Introduction to IoT Platforms

The Internet of Things (IoT) is here, and it is here to stay. The IoT is a concept, and essentially means the ability of different things or devices to connect to each other and exchange data in a meaningful way. This communication is achieved using different protocols and connectivity.

Benefits of IoT
When ‘things’ talk to each other; it is possible to improve efficiency and productivity. Let’s take a couple of examples. The aerospace industry in Singapore is one of the most advanced in the world. It provides an integrated infrastructure dedicated to aerospace activities including the maintenance, repair and overhaul of aircraft and components; manufacturing and assembly; as well as training and research & development. Many renowned aviation companies from U.S. maintain facilities in Singapore. The strategic location of Singapore, easy accessibility to regional and international markets, as well as a pro-business environment and highly skilled workforce make it one of the largest contributors to the GDP of Singapore. The amount of data one plane creates in a day is huge. IoT uses this data gainfully and helps reduce ground times of aeroplanes by having better predictability in all aspects of flight. IoT makes the aeroplane ready-for-use in much more efficient way and improves predictive maintenance by identifying potential problems beforehand. IoT also sends the ground maintenance crew real-time data about how engines are performing. This valuable data enables engineers to change the way they build material — based on this very same information — so aeroplanes will require less maintenance overall.

Another example of the benefits of IoT – this time related to farming in India. Agriculture is an important activity in India. Suppose a savvy farmer in India has decided to implement a very simple IoT system. The farmer wants to water the crops only when there is a need. He will install a few water sensors in the soil. These sensors communicate real time water – and moisture – data to the IoT gateway. The gateway processes the data (that is, filters only meaningful data), and passes it on to the IoT software, which will typically be deployed in the cloud. The software has the ability to gauge when there is water deficiency, and can switch on and off the actuators connected to a drip water system. If, for example, it is raining or there is enough humidity in the air, the actuators are turned off. However, if there is a dry weather spell, the IoT software instructs the actuators to turn on the drip irrigators, and water the crops. The software can be programmed to adjust water as per the requirement of the crops. India produces a vast variety of crops – ranging from rice, wheat to vegetables and fruits. Each of this requires a different amount of water. Since urbanization has reduced cultivable land in India, each inch of land is precious, and IoT can provide an excellent solution to utilize this land to its full potential.

IoT Platforms
The example of a farmer in India is a very basic example of an IoT use case. When IoT tenets are applied to industry – like the aerospace sector in Singapore - we get Industrial IoT (or IIoT). IIoT is a very fast growing field, as it will help automate things, streamline plant operations, and improve productivity. However, there are challenges to be overcome in any IoT or IIoT solutions, and development platforms play an important role in overcoming them.

So, what are these challenges and how do IoT / IIoT platforms help overcome them?

As we have seen, IoT and IIoT solutions are based on efficient data communication and smart use of this data to improve productivity. Unfortunately, there are no uniform protocols and connectivity standards that connect devices. Take the case of IoT ‘things’ or devices. These IoT devices are mostly connected to the Internet using an Internet Protocol. They are manufactured by different companies, who have their own set of standards. At the local level, these devices are usually connected using technologies such as Bluetooth, RFID, Zigbee (a wireless technology), mesh networks, satellite, Ethernet and other such technologies. These technologies adhere to their own standards, and specifications, and may not be compatible with each other. Additionally, there are various service providers for these different connectivity options. For example, Singapore has ISPs like Singtel, StarHub, M1 and others. Each of these ISPs has its own set of connectivity standards that may not be directly compatible with each other. To complicate matters, if a few of your devices are in Singapore and a few in India (say for weather predictions), it becomes difficult to collate the data. Secondly, each IoT or IIoT software brings with it its own set of challenges. IoT / IIoT software can be developed using different languages, and they are not directly compatible with each other. A piece of JavaScript code will not communicate with a Python script directly; there needs to be something that coverts them into a common platform first. Likewise, systems that use Linux OS cannot communicate directly with devices that use iOS.

This is where IoT (and IIoT) platforms come into picture. Since IoT is not a singular, cohesive technology, but the interplay of many different protocols, standards and languages, a development platform is essential to make all these different technologies work together. IoT platforms are the support software that connects everything in an IoT system. An IoT platform facilitates communication, data flow, device management, and the functionality of applications. Unless and until you are a huge organization, chances are you will not have in-house expertise to handle all the technology challenges IoT presents. Seamless connectivity between the various layers and smooth data flow is at the heart of an IoT system. It is important to note that an IoT platform is not an application in itself, but rather an infrastructure that allows various applications to come harmoniously under one roof. An ioT platform links machines, devices, applications, and people to data and control centers. IoT platforms help organisations – especially small and middle scale - to get up and start running quickly and more cost-effectively with their IoT solution. It helps in connecting hardware, handling different communication protocols, providing security and authentication for devices and users, collecting, visualising and analysing the huge amount of data that a typical IoT / IIoT system generates. Additionally, an IoT platform also allows integration with other web services. IoT platforms are a vital component of the IoT ecosystem. It is estimated to reach 30 billion Singapore $ (Rs. 1650 billion) by 2023. By allowing companies to lower their development costs, IoT platforms help leverage the benefits of IoT, accelerate launch and streamline processes. In short, IoT / IIoT platforms make it easier and affordable for businesses, developers, and users to develop IoT / IIoT systems by providing built-in tools and capabilities. It also facilitates the communication, data flow, device management, and the functionality of applications. One more extremely important and critical aspect of IoT / IIoT platforms is data security. With data hacking on the rise, cyber security is a serious threat, and all commercial IoT / IIoT platforms provide adequate built-in data security.

An example of an integrated IIoT platform that provides extensive functionality and security is ThingWorx from PTC. ThingWorx delivers tools and technologies that empower businesses to rapidly develop and deploy powerful applications and augmented reality (AR) experiences. The ThingWorx platform includes Vuforia for implementing AR development, and Kepware for industrial connectivity.

Choosing a IoT / IIoT Platform
With the rising popularity of IoT and IIoT, there are many companies today that provide IoT and IIoT platforms. Like most things in life, choosing a platform is not an easy task. The basic IoT platforms save you money, but do not provide all the utilities you need. So, your team will need to invest more time in integrating the various components and protocols of the IoT solution. IoT (and IIoT) platforms that save you time by providing high level of functionality will cost you more money. Which IoT / IIoT platform you choose will depend upon your specific needs. While the farmer from India can make do with a simple IoT platform, a car manufacturer from Singapore / India will need an elaborate IIoT platform that provides end-to-end technology solution, and is completely secure as well.