Broadcom ups the ante in IoT chip security

The firm's latest system-on-chip for embedded devices sports RSA 4000-bit encryption along with iBeacon and Bluetooth Smart

By Caroline Gabriel

As the wireless chip vendors race to carve out a position in the internet of things (IoT), they know security breakthroughs will be important to gain an advantage over rivals. ARM and Intel are battling to enhance chip-level security in their designs for embedded, ultra-low power devices. Broadcom has also made security the centrepiece of its latest offering for the IoT.

The new system-on-chip (SoC), the BCM20737, is part of Broadcom's WICED (Wireless Internet Connectivity for Embedded Devices - pronounced Wicked) family. The first modules in this range were unveiled in late 2011 but it is now being expanded into a platform with a surrounding ecosystem of simple applications in areas like intelligent lighting control, an approach also taken by Qualcomm. Developers can create embedded wireless applications on an existing product microcontroller or on an additional module.

WICED modules contain a processor, WiFi or Bluetooth Smart radio, connectivity API and software stack, all highly integrated and ultra-low power. It is adding a series of new features - last summer it was WiFi Direct, and now the latest Bluetooth SoC model introduces a new level of security to the portfolio.

The BCM20737 boasts RSA 4000-bit encryption and decryption for securing data while it is being transferred between any number of device types - this is aimed at all kinds of everyday items, such as toys and medical monitors, which will acquire wireless connectivity in future.

Also included is support for Apple's iBeacon microlocation technology, which enables a range of potential geofencing, indoor tracking and device detection capabilities; and resonant wireless charging. Future designs will include a larger number of sensors, which will also require increased processing power, but enable new applications in sectors such as health.

Broadcom frequently talks up its belief that IoT ecosystems need to be based on the most readily available technologies - Bluetooth Smart (LE) and low energy WiFi, in the case of connectivity, rather than more specialized options. The company, which has been highly successful in integrated WiFi/Bluetooth 'combo chips' for mobile devices, clearly hopes the same approach will take the IoT by storm, with Bluetooth handling local peer-to-peer or mesh links between 'things' and WiFi creating the bridge between those device clusters and the cloud.

"We see Bluetooth Smart as being part of the IoT ecosystem for its very low cost, low power capability… and ubiquity across smartphones and tablets to provide a direct connection, and ease of use for smart pairing and protocol," said Brian Bedrosian, senior director of embedded wireless, in an interview with EETimes.

This is hardly an unusual view among chip designers from a mobile or device background. Where Broadcom will hope to set itself apart from rivals will be in security, among other critical areas. It will face the challenge of Intel, which is turning its McAfee security acquisition to good use in its own IoT platform. Last month, McAfee set out its stall for IoT security, claiming that, whenever a device is connected by IP, it must have protection built-in, preferably at chip level.

The Intel subsidiary said there would be five legs to its IoT security framework - assurance that a device has not been corrupted; lifecycle security across device, network and data center; support for industry standards and interoperability; ability to connect legacy and new systems to new and future services securely; support individual privacy. Increasingly, Intel is offering IoT platforms which are a combination of hardware and software - last week, it unveiled new IoT gateway solutions which combined its Atom and Quark processors with McAfee and Wind River code.

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