Internet of Things (IoT) platforms and use cases are abounding in key industries like utilities, communications, and retail. Vendors are emerging with platforms and frameworks for IoT to make end-to-end development and integration simpler. Are these platforms viable? Or is it too early?
The IoT value chain
Every link within an IoT deployment model must add value and perform its function or the entire solution may fail. Network delivery must be reliable and provide the proper quality of service; Media and entertainment must be compelling and usable to consumers; Smart home and mobile IoT services must be useful and also provide information and analytics on how customers are using the services for vendors to improve their offerings.
Greenwave Systems is an IoT software and services company that views the IoT as a broad play that spans the telecom, utilities, and retail segments, and its core business is helping large customers with sizeable consumer bases generate revenue from next-generation services. Jim Hunter, Chief Scientist & Technology Evangelist with Greenwave calls the organization “a software company with deep hardware chops,” as their current CEO was previously the CTO of Linksys and held various positions at Cisco, which allows the organization to leverage understanding about the marriage between hardware and software in route to creating effective solutions.
“Sometimes you have to build the hardware if it doesn’t exist,” Hunter said. “For example, we’ve built a reference design for a next-generation broadband router for Tier 1 service providers. The reference design has no added bill of materials (BOM) cost, and we license our software so that the entire hardware/software solution works perfectly. This model is what we call ‘AXON Engage.’”
Greenwave’s AXON Engage model takes a horizontal approach to IoT solutions that ranges from set-top boxes and broadband routers to other core IoT devices. AXON gathers the information from various IoT sensors and devices then translates them into a common, syntactical language so that a lightbulb, a car, or a set top box can be controlled with the same API.
A second component of the approach involves software that connects devices to the cloud. This software leverages the syntactical language with the ability to include third-party software to control and manage the IoT system. The software includes a framework to stop, start, manage, or upgrade code for an IoT system. This software is wrapped in a container and can be included in and leveraged by IoT functional components or analytics applications.
“Only building vertical IoT solutions limits what can be done with them,” Hunter said. “This horizontal approach becomes a platform that can provide a wide range of options to optimize and evolve the IoT solution.”
Another key concept involves “self healing.” The ability to set service and availability thresholds across specific products with automated problem scenario detection and correction is extremely valuable. Self-healing systems can result in shorter and less frequent support calls, as well as enable information collection for system degradation indicators. Once the information is obtained, it can be analyzed and acted upon.
Analysis doesn’t stop with self-healing, of course. Looking for overall use trends and developing specific policies around these trends provides the foundation for automating things for the user. The key is the ability to map out the relationship between the person and the technology to create the lowest possible friction or remove barriers to effective usage.
When asked about the single biggest factor is in advancing IoT platforms, Hunter said, “We need to be user-centric instead of technology-centric. The problem with technology is that technologists deliver products that tend to be less friendly than they could be from a user interaction perspective. We need to elevate the level of interaction for the best possible user experience.”
An example of this is the “Alexa-like” voice-activated communications that learn to tag objects with specific purposes or functions in a “noun/verb” fashion. This moves interaction toward assigning tags to the environment. For example, inter-acting with a system by saying, “Assign outside to my porch light” creates a tag so when I say “I’m going outside” and it’s dark, the system turns on the porch light. This is a much different user experience than opening a home lighting app on a smartphone and touching the porch light icon.
Hunter said another key concept for IoT platforms is that it cannot simply be a primitive messaging structure. Platforms must be designed with a paradigm that can be built upon, and the best platforms can be used horizontally and interact asynchronously (HTML is an example of such a platform for the web); Only assuming asynchronous communications is not a good platform characteristic.
“Hiring an IoT platform is similar to hiring good employees,” Hunter said. “They must be trustworthy, reliable, and work well with others. To extend this paradigm even further, if I’m a CEO, should every sensor report directly to me? Of course not – too much information and bottlenecks would result. There should be a hierarchy. Sensors report to a controller, the controller publishes the summary output, and specialists can dig into the details.”
Hunter has a tempered, pragmatic approach to the evolution of standards within the IoT domain. “Consortiums tend to be good to get the conversation started, but without a single company driving things, good work tends to stall. The real challenge arises when standards commoditize things. When companies and products lose their differentiation and become commoditized, we’ve reached the point where progress tends to slow down.”
To Hunter, industry shouldn’t expect to agree on a single standard or language, and rather accept the fact that the IoT is a multi-lingual environment. This amplifies the need to build a platform that understands all the viable elements and has the ability translate those up to a common model.
Additionally, Hunter identified the following key elements as critical to the advancement of IoT:
- Fortifying existing network technology through better network reliability – If you ultimately want to monetize a solution you have to have a strong communications foundation.
- Extending into new networks and devices like mesh and radio technologies with an eye toward new and emerging topologies.
Smart homes, security, and privacy
Hunter highlighted the connected home environment as an example of work Greenwave has done with companies to deliver specific solutions. “Our number one effort tends to be building out the right networks for the application. We fortify these technologies through software, then design elements where the voids exist.”
The phased approach Greenwave employs starts with getting the IoT network right, then establishing a data model with a common addressable structure. As long as it’s hierarchical, once the data model is defined you can start incorporating application-specific noun, verb, tags, and search paradigms, then apply analysis, feedback loops, and third-party contributions to adapt a smart home solution as use cases evolve.
IoT security is another key concept Hunter promotes, as Greenwave serves as co-chair on the Privacy and Security Committee within the. “The consortium is comprised of a broad mix of stakeholders that include networking, hosting, chip, software, and device companies, among others. They all promote the concept of having security at the forefront of any IoT design. To exist, everything should have security before it ever enters the IoT. Security is the mechanism by which we protect data and authenticate actions.”
Privacy is a less-considered aspect, but one Hunter feels is still important. “Privacy tends to fall by the wayside in IoT because we have the word ‘Internet’ in front of this evolution. Mechanisms like cookies, pushed information, and even plugins have been used to gather information without our permission in the Internet world. Many companies have the supposition that things should and will continue this way in IoT. IoT will literally be in, on, and around you 24/7/365. Do the same web browsing rules apply?
“For example, companies with business models that predicate taking your information without permission or returning value will find themselves facing challenges in the near future. We should look at the data of IoT as content. Because IoT takes large amounts of information about consumers from a wide set of sensors, it will be able to create content about the individual and their actions, communications, and interactions with others. Companies need to be mindful of this. Within 5 years they may be asked by a court of law to be accountable. We don’t have the right density in IoT to see that right now, but as it matures it will become clearer that an alarmingly accurate picture can be painted about consumers, from an individual to groups and demographics.”