The Integrity and Intrigue of IoT Platforms

 

The last count on the number of IoT Platforms which are jostling for space in the crowded IoT market place is 460 . There are analyst reports galore which explain the features and benefits of these platforms.

For an IoT platform to be called as a comprehensive, mature and end to end it has to have the 8 components with reasonable feature and technology depth which make an IoT platform.

To know what these 4 layers are which constitute 8 components. Let us get down to the basics of a typical IoT platform.

Hardware ( Device )  Layer :

  1. This is where data is produced.
  2. This includes the physical devices with their in-built microprocessors, sensors, actuators and communication hardware.
  3. This layer makes the devices “smart”.
  4. The 2 components which go with this layer are :
    1. Connectivity and Normalisation
    2. Device Management

Communication Layer :

  1. This is where data gets transported.
  2. This part of the technology infrastructure ensures the hardware is connected to the network, via proprietary or open-source communication protocols.
  3. This layer gives the data from devices the “expression”
  4. The 2 components which go with this layer are :
    1. Networks/ Infrastructure
    2. Communication Services

Software Backend Layer ( Cloud Services Layer )   :

  1. This is where the data is managed.
  2. It manages the  connected devices and networks while  providing  the necessary  the interface to systems in the eco-system  (e.g., ERP-system).
  3. This layer provides the “knowledge”
  4. The 2 components which go with this layer are :
    1. Database ( RDBMS and noSQL ) for storage and orchestration
    2. Processing , Rules Engine and Events Management

Applications Layer :

  1. This is where data is turned into value.
  2. In the application layer, IoT use cases get presented to the user (B2C or B2B).
  3. This layer is responsible for the “actions” to be taken.
  4. The 2 components here are
    1. Data Visualization and Analytics
    2. External Interfaces( APIs) to third-party systems ( like ERP )

The cross layer is Security layer which cuts across the 4 layers as mentioned.

The nub of the issue is ,  companies just providing cloud storage  or data security or running a CRM software or connectivity management claim to be an IoT platform .

75 % of the IoT platforms which are currently in the market provide connectivity management pretty well which is essentially the communication layer.

This is borne by the figures which are as below:

  1. IoT platforms themselves will not be revenue earners , but they can definitely facilitate revenue growth when they are put in a business context .The total revenue generated through IoT platforms in 2015 is $ 330 Mill and is expected to grow to $ 1.168 Bill in year 2017 ( as per reports from IoT-Analytics ) . Of the 460 platforms which are there only 7 % of the platforms generate $ 10 Mill or above .
  2. McKinsey report says that $11 Trillion is the business value which can be generated through the implementation of IoT programs and that would mean through productivity gains, efficiency of operations and the like .
  3. The fact that 12.5 bill things would be connected by 2020 also makes communication layer with connectivity the strongest contributor to the IoT platform companies.

So what are the parameters one should look at when accepting an IoT platform as a platform in the truest sense of the word (with integrity)?

The assessment of a platform could be considered to fall in two broad areas .They would be:

  1. Depth across the Layers for a Horizontal IoT Platform
  2. Vertical User Specific Industry Focus ( B2C or B2B )

The Depth Across the Layers for a Horizontal IoT Platform would cover:

  • Application Enablement
  • Device Management
  • Cloud Storage
  • Analytics Platforms
  • Connectivity

Currently 75 % of the platforms are in Connectivity layer ( as per IoT-Analytics report )

Vertical User Specific Industry Focus ( B2C or B2B focus )

  • Consumer – Home, Lifestyle , Health , Mobility
  • Business – Retail, health , Energy ,Smart Cities , Manufacturing , Supply Chain , Public Services

The leader here are Energy and Manufacturing (falling under IIoT ).

Next time one comes across an “IoT Platform” one needs to be suitably  intrigued to check the integrity of that claim!!

 

 

The Buzz of Platforms & the Bazaar of IoT Platforms

 

Among the words, phrases and acronyms in the Tech worlds “Platform” seems to be a word which seems to grab the headlines. If one listens to any pitch from a start up venture it would be not uncommon to get the “platform pitch”in at least 1 out of 2 proposals. A lazy search on Google on the “Top 20 Tech weary  words” fetched me the result that “platform was 3rd in the list . (https://www.businessinsider.com.au/the-worlds-top-20-tech-weary-words-for-2014-2014-5).

