What is an IoT Operating System?

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In the enterprise sector, there is a constant drive to find new ways to improve competitiveness and catalyze growth. This has led to the rapid expansion of the Internet of Things (IoT) device market. As enterprises increasingly look to leverage the power of IoT to improve competitiveness and catalyze growth, the demand for IoT operating systems is also growing rapidly.

Also see: Leading IoT Devices 

What is an IoT operating System?

An IoT operating system, or IoT OS, provides the foundational layer upon which IoT devices can communicate with one another and the larger network.

Simply put, it is the software OS that powers IoT devices. It enables devices to connect to the internet and interact with each other. It also provides a platform for developing applications that can run on these devices.

Why IoT Operating Systems are Important

IoT operating systems are crucial for ensuring the seamless connectivity and communication of IoT devices. Traditional operating systems, such as Windows or iOS, were not designed for the specific needs and capabilities of IoT devices. These traditional operating systems often lack the necessary support for low power consumption, limited memory, and efficient data processing that IoT devices require.

Using a separate operating system specifically designed for IoT devices allows for maximum efficiency and optimization. It enables smooth integration and communication between various types of IoT devices, creating a more seamless and connected experience for users. It also allows IoT devices to function effectively with limited resources, such as low power and memory.

Also see: 6 IoT Challenges and How to Fix Them

How IoT Operating Systems Work

IoT operating systems are designed to be lightweight and efficient, so they can be used on a variety of devices, from wearables to home appliances. One of the key features of an IoT operating system is its support for over-the-air (OTA) updates, which allows devices to be updated wirelessly without the need for manual intervention.

IoT operating systems typically offer a set of core services essential for connected devices. These services include device discovery and management, security, data management, and connectivity.

Device discovery is the process by which devices on a network can find and identify each other. This is important because it allows devices to connect with each other and share data.

Communication protocols are the rules that govern how devices communicate with each other. There are many different types of communication protocols, but some of the most common ones used in IoT networks are Bluetooth, Zigbee, and Z-Wave. Connectivity enables devices to communicate with each other and with back-end systems.

Security is also a major concern for IoT networks. Because these networks are made up of interconnected devices, they are vulnerable to attack. To combat this, IoT operating systems need to have built-in security features that can protect data and prevent unauthorized access to devices.

Data management is another crucial task IoT operating systems need to be able to handle. Because IoT devices generate large amounts of data, this data needs to be stored somewhere, so it can be accessed and analyzed later. Data management also includes tasks such as data cleansing and data aggregation.

IoT operating systems are designed to be efficient in their use of memory, as IoT devices often have limited memory resources. Typically, an IoT operating system will use only a few hundred kilobytes to a couple of megabytes of random-access memory (RAM) and read-only memory (ROM).

Design techniques used by IoT operating systems

To optimize efficiency and performance, IoT operating systems often use techniques such as real-time processing and modular design. Real-time processing allows for tasks to be completed within specific time constraints, while modular design helps to keep the operating system lightweight by only including necessary components.

Below are other common design standards.

Most common architecture

Monolithic or microkernel RTOSs (real-time operating systems) are the most common architectures used in IoT operating systems. A monolithic kernel is a single large program that contains all of the code needed to run the system. A microkernel is a small program that contains only the essential code needed to run the system.

The advantage of using a microkernel is that it is more modular and easier to debug and extend. The disadvantage is that it can be slower than a monolithic kernel because of the increased number of context switches required to execute different tasks.


IoT operating systems use either cooperative or preemptive schedulers. A cooperative scheduler shares CPU (central processing unit) time between tasks equally. A preemptive scheduler allocates CPU time based on priority levels.

Preemptive schedulers are more efficient because they allow high-priority tasks to take precedence over low-priority tasks. However, they can be more difficult to implement correctly due to the need for synchronization between tasks.

Programming Models

The three most common programming models used in IoT operating systems are event-driven protothreads, multi-threading, and event-driven single threading.

Event-driven protothreads are lightweight threads that are activated by events such as interrupts or messages from other threads. Multi-threading allows multiple threads to execute concurrently on a single processor. Event-driven single threading only requires one thread to execute at a time, but it can respond quickly to events by suspending the current task and resuming it later.

