The value of connected products and services is driven by IoT business applications, which in turn depend on trustworthy, accurate, and reliable data from devices in the field. Therefore, any IoT solution must be created and delivered end-to-end (from the device to the business application) to generate the expected business benefits.
However, implementing, deploying, and supporting end-to-end IoT solutions can be complex – in particular meeting the increasing commercial or industrial requirements for security, reliability, scalability, and longevity is challenging. This complexity is slowing down or preventing many IoT deployments today. Among some of the technical challenges are:
- Security (from device hardware through communications to cloud and management)
- Hardware selection and product design
- Software complexity (device and cloud)
- Multitude of communications technologies
- Device manufacturing and deployment at scale
- Integration of legacy systems
- Protocol conversion and data integration
- Cloud infrastructure and scalability
Many products and services companies do not possess the technical expertise, resources, or appetite for risk to build and deliver IoT solutions by themselves. For such companies, it makes more sense to focus on their core competencies and leverage IoT offerings from specialized vendors who abstract much of that complexity away from the customer.
Unfortunately, choosing the right IoT offerings itself is a challenge. A dizzying number of IoT offerings exist in the market today, from low-level device hardware components on one end to powerful cloud-based IoT platforms on the other end, and any number of components, technologies, standards, protocols, tools, and services in between.
When approaching the IoT solutions market, there are two extremes visible:
1. Bespoke IoT solutions – Custom solutions based on a number of different technology and service components, which are then assembled, integrated, delivered, and supported by a vendor for a specific customer
2. Off-the-shelf IoT solutions – Pre-integrated technology and services packaged as IoT solutions that target specific markets and use cases, which are offered by a vendor with limited customization
Building bespoke IoT solutions from components offers maximum flexibility, but requires substantial expertise, incurs technology and execution risk, and carries the burden of having to support the bespoke IoT solution over its entire lifetime. From experience, this burden is almost always underestimated (especially with regards to security), resulting in projects going over time and over budget.
Off-the-shelf solutions focus on narrow functionality for specific applications and market segments, typically trading fast time-to-market and simplicity against flexibility. While off-the-shelf offerings may initially seem attractive, companies often find that these are not flexible enough to integrate well with existing products and business models; do not scale across product or business lines; and don’t evolve well with business needs. The difference between a proof of concept and a shipping IoT product is often about corner cases that occur in the real world, and a rigid IoT solution is often not capable of handling these corner cases efficiently.
Both extremes are not viable for the majority of the companies seeking IoT solutions today, as many are looking for a straightforward but flexible approach to IoT. The key business requirements of these organizations can be summarized as follows:
- Fast time-to-market; low execution risk; and predictable, bounded expenditure
- Well-designed, fully integrated security from device hardware to cloud that is maintained for the lifetime of the product
- Flexibility to address unique and evolving technology and business needs
- Easy integration with, and support for, existing and future products
- Simplified procurement, integration, and delivery without sacrificing functionality or flexibility
- Low upfront investment and the ability to incrementally invest as connected business scales
- Cost effective, timely, long-term support for solutions
The alternative: A hybrid IoT platform approach
One alternative that meets the aforementioned requirements is a hybrid IoT platform approach, which combines a comprehensive IoT Device Connectivity and Management Platform with the IoT Application Cloud Platform best suited for the customer’s needs.
1. IoT device connectivity and management platform
An IoT device connectivity and management platform connects devices to the cloud securely, reliably, and at scale. Device connectivity and management is a highly specialized field that requires expertise in device hardware, security from device to cloud and all layers in-between, robust bi-directional connectivity (data and control), device management, software provisioning and over-the-air (OTA) updates, protocol integration and data conversion, cloud integration, massive scalability, and more. The security, flexibility, and scale of an IoT device connectivity and management platform are prerequisites to getting trustworthy IoT data into the application cloud. Without trusted device data, there can be no IoT business value.
2. IoT application cloud platform
The IoT application cloud platform provides massive-scale device data ingestion, processing and storage, business applications, and enterprise orchestration. IoT cloud platforms typically rely on external mechanisms to provide device security, connectivity, and management, which is where an IoT device connectivity and management platform comes in. The ease and flexibility of integration between the two platforms is critically important for real-world IoT solutions, as it enables a vendor to optimize a complete solution to the customer’s requirements.
A hybrid IoT platform approach provides important benefits to companies looking to build IoT solutions, as it:
- Strikes an optimal balance between flexibility and time-to-market for many companies and their IoT use cases
- Leverages proven platform implementations for common IoT functionality while enabling customization of the IoT solution to meet the customer’s unique needs
- Simplifies procurement and support of the IoT solution with only two key vendors and well-defined responsibilities and integration points
- Provides flexibility to evolve with the customer’s business needs, both on the device and on the cloud side, including expanding the solution with additional connectivity options and a wider range of cloud services
Creating, deploying, and supporting device-to-cloud IoT business applications can be complex and challenging. Bespoke IoT solutions provide maximum flexibility but are costly, time consuming, and not a viable option for many companies. Off-the-shelf IoT solutions offer simplicity and fast time-to-market, but often lack the necessary flexibility to adapt and grow with business needs.
A hybrid IoT platform approach can deliver the best option for many companies by combining a comprehensive IoT device connectivity and management platform with the customer’s preferred IoT application cloud platform. This approach integrates two proven and ready-to-use platforms to deliver the necessary common IoT functionality while providing the flexibility to easily adapt and extend the IoT solution to emerging requirements.
The result is a customized device-to-cloud IoT solution that can be delivered to market quickly, with low risk, and evolve over time as the needs of a customer grow. This is what most companies need to successfully extend their core product and service business into the connected world of the Internet of Things.
Terrence Barr is Head of Solutions Engineering at Electric Imp.