There have been words verbalised like “Being Platformed” as well and a host of books on the significance of platform in the Technology world. I will not go into the virtues of platform. I would dwell on how the leaders in respective segments  are a few ( a maximum of 3 ) while in the IoT world we seem to have by some counts 170 of them ( McKinsey ) to 400 of them ( Beecham Research).This is definitely a bewildering array to go through and investigate .

What is a Platform – why there are only a few platform leaders ?

Stepping back – different people have different views and meanings of the word “platform”. To get a view of the diversity of platforms we have:

Browsers (Chrome and Firefox) ,smart phone operating systems ( iOS and Android) , blogging  (Word Press , Medium ) .Social Media titans (YouTube, Facebook) and even Instagram are described as platforms. Uber, Airbnb and their ilk are widely described as ‘marketplaces’, ‘platforms’ or ‘marketplace-platforms.’ Web services (Google Payments, Amazon Elastic Cloud) and  gaming consoles (Xbox, Apple’s ipod Touch, Sony Playstation). One interesting point to be  noted that in each category the market is mostly duopolistic .

To accommodate this diversity the safest definition of platform would be as :

  1. An extensible codebase of a software-based system that provides core functionality provided by the modules that interoperate with it, and the interfaces ( aka Application Programming Interface (APIs)) through which they interoperate. In effect this system  abstracts a number of common functions without bringing out the complexity of building and managing them ,  for the users .
  2. The goal is to  enable interactions between producers and the consumers
  3. This is enabled through three layers comprising the Network ( to connect participants to the platform), Technology Infrastructure ( to help create and exchange value )  and Workflow and Data ( thereby matching participants with content , goods and services ) .

This definition brings in the 2 dimensions of a platform. One that would be for internal use and the other for external use .

    1. An internal dimension  for building platforms is to ensure all necessary modules interoperate , and
    2. An external dimension for building platforms is to enable interaction with the outside world and make it as accessible and usable as is possible.

Internal dimension led platforms focus on internal productivity and efficiencies and focus on users. Here the development is internally sourced and is essentially  built for internal use .  The external dimension led platforms focus on the supply (developer side) and the demand (user side) . Essentially they are sometimes termed as “two-sided” platforms .The development beyond a point is crowd-sourced and they enrich the platform and the platform reaches out to them through APIs.

In most of the cases if the external dimension is well evolved then the internalities come with the efficiencies by default; with respect to design quality , selection of interfaces leading to interoperability  , robustness of infrastructure , seamlessness in workflow and data streaming  .

External dimension platforms compete for both users and developers

Here one important aspect to be remembered is a Platform may not be ready to provide solutions to contextual and domain specific problem statements. Applications built around the platform do that, these applications help get the Return on Investment ( RoI ) from the platforms .

In any segment you must have seen that the winners are a few ( atmost 2 or 3  , aspirants may be many, who progressively wither away )  .The reasons has been presented above with respect to design quality , interoperability, infrastructure robustness and seamlessness in workflow and data flow and the last but not the least excellent and friendly user interface . Not many can master all the 4 aspects .These help acquire a critical mass of customer base which keeps growing and a duopoly of sorts is created in the market space .

Successful platforms have the ability to support the variety of business use cases in the present and have strive to  build the  design to evolve over time and be to an extent future ready .

The Bazaar of IoT Platforms- The reasons,  & who would be the winners  wading through the maze ?

Now when coming to Internet of Things (IoT)  , The IoT  movement repeatedly talks about platforms, but those definitions don’t align with any of Uber, Medium or Android. The first issue is interoperability.  And none of these align with each other either.

Now let us address the question is the why of “plethora of platforms” in IoT .

It can be seen clearly that a typical architecture of an IoT solution is multilayered. The layers to simplistically put would be Device to Device ( this involves hardware and firmware with Low Range Communication ) , Device to Server ( which would again involve hardware and communication ) and server to server ( which would mean that cloud based application and long range communication would hold the key along with network , data storage and data visualisation ) .

