Why use IoT platforms?
The integration of the IoT into your company is an important step into the future of digitalization. The reading of sensors and controlling of actuators can easily be preprocessed using edge devices and combined with a central service. You get to choose whether to use a cloud solution, on-premise solution, or a hybrid of the two. The service processes the newly acquired data, helps you to make decisions about business processes, and provides useful information about the optimization of production processes. The graphic below gives an overview of an IoT network of the kind that you might soon be using in your own company.
The required steps for the use of the prototypes can be outlined quickly. But naturally, you’re thinking about using them in real conditions. You’re asking yourself whether your data can be transported securely, or whether the approach is possible even with several hundred devices. And this brings up the question of how all of these devices can be kept up-to-date. How can they be configured? How elaborate is communication between the different devices? IoT platforms try to solve these problems and many more.
The offered services depend on the chosen platform and the provider. The significance of IoT platforms is reflected in the huge offering: A 2019 statistic identifies more than 600 different platforms.
However, even if the search for the right platform is not an easy one: It’s certainly worth it!
Use of IoT platforms
Because the requirements of an IoT platform are determined directly by the IoT project, it is difficult to name general advantages that apply to all. Instead, it makes sense to look at some traditional IoT use cases:
- A frequent requirement is the monitoring of your own assets with automatic notification if problems occur. This application scenario is called condition monitoring. In addition to simple notifications, the system can also trigger physical countermeasures directly via actuators. In particular, the rule-based execution of actions on multiple different machines is one strength of IoT platforms.
- Another project might be the realization of a remote control solution. The aim is to increase productivity by enabling the remote operation or monitoring of machines and devices. The secure control and configuration of multiple different machines is made easier by an IoT platform. In this context, the type of data transport plays a central role. A platform helps to keep the integration time to a minimum through ready-made implementations. In addition, new application areas are opened up thanks to the provided interfaces of IoT platforms.
An IoT platform or your own solution
In today’s industrial world, IoT platforms are becoming increasingly important. The use of turnkey solutions is becoming predominant in companies thanks to the short time-to-market and the provided support. However, hasty decisions can bring about problems of their own. As in the case of any innovation, new usage opportunities and promises for the future are juxtaposed with unrealistic expectations. This is true for IoT platforms, too. As consultants, we’ll inform you about important advantages and disadvantages as well as telling you about the strengths and problems of the platforms.
Due to the differing objectives of the providers, the choice of platform must be made prudently. A rash decision could mean that the ideal platform is ignored or that the option of a proprietary development is rejected too quickly.
The use of a ready-made platform can result in a vendor lock-in situation with the associated disadvantage of high license, usage, and support costs. The integration of the platform with existing systems and processes can also require a lot of work. Despite these disadvantages, the use of an IoT platform generally reduces the time-to-market for your own IoT projects, since many components have already been developed and tested in real conditions. Platforms of this kind are optimized to ensure easy device management and scalability. So the main advantages of an IoT platform are:
- Reduced time-to-market
- Tested software with support
- Easy device management
- A solution that’s optimized for scalability
Scalability is an important factor when it comes to the successful modernization of your company and products. In the case of a proprietary development, scalability and easy & secure device management will probably pose the greatest challenges. More development work and the resulting costs are also associated with this kind of solution. Further costs arise due to the need to maintain the software through modifications or updates. However, you’re guaranteed a tailored solution that is perfectly integrated with your existing systems and processes. No dependencies on other companies are established and the software can be modified as required. From a certain size, this tailored solution might even develop into your own IoT platform that could be sold on to other companies. The main reasons in favor of a proprietary development are:
- A custom solution
- Guaranteed integration into existing systems
- No dependencies on IoT platform providers and their price lists
- No vendor lock-in
As you can see, there are great reasons both for and against choosing an existing IoT platform. The big differences between the platforms make it more difficult to make a competent decision. At Novatec, we’ll be pleased to help you to find out whether using an IoT platform would pay off for you. We’ll gladly use our expertise to advise you during your search for the best possible solution.
