Embrace IoT or be left behind

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By Atindra Chandel, CEO, SenseGrow Inc.

It was a hot and weary June afternoon and we were driving down a remote village road in Rajasthan, India. Other than few occasional vehicles passing by the road had a deserted look. I was wondering how this remote village could be an IoT adopter. While I was still lost in my thoughts, our driver announced that we had arrived. I looked around, there were vast expanses of lush green fields and at the Northern end of the fields was an array of solar panels and a small pump room. The solar panels were looking like aliens, as alien as I thought IoT would be to this place. My fellow traveler who is a local pump vendor, and I walked up to a group of people standing near the water pump. After a short initial conversation, they led me to the pump room. There in the small white room stood a smart solar pump. I could identify the GPRS modem and its antenna immediately. The owner came forward and proudly pulled out his smart phone. He showed me how he could start and stop the pump using the mobile app. He also demonstrated how he could also set an irrigation schedule. With a big grin on his face, he told me how he no longer has to visit the pump room to start or stop the pump. He can set irrigation schedule as per requirement. To this, the other people added that the system shuts the pump automatically, preventing wastage of a lot of precious groundwater. I was impressed. On my way, back I was thinking of an article that was debating if IoT is a hype or reality. For me the debate had ended. When it can create an impact in this remote village, it is here to play a major role in our future.

Solar IoT Pump
Solar IoT Pump

So what is IoT? Lot of people believe that IoT is a technology or a product like a CRM, this cannot be more distant from reality. IoT is not a technology but an ecosystem. The technology forces that build it have existed for few decades, but were not working in synergy. With the advent of cheaper processing power, communication costs and some marketing, these forces have created the IoT of today. Acquiring accurate device data for more informed decisions is one of the strongest value propositions of IoT. So how does the IoT market look?

The IoT market can be segmented into the Consumer IoT and the Industrial IoT markets. Consumer IoT market is driven by the cool looking device, while the Industrial IoT market is driven by Software and System Integration. Why? Simply because consumers tend to invest into things that require simple buying decisions. A device makes that buying decision more tangible and easy. Enterprises on the other hand have a lot of legacy devices and sensors. Their need is actionable data and insights, something that would reduce cost, increase revenue, or perhaps improve competitive advantage. Software and good system integration will help them leverage the IoT ecosystem and would therefore take center stage in their buying process. Enterprises, however, already have a lot of automation systems and SCADA capturing data from various devices and sensors. So how does IoT differ?

I have been asked this question countless times. So, what’s the difference and how to chose one over the other. The differences are subtle but I think one statement summarizes it well – “SCADA technology assumes that the communication network is reliable while IoT assumes that the communication network is unreliable.” Choose IoT when internet will be used as the communication network. You should use SCADA when you are using a reliable communication medium like fiber. IoT uses web technologies and hence security used in IoT is already battle tested. Whereas SCADA is just now adopting security measures to use public networks. I believe in some years both will converge and would only be using secure IP for device to application communication.

So should you be using IoT? I believe you should embrace it; else you stand the risk of being left behind. IoT value proposition is the strongest for companies that have distributed assets or distributed operations like utilities, banking, retail etc. Enterprise have successfully adopted IoT in the following areas –

  • Energy management
  • Environment management
  • Smart connected products and services
  • Smart field operation and maintenance
  • Automated meter reading
  • Smart Logistics – Uber is one of the largest IoT company

There exist several other areas but these are the most prominent ones I have seen in the enterprise world. So once you are ready to adopt IoT, how would you design your IoT solution. I would start from the business driver, application and then down to the sensor, but I have seen most enterprises starting IoT planning from the sensor. You should adopt an architecture that is open and interoperable. The solution that is more secure and interoperable will win in the end. Stick to standards and avoid proprietary protocols.

Suggested IoT Solution Stack
Suggested IoT Solution Stack

Once you have thought about your solution architecture your need to select the right device.

The hardware should comply with the following points:

  1. Supports persistent connectivity with AEP to enable real time control
  2. Should support TCP/IP with TLS 1.2 or better transport layer security
  3. Over the air firmware upgrade & provisioning
  4. Remote configuration, diagnostics and reboot
  5. Should push data to the application and not require polling from server
  6. Should have flash memory to log at least 60 days of data
  7. Real Time clock synchronization via NTP or Network or GPS
  8. Should provide a programming environment for custom development

Security is another aspect; take care of all the three legs of communication:

Communication Points Transport Protocol Transport Security
Between Node & IoT Gateway UDP DTLS
IoT Gateway & AEP TCP/IP TLS 1.2 with device side X.509 Certificates or hardware root of trust key
AEP to Application TCP/IP TLS 1.2 + HTTPS

 

Selecting the Carrier is another important aspect of any large-scale IoT project. If you have hundreds of IoT devices, it would be a nightmare if you have chosen a carrier that does not provide a communication or SIM management platform. Managing distributed network communication would be a nightmare for any manager without the carrier API or platform.

If you are integrating multiple makes of devices, you should use an Application Enablement Platform (AEP) or System Integration Platform (SIP) layer in between your devices and enterprise applications. AEP/SIP exposes REST API and WebHooks that make integrating multiple makes of devices with multiple enterprise applications easy and less costly. For building smart connected products, use a device platform/middleware in between your device and application. Few features you should look for are:

  • Secure persistent connectivity with IoT gateways/devices
  • Server and client side certificate security
  • Message routing and brokering to devices
  • Over the air provisioning
  • Over the air firmware and application upgrade
  • Remote device configuration and management
  • Network and device diagnostic parameters
  • Session and device log monitoring
  • Support sub tenant to enable segregation and security between devices of different customers

At the end of the day, you are the ones who understand your business drivers. First, understand if IoT is indeed something that would help. If yes, then find the right IoT Ecosystem that can help you fill all the missing pieces, either on your own or with help. Do it soon because Resistance is Futile and IoT will not be taking any prisoners!

Atindra Chandel
CEO, SenseGrow Inc.
achandel@sensegrow.com