Target device class

IoT operating systems can be classified into three categories based on the type of devices they support: 0, 1, or 2. Class 0 devices are simple devices with limited resources, such as sensors or actuators. Class 1 devices are more complex devices with more resources, such as controllers or gateways. Class 2 devices are powerful devices with even more resources, such as servers or PCs.

IoT OS licensing considerations

IoT OS licensing regulations can vary depending on the vertical application. For example, avionics systems must follow DO-178B guidelines, while industrial control systems need to comply with IEC 61508 standards. Medical devices are regulated by ISO 62304, and transportation and nuclear systems have additional requirements for SIL3/SIL4 IEC compliance. IoT OS developers need to be aware of these different licensing regulations to ensure their products are compliant.

Also see: Using Digital Twins to Push IoT

Examples of IoT Operating Systems

Below are 10 examples of popular IoT operating systems:

  • Nucleus RTOS: The Nucleus RTOS by Siemens enables system developers to address the complex requirements of advanced embedded designs. With kernel-rich functionality and tooling features, Nucleus is ideal for applications where a scalable footprint, connectivity, security, power management, and deterministic performance are essential.
  • TinyOS: TinyOS is an open-source, BSD-licensed operating system designed for low-power wireless devices, such as those used in sensor networks.
  • Amazon FreeRTOS: Amazon FreeRTOS is a secure and fully managed IoT operating system that enables rapid and easy application development. It includes support for connectivity protocols, over-the-air updates, and industry standards like TLS 1.2.
  • Windows 10 IoT: Microsoft’s Windows 10 IoT operating system offers robust security features and supports various hardware platforms, including Arm processors and Raspberry Pi boards.
  • Tizen: Tizen is a Linux-based open-source OS for devices, including TVs, wearables, mobile devices, and more. It was developed by the Linux Foundation and Samsung.
  • Wind River VxWorks: VxWorks is a real-time operating system designed for use in industrial and embedded devices. It offers advanced security features and supports multiple CPU architectures.
  • Embedded Linux: Embedded Linux is a version of the Linux operating system optimized for use in embedded systems, such as IoT devices.
  • Contiki: Contiki is an open-source operating system specifically designed for low-power, memory-constrained IoT devices. It offers support for IPv6 and 6LoWPAN networks.
  • Apache Mynewt: Apache Mynewt is a real-time, modular operating system designed for resource-constrained IoT devices with connectivity options including Bluetooth Low Energy and Wi-Fi.

Frequently Asked Questions About IoT Operating Systems

How is an IoT operating system different from a regular operating system?

An IoT operating system is optimized for use in small, low-power devices with limited resources. On the other hand, regular operating systems are designed to run on larger and more powerful devices such as PCs or servers.

Can an IoT device run a regular operating system?

In some cases, yes. However, it may not perform as well or have all of the features needed for efficient operation in an IoT scenario.

How do I choose an IoT operating system for my device?

Consider factors such as the target device class, memory requirements, connectivity options, industry compliance regulations, and support offered by the OS developer.

Do IoT devices require an OS?

IoT devices do not necessarily require an operating system. Some IoT devices may use a real-time operating system or a bare-metal approach where the code is directly executed on hardware without an intervening OS.

How much does an IoT operating system cost? 

IoT operating system costs can vary depending on several factors, such as the size of the deployment and the features required.

Parameters for Selecting a Suitable IoT OS

When selecting an IoT OS, it’s important to consider the following factors:

  • Footprint: Devices are constrained by their memory, power, and processing requirements, so expect the OS to have a low overhead.
  • Scalability: As the number of connected devices grows, the OS should be able to handle increasing demands on resources and functionality.
  • Portability: The OS should support multiple hardware platforms to ensure flexibility in device selection.
  • Modularity: A modular OS allows for customization and easy updates.
  • Connectivity: The OS will need to support various communication protocols used in IoT networks. 
  • Security: The OS should have security features and compliance with industry regulations.
  • Reliability: The OS must provide deterministic performance for critical operations in real-time environments.

Ultimately, it’s important to carefully consider your project requirements and select an IoT OS that meets them effectively while also providing room for future growth.

Kihara Kimachia
Kihara Kimachia
Kihara Kimachia is a writer and digital marketing consultant with over a decade of experience covering issues in emerging technology and innovation. In addition to appearing regularly in Enterprise Networking Planet, his work has been published in many leading technology publications, including TechRepublic, eSecurity Planet, Server Watch, Channel Insider, IT Business Edge, and Enterprise Storage Forum.
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