Types of IoT platform
As multi-layer technology solutions, IoT platforms should simplify interactions with IoT devices and provide useful services. Which services that a platform offers depends greatly upon the company and its focus.
To facilitate a comparison of the various IoT platforms, we can subdivide them into four different types:
Even with these categories, the borders between certain platform offerings are blurry, even if a basic classification is possible. To avoid simply listing the properties of the various types, we’re now going to present the different concepts through clear examples and highlight the advantages of using each platform type.
A connectivity platform solution differs from the other solutions in that it specializes in the mobile connectivity of IoT devices. Let’s say that you set up sensors that measure the chemical properties of soil. To be able to send this data, you need a mobile network connection. Because the sensors are located in lots of different places, it’s important for reception to be available everywhere. The reception depends on the chosen cellular provider. The configuration of the various sensor groups can quickly become complex as a result.
Here, a connectivity platform helps to manage the connections and invoices. Some automatically select the best provider for the location, with the user not needing to intervene. However, you can also link groups of sensors with a certain provider while leaving other sensor groups unaffected. Such platforms also simplify billing, since as a rule one invoice is due for each customer at the end of the month, and there’s no need for an invoice to be created for each individual sensor. Additional functions of a connectivity platform include possibilities for restricting, provisioning, and deactivating file transmissions.
The properties of a connectivity platform
- Connection of sensor/actuator with the server
- Management of connections
- Billing management
- Provisioning/restriction of data rates
As you can see, this type of platform is extremely specialized. However, it can be used as an enhancement to other IoT platform types.
An IoT hub is the central arrival point of all sent data in an IoT solution. Generally, bidirectional connections are supported, which means that commands can also be sent to the devices from the hub. A hub also provides the important device management function. This allows all connected devices to be managed and configured. Frequently, it’s not a matter of having to manage just a few dozen devices, so handling that’s as easy as possible plays a decisive role. Some IoT hubs also offer the option of automatically triggering (firmware) updates. In addition to managing the devices, an IoT hub also manages the processing path of the data. Normally, a hub is offered as a cloud solution, and is therefore easy to connect with other IoT services of the provider. However, this means that it needs to be integrated into a provided infrastructure.
As an example, let’s look at a ground sensor again. When they are started up, the sensors connect to an IoT hub. The hub authenticates each device and checks whether new firmware is available. If so, further steps can be triggered in order to perform an update. The main function is the management of the received data, with the hub deciding the end points to which the data in question should be sent. For example, the data might be sent for long-term storage on a server to enable the analysis of data collections over relatively long periods of time. Because the hub has all the required information about the connected devices, missing or defective devices can be detected, too. Another central property of hubs is their scalability, which means that complexity when managing data and devices does not increase along with the number of devices.
To sum up, in the case of an IoT hub, the focus is on the IoT devices and the connection between these devices and the platform. The further processing of the data is realized by IoT services.
The central properties and functions of IoT hubs
- Device management
- Managing communication
- Forwarding data
- Ensuring scalability
- Interaction with other IoT services
Application enablement platform
Application enablement platforms (AE platforms) focus on the development of IoT solutions in business processes. In the case of this platform type, the center of attention is on the processing and evaluation of data.
In such platforms, device managers are also integrated and, to a certain extent, they build upon the IoT hub platforms. Unlike in the case of an IoT hub, which can be modularly expanded, components of AE platforms are often not offered as standalone services, and are integrated right from the start, instead.
Interfaces to your own applications or external applications are an important feature of application enablement platforms. The underlying infrastructure is (usually) abstracted, which means that no initial induction is required.
In terms of the ground sensor example again: As the sensor manufacturer, you could offer associated services along with the provision of the sensors. For example, you could automatically notify customers if certain limit values are exceeded, recommending countermeasures. In this case, the passing of a limit value would be the “event” and the connection with the subsequent action would be the “rule”.
The main functions of an application enablement platform
- Rule engines, event managers etc.
- Easy data visualization
- Interfaces with your own solutions
- Abstraction of underlying infrastructure
Difference between IoT hub and application enablement platform
The distinction between an AE platform and an IoT hub is not always easy. The main difference is the level where the development takes place.
