go 6 months between charges). Of course none of that matters for devices on AC power. But I'm sure a company isn't going to want to choose Microsoft's offering for things on AC power and something smaller and lighter for things on battery. They probably want one thing. (To be fair, I remember Google's announcement and thought that theirs was going to be too heavy too).

  28. Pierre Masse

    It is clear now. Windows Core OS is based on linux. I'm joking... kind of... (crying)

  29. bluvg

    Dave Cutler must be letting loose a blue streak in front of his coffee-covered monitor and keyboard (no mouse, of course).

    • hrlngrv

      In reply to bluvg:

      Did Windows ever make sense for embedded systems?

      • skane2600

        In reply to hrlngrv:

        Even Linux isn't the optimal choice for embedded systems but it had the advantage of being royalty-free, unlike its more embedded-centric competitors. Embedded code is rarely portable (particularly in the past) so there was no installed base of programs that discouraged people from using embedded Linux the way there was for Desktop Linux that wasn't compatible with the installed base of Windows programs.

        • hrlngrv

          In reply to skane2600:

          If there's no need for persistent volatile storage, and there's really one process with a few (or several) threads, how much need is there for an OS per se?

          As for the incompatibility of Win32 software and Linux, when was the last time you tried using wine to run Win32 software? Can wine handle everything? No, not MS Office, not Adobe anything, but all the portable Win32 software I've tried runs adequately under wine.

          • skane2600

            In reply to hrlngrv:

            "If there's no need for persistent volatile storage, and there's really one process with a few (or several) threads, how much need is there for an OS per se?"

            Yes, there probably isn't.

            As far as wine is concerned, compatibility may be a nuanced matter for developers or enthusiasts, but for the average user it either works or it doesn't and for them, it doesn't. But my point was just that compatibility was not much of an issue for embedded Linux systems.

  30. rabmsn

    Microsoft has always been involved with UNIX/LINUX. One of the frequently forgotten bits of history from the 1980s is the Microsoft operating system offering called XENIX. It was a fully licensed implementation of AT&T's UNIX. In May of 1980 (maybe it was 1981) Steve Balmer penned a lengthy article in the then very popular BYTE Magazine that XENIX was to be Microsoft's OS of the future. Shortly thereafter IBM visited Microsoft and offered to make Bill Gates a billionaire, MS-DOS was born and XENIX was forgotten. If I can ever help fill in the gaps from that period of time, please let me know--I then was authoring the "/xenix" column for UNIX/World Magazine.

  31. curtisspendlove

    I agree that this probably isn’t much of a foreshadow.

    Im guessing it was largely not worth trimming Windows Core down to a size that works well and securely in a limited onboard storage.

    Could also be operational constraints (RAM, etc) that just weren’t worth optimizing.

    It it might also have been a time thing.

    • hrlngrv

      In reply to curtisspendlove:

      If the OS runs from read-only media and there's no persistent volatile storage (e.g., Linux Live distributions), how much additional security is needed?

      • skane2600

        In reply to hrlngrv:

        It would be even better if the architecture made it impossible to run code from anywhere but the read-only media. A lot of damage can be done before the power is turned off especially for devices that may run continuously for days.

  32. AlexKven

    The question I have is what the custom Linux kernel they're using has that the Windows kernel doesn't. It's not like they don't have really lightweight versions of the Windows kernel. Brad Smith recalling the need for a not "full-blown version of Windows" wouldn't have to look farther than Windows Embedded right? Building a custom Linux kernel rather than using their own in-box solution seems like a lot of work for a headline.

    • jimchamplin

      In reply to AlexKven:

      Linux can be implemented in a ridiculously small package. Damn Small Linux and Tinfoil Linux can both run comfortably on a 386. DSL 4.4.10's ISO is 44MB.

      Yeah. Get Windows that small. Good luck.

      • dgloff

        In reply to jimchamplin:

        The latest builds of Nano Server are 78MB uncompressed and installed. That's pretty damn small.

        DSL is also discontinued, unsupported, and got its last update almost six years ago. There have been a LOT of vulnerabilities in the past 6 years.

  33. johnh3

    Very interesting. Maybe Microsoft might do a android phone of some kind to? Could be a way for them to be back on mobile.

    Nokia with Stephen Elop (just before Microsoft bought them) released a device Nokia X that had android.

  34. hrlngrv

    What we've realized is that all those people complaining about Windows bloat . . . were right.

  35. skane2600

    While Linux (or any OS) might be a bit bloated for many IoT devices, "One Windows" never made much sense to me as it applies to IoT.

    If you think about it this announcement isn't as dramatic as it sounds. Microsoft's historical concern with Linux was that it might be a major competitor to Windows on the desktop. That didn't really happen and it's unlikely to ever happen. Microsoft was never a major player in embedded systems and using the Linux kernel is unlikely to have any negative impact on Windows.

  36. bluvg

    Microsoft is running to Linux, Google is running away from it....

  37. Steve Martin

    The nails in the coffin of the once dominant OS grow by the day. The Windows proprietary kernel has been marked for death since the first NT was delivered. When Apple proved that an open source *nix kernel could be used for modern productivity desktops, laptops and workstations the blood was in the water. Linux has been taking over Data-centers since it was introduced. It dominates the Cloud and iOT.

    With hundreds of thousands, and perhaps even millions, of software engineers already well versed in Linux/Unix kernel based coding and millions of jobs for those developers opening up every year, the desire to learn the one-off kernel from Microsoft shrinks every day.

    Good bye Windows, we hardly knew ya.