What Is An IoT Platform?
What Is An IoT Platform?
IoT Platforms will fall into two categories - IoT Infrastructure vs. IoT Solution. Both can be considered platforms on which to build your own solution, but there are key differences. Let's start from the beginning.
The Phrase, "It's All in a Name," Just Doesn't Apply With "IoT Platform"
If you’re looking for a solid example of the phrase “buzz term”, note that there were no less than 450 organizations advertising an “IoT Platform” in 2017. You could be forgiven if you landed on this page after a web search attempt to demystify one of the most widely-used technology concepts of the last couple of years. Such a search yields results from software and hardware providers offering everything from open source software SDKs and architecture design patterns to cloud-based IoT APIs and soldered hardware chipsets.
Depending on the reason for your search, any of the solutions might or might not be important for you - whether you’re building a connected device, want to take advantage of existing market devices or need to find ways to yield value from the oceans of data these devices are producing daily. But... how can a microchip and a cloud API address the same need? The answer is they don’t...
And range of different solutions marketed as an ‘IoT Platform’ can be confusing even for veteran technologists.
Well, then, what is an IoT Platform?
Segmenting the IoT Platform Market
It’s helpful to use some key characteristics to segment available platform options:
Market Segment: While all solutions need to scale, the business needs of Industrial versus Commercial versus Consumer market segments are different enough to necessitate purpose-built solutions to address segment-specific needs. IoT Platforms are frequently built to support one of these 3 segments. Those that are not properly focused are almost certainly not optimized for any domain - the “jack of all trades, master of none” conundrum.
Hardware vs. Software IoT Platforms
IoT is not a new concept; it evolved largely as business and industrial-focused solution to address quality-of-service and mission-critical compliance requirements for goods and services in the field through telemetry and measurement. IoT’s historical roots are well-established in embedded technology solutions that were purpose-built to support low/disparate-power environments and require asynchronous, event-driven communication networks, frequently designed in a device-based mesh to support wide area scenarios. Much of the utility is derived from maximizing the processing power eked out of low-level chipset hardware and efficient, low-energy wireless protocols. Where power is ample in the field or network latency is likely, edge-compute is relegated.
Many IoT solutions were born from these beginnings, and a vestige of the history is represented in these hardware-based solutions. With the advent of modern, global and ubiquitous internet connections with high speeds like 5G and 802.11ac, along with new local communication protocols including ZigBee, Z-Wave and BLE, IoT has blossomed from a business problem into a worldwide mission to improve the everyday experience humans have with things. IoT platforms built more recently depend on these luxuries-turned-necessities of modern life, and leverage the cloud and the expectation that devices will more likely than not be serviceable at all times, while borrowing from some of the earlier models to gain the efficiencies and conveniences achieved with edge-computing and asynchronous communication.
IoT Infrastructure Platform vs. IoT Solution Platform
As analogy, if you’re in the market for a home, you have options. First, you can find a real estate agent and buy a home that is on the market. Second, you can architect and have one built to spec. And a Third, and a less-worn path, you could walk into your local Home Depot and buy everything you need to build your own. This is a perfectly reasonable option if you yourself, are the developer.
Applying the analogy to IoT options and your efforts will fall into the area of need for either an IoT Solution (Using an agent to find the perfect home) vs. IoT Infrastructure (building your own home).
IoT Platforms fall into these two categories - IoT Infrastructure vs. IoT Solution. Both can be considered platforms on which to build your own solution, but there are key differences.
IoT Infrastructure represents the set of discrete low-level services that are required to produce an IoT Solution, including authorization services, certificate services, data storage services, queue services, compute services and analytics services as well as synchronous and asynchronous communication services.
IoT Solutions are the end-state products produced and sold by vendors to offer the high-level IoT platform capabilities required to get production devices in the field. These services include device firmware and firmware management, standardized payloads and object definitions, device provisioning and commissioning capabilities, user account & invitation management, notification services and integration with mobile notification systems. It may also include integration to 3rd party device platforms, routine/scene management, device discovery capabilities, user preferences models and multi-user management.