An IoT hub ensures increased flexibility through access to the underlying infrastructure. However, this flexibility increases the initial induction period and configuration efforts.
In the case of an AE platform, there are already lots of integrated applications that can be used straight away or purchased as extras. Normally, your own software solutions can also be integrated, with the underlying infrastructure being abstracted. In exchange, the costs of AE platforms are generally higher than those of IoT hubs with comparable services.
Security hardened platform
The security of the network and data is a critical factor in all IoT systems. Naturally, this applies to IoT platforms, too. For this reason, security plays a decisive part in the choice of an IoT platform. Due to the multilayered architecture, security must be guaranteed for each layer and for communication between the layers. Manufacturers use different methods to secure communication in order to meet the requirements of the developers or application area:
- Encrypted communication
- Authentication of users and systems connected with the device
- Access and authorization control
The security technologies to be used depend on the domain. For example, devices used in the field of medicine must meet particularly high requirements with regard to data security and access rights for actuators. In such cases, a security-hardened platform helps to make the path from the device to the cloud as secure as possible. The required data for the services can then be retrieved from the cloud via interfaces and processed accordingly.
Through the provision of certified hardware and software, the security-hardened platforms guarantee that hardware manipulations and other unsafe connections to the cloud are not possible. Because platforms of this kind also process data in the cloud and make the data available, these solutions also ensure that no data can become publicly available as a result of incorrect configurations.
For security-hardened platforms, the following properties and functions play a central role:
- Certified hardware and software
- Strict access control and management of rights
- Secure data transport from the sensor to the cloud without additional work
Which application is right for you?
Developing applications for IoT can be a really challenging task. This is due to the high complexity of distributed systems, different communication protocols, and a lack of guidelines for low-level communication. Ready-made IoT platforms solve these problems by offering an easy foundation for connections with the required interfaces.
However, the huge range of IoT platforms and the even bigger range of features mean that it’s difficult to obtain a clear overview of what’s what. This is why we’ve classified the IoT platforms into four different types. This will make it easier to distinguish between them and to compare them with each other.
Admittedly, even once you’ve chosen the right type of platform for your project, you’ll still have more than just a couple of providers to choose from. Matters are complicated by the fact that it’s important not to exclude a possible business model by making the wrong choice. In particular, this is true if you’re not sure whether your new IoT project will create the desired added value.
We’re happy to help you to clarify all of the questions you have and to step forward with you into the future of digitalization.
As a result of digitalization, every single company faces completely new, sometimes really difficult decisions. Some of these can be particularly challenging, not least because they have such long-lasting consequences.
We help you to decide whether an IoT platform is required, and we precisely illustrate the benefits that you can expect. We support you in the selection of the right platform and guide you step by step towards your goal. Thanks to our hands-on experience, we are familiar with more complex details and tiny differences between platforms. As a result, we can successfully help you to make your decision.
We use workshops and individual meetings to place you in a position where you are able to ask the right questions. This ensures a successful project start. Together, we can develop a solution that meets current standards and satisfies high quality requirements. When difficult questions arise, we don’t leave you sitting in the dark; instead, we actively use our know-how to help you. We do this not only in an advisory role but also – if you so wish – when it comes to the actual realization of your ideas.
We make sure that no question remains unanswered!
- Is an IoT platform required?
- Which platform is most suitable?
- Is security sufficient at all levels from the sensor to the cloud?
- Can the solution be scaled for a large number of devices?
- Can integration into an existing ecosystem be achieved?
- Does the solution meet data protection standards?
The journey towards a sophisticated, networked system is not an easy one – but it’s a worthwhile one! According to an IoT Analytics survey, 80% of IoT projects achieve a positive ROI and 50% of such projects have covered the associated costs within one year. In addition to the monetary rewards, experience in an increasingly important field is gained, and this can set you apart from the competition.
The choice of IoT platform is a major task. If you wish to look at this topic in more detail, we recommend this blog post. However, why not also find out how you can use new technology to build new projects – in the real world through prototyping or virtually using AR/ VR.
We’re looking forward to hearing from you!