Silicon Labs Shoots for a Secure, Inclusive IoT

Article By : Brian Santo

Silicon Labs introduced new sub-gigahertz SoCs for IoT devices, new security measures, and an SDK that should help designers make IoT devices play nice with each other.

Silicon Labs is going to give its customers the capability to make changes to the parts the company is making for them in the midst of production runs. Even as Silicon Labs foundries are churning out parts for the Internet of things (IoT), customers will be able change part numbers, add security keys (private or public), inject certificates, and enable/disable features (secure boot, for example), among other changes.

“Before they had to do all this after-market. This is factory level,” new Silicon Labs CEO Matt Johnson told EE Times in a one-on-one interview, prior to the commencement of the company’s “Works With” event being held this week.

The company said this is a “first of its kind” capability, and it illustrates how far Silicon Labs intends to go to give its customers tools critical to securing their IoT devices; it is giving them them the ability to adapt to IoT security issues on the fly.

Johnson said, “Security is absolutely a moving target. Giving our customers access to that flexibility is attractive.”

Silicon Labs made three formal announcements at Works With. The ability to make production changes is merely one component of the third. This week, the company…

  1. …introduced a line of systems-on-chips (SoC) that operate in the sub-gigahertz spectrum. This is where the mioty, Wireless M-Bus, and Z-Wave protocols operate, as well as some proprietary IoT networks. It’s also spectrum used by smart city applications — specifically Amazon Sidewalk, which Silicon Labs is supporting.
  2. …introduced a software development kit (SDK) called Unify, which is designed to live up to its name. The idea is to make it much easier for designers to create products that can support multiple, disparate wireless protocols. The company is also doing something unusual in terms of SDK support; it will offer SDK support services for up to 10 years, Johnson said.
  3. …announced a program called Security Services, supporting IoT companies with the implementation of Zero Trust security architectures. This includes the Custom Part Manufacturing Service (CPMS) for wireless SoCs and modules described above.

Silicon Labs is claiming that its sub-1-GHz SoCs are the first wireless chips to combine long-range RF and energy efficiency with certified Arm PSA Level 3 security. The line is aimed at IoT products that are intended to last for as long as 10 years on a single coin battery and be able to connect at relatively long distances – up to a mile.

Matt Johnson

The company has seen resurgence in demand for sub-GHz products, Johnson said, partly for the range, and partly because they can operate in noisy environments.

The transmit and receive specs for the new FG23 and ZG23 wireless SoC solutions are 13.2 mA TX at 10 dBm, 4.2 mA RX at 920 MHz. RF performance measurements include +20 dBm output power and -125.3 dBm RX at 868 MHz, 2.4 kbps GFSK. Silicon Labs said those figures make it possible for IoT end nodes to achieve 1+ mile wireless range while operating on a coin cell battery for 10+ years.

The FG23 targets Amazon Sidewalk, industrial IoT (IIoT), smart city, building and home automation markets. The ZG23 is for Z-Wave Wireless Long Range and Mesh; it adds the Secure Vault security capabilities to the company’s Z-Wave offerings. The target markets for the ZG23, the company said, are smart home, hotel and multi-dwelling units (MDU).

Some of these parts are shipping today; others will be available in Q4 2021.

Long-term software development support

The Unify SDK is aimed at developers creating wireless products they would like to support some combination of the many wireless protocols available. The SDK currently provides ready-made protocol-specific translations for Z-Wave and Zigbee, with plans to fold in Bluetooth, Thread, OpenSync and Matter.

The profusion of wireless protocols is a contemporary Babel. Silicon Labs spent the last decade putting itself in a position to support every major wireless technology, and now it thinks it can also be a vital translator. “Not being able to communicate is not going to work,” Johnson said.

In a statement that came with the announcement, Johnson said, “For the first time, IoT providers will be able to develop and maintain a single software code base for IoT devices including gateways and easily add wireless protocol support when desired.”

What’s the Matter?

Matter is a new standard that until last May used to be known as Project Chip (Connected Home over IP); Silicon Labs is a key proponent. It combines Ethernet, Wi-Fi, Thread and Bluetooth Low Energy. It could become the standard that helps bridge a great many IoT devices that currently do not talk to each other.

That Matter will eventually be included in the SDK “is huge,” Johnson said.

The Connectivity Standards Alliance (formerly the Zigbee Alliance) is developing a wireless standard called Matter (formerly known as Project CHIP) that will help bridge IoT devices that previously did not communicate with each other.

It could be huge because a lot of companies — more than 180 so far — are interested in seeing Matter succeed. The list of companies involved is a Who’s Who of smart-home vendors, including Amazon, Apple, Comcast, Google, IKEA, Legrand, NXP Semiconductors, Resideo, Schneider Electric, Signify, Silicon Labs, Somfy, and Wulian.

But to succeed designers will have to be able to adopt it quickly and easily. The idea is to provide tools in the SDK that will make it easy to activate Matter later, upon the standard’s approval, enabling cross-platform wireless communication among Matter devices.

For example, the company explained, a Zigbee-based smart speaker could perform a Unify SDK software upgrade to enable Matter, then run both protocols simultaneously, preserving existing investments and allowing for new wireless technologies.

Last, but not least: security

Silicon Labs said its Security Service complements its Secure Vault technologies with CPMS, the secure provisioning service described above.

The new offering also includes software development kit (SDK) support services for up to 10 years, covering an IoT product’s entire lifecycle.

Johnson explained that Silicon Labs tends to introduce a new SDK every six months or so. Companies moving from one to the next often have to go through an involved process that includes recertifications.

Now, if a customer signs up for long-term support, “We’ll do updates over the lifetime of the agreement,” Johnson said. “It’ll be a lot less work for our customers to keep current.”

[EE Times is part of the Aspencore publishing company. Aspencore is owned by Arrow, and Arrow is sponsor of Works With.]

This article was originally published on EE Times.

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