IoT Infrastructure offerings like Amazon IoT may look similar to COTS IoT Solutions, but the effort to get to production is more significant with the former. Typically, IoT Solutions are built based on architecture patterns and leveraging the services made available from IoT Infrastructure providers, but the result for customers is the difference between building and maintaining your own complete IoT backend solution versus bringing a device and using it. In time and effort, the project timeline is easily a difference between weeks versus several months. When should you use an IoT Infrastructure provider?
From a simplistic perspective, if you’re selling services or building your own IoT Solution to sell to others then it’s a good idea to explore IoT Infrastructure. If you’re selling devices then you’ll likely get to the market faster and cheaper with an IoT Solution.
IoT Aggregation vs. IoT Enablement
Customers who buy your connected device will likely be buying someone else’s device as well. They may already have one of the more popular devices in the market like an Amazon Echo or Google Home or Sonos or Nest, or they may be going in for the first time. Nonetheless, by 2021 it’s expected that there will be at least 13 devices per US home.
Consumers are increasingly expecting these devices to play well together, whether it’s through a formal relationship between device providers or ‘by force’ using 3rd party smart home applications.
While most of this post discusses IoT Platforms for enablement of a connected device, another type of Platform exists - IoT Smart Home Aggregation Platforms. These platforms offer the ability for application developers to leverage the capabilities of existing on-the-market devices to produce an end-to-end application.
As an example, if you’re looking to build a solution using existing connected cameras, motion sensors and smart speakers - all without building your own devices or forcing prospective customers to purchase specific devices - an IoT Aggregation Platform provides this capability without requiring you to integrate the thousands of available connected devices with your app service on your own. Vertical solutions that benefit from such a platform include Home Security solutions, Age-in-Place solutions for the elder generation or Property and Rental Management Solutions where builders/property managers can offer orchestrated device-based services to tenants and owners.
Cloud-Platform vs. Edge-Platform
There are typically four interconnected components that make up any “IoT Platform.” A high-level solution architecture illustrates these interconnected solutions:
These four areas are fundamental to IoT, no matter the solution design and platform choice. Let’s focus on each and discuss where IoT Platform providers fit.
Device - This is the end device provide sensing services, control services or both. A thermostat both senses temperature, reports that data and provides the ability to change setpoint to control HVAC or other climate systems. In some cases the end device can also be a gateway.
Gateway - A gateway is a device or software component that bridges communication between sensing, intelligent or controllable things and the cloud-based systems that support them. As mentioned, the device can sometimes be both an end device and a gateway of its own services, such as the case with the most popular smart speakers and thermostats. In mesh-based communication networks like ZigBee, all devices relay communication to a required gateway.
Some vendors - particularly hardware vendors - use the term IoT Platform to refer to the chipset they offer to support creating a connected gateway or connected end device. This can be confusing, but from the perspective of a hardware vendor it’s easy to see that without the chip and the software that enables it there would be no ‘platform’ on which to build the device telemetry and control capabilities. When evaluating any platform it’s important to ask them how they enable all 4 areas of a connected device solution, and where they don’t with who they partner.We cover the question, “What is an Iot Gateway?” in a dedicated post.
Cloud - This is typically what is referred to as the IoT Platform, and the subject of this post.
Client UI - The user’s interface with their device or device services occurs through the Client UI - very often a mobile app or responsive application.
So, Now What's an IoT Platform Again?
So what's an IoT platform again?
The term IoT Platform, while more regularly referring to the Cloud component of this architecture, is not infrequently used by vendors to describe any of these items individually or all of them together. Some organizations are offering all four solutions. Others are best-of-breed providers in one or more areas. Some offer proprietary, vendor-lock-in solutions and others support open, sometimes nebulous standards. Some are focused on telemetry and analytics, some focus on device control and some support both. Some are very well-suited to address Industrial IoT needs, others address commercial/B2B needs and some fit consumer/B2C requirements best. But regardless of the solution, it supports one or more of the solution areas above. The area of the value chain in which you’re business operates will determine which solutions are material for your endeavors.
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