Starbucks Gives Microsoft’s Azure Sphere IoT Platform a Buzz

Starbucks' Azure Sphere demo and Avnet’s new development offer IoT opportunities for partners.

Jeffrey Schwartz

January 17, 2019

5 Min Read
Starbucks at Microsoft Booth NRF 2019

(Pictured above: Starbucks sets up shop inside the Microsoft booth at the National Retail Foundation’s Big Show in New York City.)

The IoT platform Microsoft plans to release this year literally created a buzz at this week’s annual National Retail Federation (NRF) show in New York, where Starbucks gave attendees caffeinated beverages brewed with the new Azure Sphere software.

Starbucks, among the first to indicate it would pilot Azure Sphere to gather telemetry from the machines in its stores, set up a makeshift coffee shop with espresso machines. It sat within a small section of the Microsoft booth at NRF that featured baristas making espressos for anyone passing through.

The purpose was to attract potential partners and customers to see the progress of Starbucks’ Azure Sphere pilot and the headway Microsoft is making with the development of its new complete IoT platform, announced last April, and released to preview back in September. Microsoft said that partners and customers are in the midst of various pilots.

Azure Sphere is a Linux kernel OS embedded on microcontroller units (MCUs) that are the size of a fingernail, for use in IoT endpoints. MCUs are small but critical components for IoT-connected devices such as sensors, as they provide the compute, signal processing and wireless connectivity.

The Azure Sphere MCUs enable real-time processing with Microsoft’s security subsystem, called Pluton. It enables a secure boot, monitors every device using locally installed certificates and has its own key management platform, random number generator and accelerates various cryptographic tasks.

Microsoft showcased the Starbucks pilot with Azure Sphere as an example of how it’s partnering with various brick-and-mortar merchants including Kroger, Michaels, Goodwill and other to help them provide better customer experiences and more efficient operations.


Starbucks’ Jeff Wile

Jeff Wile, Starbucks senior VP of infrastructure enablement, said by embedding the Azure Sphere MCUs in the various coffee brewers and other machines in each store, it can gather telemetry to help predict a potential problem before it requires a repair.

“If we can avoid one service call per year in each store, it pays for the project,” Wile told Channel Futures.

Noting that the company is still early in its testing, Wile expressed confidence that Azure Sphere will help modernize its operations.

“We think that there’s a really good chance that’s attainable for us,” he said.

The Starbucks exhibit was the latest sign that Azure Sphere is on track. At last week’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, distributor Avnet introduced and demonstrated its Azure Sphere MT3620 Starter Kit, a module that supports wireless connectivity and a subsystem for real-time communications, based on the MediaTek MT3620AN system on chip (SoC) for component suppliers seeking to build connected MCUs. Avnet was among the first distribution partners that committed to develop a starter kit during last year’s launch. Starbucks has worked with Avnet during the pilot, Wile said.

“We think Avnet has a nice platform, and there are others that have nice ones as well that we’re working with, but none of them are officially out,” Wile said.

The only certified Azure Sphere development kit that’s currently available is from Seeed Technology, a distributor in China.

Ed Nightingale, partner director of engineering for Microsoft’s Azure Sphere team, said Avnet joins Seeed and others in the pipeline such as USI, which will offer …

… partners and customers a variety of development options.


Microsoft’s Ed Nightingale

“I think it’s with all their relationships with different silicon integrators. with design houses and customers who want to buy from Avnet as a distributor, they will be providing many of these modules,” Nightingale said.

Avnet plans to release its starter kit in April. Since Azure Sphere is Wi-Fi-enabled, it will require FCC certification prior to implementation, which Avnet is finalizing for its solution.

“That will shrink the certification time for the customer, which is also going to obviously offer a significant cost savings, because they won’t have to go through that certification process,” said Jim Beneke, Avnet’s VP of engineering and technology.

The Avnet kits include a carrier board embedded with the Azure Sphere Module that provides the Wi-Fi connectivity and interfaces to integrate sensors, displays, motors and relays. Developers will have access to “click boards” from MikroElektronika, that include an ecosystem of more than 500 different inexpensive peripheral boards with specific types of sensors (such as temperature or pressure), actuators, control relays, clocks, storage, power management components and various interfaces.

The kits also support a downloadable toolkit that enables developers to perform most of their programming in C using Microsoft’s Visual Studio tooling. Microsoft’s Nightingale said the company has seen significant interest in Azure Sphere.

“We are still in public preview but there’s a lot of excitement,” he said. “I think it’s because it’s not that difficult for people to create this entire end-to-end solution.”

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About the Author(s)

Jeffrey Schwartz

Jeffrey Schwartz has covered the IT industry for nearly three decades, most recently as editor-in-chief of Redmond magazine and executive editor of Redmond Channel Partner. Prior to that, he held various editing and writing roles at CommunicationsWeek, InternetWeek and VARBusiness (now CRN) magazines, among other publications.

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