So we see protocols and standards are driven through their origins from communication technologies ( we see Telecom companies like AT&T and Verizon leading here ) , in the data storage area ( we have Amazon , Google leading the way ) , in the application side ( Azure from Microsoft and Thingworx from PTC being the prominent ones ) . Companies which has a library of business use cases with them given the dominance they have in their respective businesses (namely Bosch , GE , Honeywell ) have the ambition to build their community based platforms .Then we have a host of start ups who run a platform per a business use case they address .

So the genesis of the “plethora of platforms” in the multilayered solution stack of IoT . This adds to complexity and hence no one player can be a leader across the layers as on date .

In the coming  years it could be reckoned that there would be a shakeout in the market and the platforms could veer around key broad based use cases of remote monitoring and environment conditioning , predictive maintenance and process automation .

The ones which will win the battle of supremacy would have cracked the codes of

  1. Security,
  2. Open interfaces,
  3. Carrier grade reliability,
  4. Service levels,
  5. Scalability and
  6. And allow for aa seamless integration into the back-office environment which is essential to the enterprise’s business operations.
  7. With a impressive usability and user interface .

Given the multitier architecture and the attendant complexity it will be a while before a small group of winners starts to bubble to the top . Some of the also-ran aspirants may focus on domains and address a  specific part of the ecosystem in which to play or in the industry segments like home or industrial to justify their presence .

 

The High Potency of Low Power in the IoT Ecosystem

 

In one of the previous blogs “ If data is the hero , is device a super hero “ I had shared the need to provide  device and the device health monitoring due importance as we aggregate data and work on them to whip up insights .

The network characteristics of IoT as based on  wireless technologies are quite different from those for traditional wired or wireless networks because the number of devices participating in communication is very large. In addition, traffic per IoT device is typically not so much because each IoT device senses and transfers a small amount of data to a corresponding IoT server. Although data generated from a huge number of objects may collectively have some impacts on the network performance. Furthermore, IoT networks should operate stably and sustain-ably for a longer period without any need for human intervention

Somewhere in the euphoria , of IoT and the change agent it promises to be, did we forget that we have to  provide  power these constrained devices ( sensors ) ?

All our life we have looked forward to power and performance, be it our music system or the automobile ; power is something we seek in products ( or things ) .

Although the backbone architecture of networks hog the limelight in a typical IoT program  , the actual driver to a successful deployment of the network hinges on the devices at the edge . This “edge effect” is amplified given the numbers and the challenge is exacerbated when  the connectivity and computing being wireless in nature. Just imagine if these have to be kept charged , imagine the form factor of the devices and the energy bills to the boot .

So these  “edge devices “ or the “IoT end points”  need to be

  1. extremely inexpensive ,
  2. with minimal form factor
  3. with low or no demands for power ,
  4. and the need to be autonomous (untouched by human command)

The ideal situation would be to make these edge devices run of any sort of electricity ( or provide access to foraged electrical energy from heat , motion , light that could be converted to electrical energy.

So the device should have the capability to may be work for a decade powered by a small battery and / or through the energy foraged from the ambience it is operating in as mentioned above

Here the aggressive R&D on Low Power or No Power devices ( LO-NO-PO) makes a grand entry to smartly address this conundrum.

Let me go back to high school chapter of electrical energy .Power consumption as we have learnt is the square of Voltage ( P=V^2/R, where R is the resistance  a constant ) .When the operating voltage decreases the corresponding power consumed drops and so also the performance. While this may adversely impact ones music system , but this is what is required precisely for an “edge device”.

Exploiting this has led to the emergence of “sub-threshold “processing. This technique allows the microcontroller to run from a voltage supply lower than the transistor’s switching voltage.The solution which is being perfected is Sub Threshold Power Optimised Technology ( SPOT) which has been pioneered by companies like Ambiq and Minima aided by university led academic research .

While these  products are getting ready to come to mainstream , they are addressing some of the  the challenges of making the devices less sensitive to factors like temperature , noise and other environmental factors .

Will this extreme energy efficiency lead us to a battery-less future ? May be we will be seeing that sooner than later !!

Top 5 reasons why “Internet” in Internet of Things could be a misnomer!!

Let me pose a quiz question –

“What is common between Paris’s Port Neuf & Internet of Things?

———————-(Both are misnomers!!)————————-

.

Port Neuf is the oldest bridge in the city, but its name still means “new bridge.” It was completed in 1607 .

Now let me mention the phrase Internet of Things .Ever wondered how this name was coined?

The term “The Internet of Things” (IoT) was coined by Kevin Ashton in a presentation to Proctor & Gamble in 1999. Ashton is a co-founder of MIT’s Auto-ID Lab. He pioneered RFID use in supply-chain management.

 

The world caught on to this; and I believe with Cisco’s announcement in the later part of the first decade of 21st century, Internet of Everything legitimised this as the phrase.

There were feeble attempts to offer synonyms like “ambient computing”, ubiquitous computing, “M2M computing” “ and the like but nothing stuck on like IoT  .

One of the influential Tech bloggers Daniel Miessler also tossed a few alternatives like Universal daemonization, universal object interaction etc.

If one breaks the phrase into its components it does not tell what is expected to tell. I will explain this later in the document.

My premise is the phrase is not doing an honest job of explaining what exactly Internet of Things , as we now know it is.

Let us take a step back and take a view the traditional internet and how it was built  and compare that with the world of  IoT

  1. End Systems – The end systems in traditional internet would be PCs, laptops, hand- held devices, servers, routers (both manned and unmanned). In the IoT architecture the scope and the breadth of the end systems or devices to be connected is expected to run into billions, and these devices would be “small, dumb, cheap and copious.”. These end devices do not have processors, memory and hard drives which are needed to run a protocol stack.
  2. Flow of Data – The flow of data in traditional internet is bidirectional and is fast given the bandwidth available and high fidelity. In the IoT world the data flow is generally and individually insignificant but in an aggregated manner it would be meaningful and is unidirectional from the device to the server or cloud. Here the communication would be machine to machine and in tiny snatches of data and working in possibly lossy networks. In the traditional internet, the data networks are essentially over-provisioned by design, built with more capacity than is typically required to provide a best effort based service. Protocols like TCP/IP are based on mostly reliable connection between sender and receiver.
  3. Number of Devices and their Management – Numerous reports mention about how humongous the breadth and scope of IoT would be. The end systems or devices would vastly outnumber human beings on the planet – the network so created would be varied and unprecedented. Imagine the moisture sensors being linked to thermostats and occupancy sensors linked to surveillance systems and the like. With the count of devices exploding in the world of IoT, the panacea is thought to be provided by IPv6 as the IP addresses required to manage them would be solved by IPv6 (with its unlimited capacity to churn IP addresses). Providing address is one thing but their management is another.The estimated 700 billion IoT devices cannot be individually managed, they must self-manage. Self-addressing, self-classification and possibly self-healing will be the order of the day in addition the IP addresses.
  4. Human Involvement – The traditional internet is primarily human-to-machine oriented. There is a human at the end of the session. Applications like email, web surfing and video streaming consist of chunky data flowing through high bandwidth pipes to be consumed by humans per session and is bi directional in flow. In the world of IoT this is just the opposite – data is clipped (or terse, yet purposeful) , mostly meaningless when seen individually but making sense in an aggregated manner and the data flow is .unidirectional. The meaningful amount of data individually could be insignificant and random but when aggregated could be important and give a meaningful update. For example, a temperature sensor may generate only few hundred bytes of data when temperature crosses the threshold, otherwise it would be in sleep mode.
  5. Adaptation to Network – Traditional Internet is extremely reliable. There is a significant overprovisioning of bandwidth and redundancy which is built in, at the design and the deployment phase. This provides a high level of services to the internet users, the human beings.

In the world of IoT most of the devices or end systems reside on the extreme edges of the network and the connection may be inconsistent and intermittent. Devices may not  be needed to be kept switched off to conserve power ( as they consume low or no power ) , they must share wireless connections among them. Individual lost messages may not mean much and they could manage well in lossy networks.

Now you may ask- why not TCP/IP for IoT? These protocols which form the heart of traditional Internet, are ill suited for devices geared for IoT. The inherent robustness of these protocols makes them too heavy duty and overhead rich. It may sound odd, but sometimes being capable and reliable may not be something needed in the “awkward world” of IoT.

Internet of Things is an expression which has firmly got entrenched, when essentially it says that devices would be connected and this contentedness makes them behave as computers and hence the things transform into “thinking things”.

Let us all be like Parisians and retain the much acclaimed word “Internet of Things” not withstanding it could be a misnomer !!

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