Winning the IoT Game

December 11, 2015 by PatrickM

Get your IoT product out the door faster without losing control of your design.

More cloud options means more confusion.

It can be either really easy or really difficult to get an Internet of Things (IoT) product out the door and into the market. It’s easy if you’re willing to give up a lot of control and security; otherwise it gets increasingly difficult. Thankfully, there are an expanding number of companies that are willing and able to take away much of the pain and angst.

For a designer starting from scratch, the decision tree starts with what is “special” about your idea. What is it that separates you from the pack? That’s what you need to hold onto and make your own. From there, everything else can be outsourced or bought, depending upon your cash and human resources, time to market constraints, and domain knowledge.

Let’s take the wireless connection as an example. If you’re a big company and you expect to quickly reach over 100K units, then maybe it’s worth taking the time to pick the optimum MCU and IDE, OS, and memory, and RF IC, and then develop your own connectivity stacks, board and antenna layout.

However, this can be extremely time consuming and you face both design as well as regulatory hurdles. Also, you can be a victim of feature creep and may have a boss looking at the clock. It’s often best to just decide which interface you’d like: Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, ZigBee or cellular, or any of the other newer ones coming out, including LoRA, Wi-SUN or Fairhair. From there, get a certified module and run with it. 

That module’s MCU may be able to run your application, or you may need to layout a board with another MCU: so be it. Much depends on what the IoT device will be doing, but if it’s simple data collection, a module will suffice. Some providers with a strong history here include Silicon Labs, ublox, Microchip and Sierra Wireless. If volumes are exponential, then maybe a redesign that optimizes the module for size and volume manufacturing cost may be better. If and when that situation arises, that’s a good place to be. Congratulations! You’ve made it.

Cloud Options

Before you get there, however, you have to decide how exactly you’re going to connect to the cloud. This is where it’s gotten really interesting in the past couple of years, with established companies as well as startups coming out of the woodwork declaring they’re the best IoT cloud connectivity solution. Some make chips and modules too, while others just provide the cloud connection.

For example, Intel provides everything from its Edison and Galileo ICs and modules, right through to cloud connectivity and analysis. ARM has developed its mbed OS to the point where it can enable you to get from chip to cloud very quickly and securely, while IBM has Bluemix for cloud connectivity and analysis. 

On the startup side, ThingWorx has taken the market by storm, with its IoT Platform that provides a complete application design, runtime, and intelligence environment that’s quick to deploy, flexible, secure, and scalable. 

ThingWorx’s IoT Platform has set the bar when it comes to IoT and machine-to-machine (M2M) scalability, interoperability, security and ease of deployment.

Then you have Electric Imp, Ayla Networks, and the most recent entrant is Zentri Inc., with everything from hardware modules to a full-blown, all-inclusive operating system (ZentriOS) that is differentiated on many levels. 

Zentri is a relative newcomer to IoT platforms, but its founders have a strong pedigree and argue that they know what it takes to deploy and manage IoT devices securely, flexibly and with minimal effort and software footprint.

These differentiators address some of the questions you should be thinking about when considering a cloud connectivity option here are just some of those questions and comparisons to make:

  • Can the client software scale to the tiniest of IoT nodes?
  • How many lines of code does it take to program?
  • How scalable is it, really?
  • How much flexibility with respect to which cloud environment (there are many clouds)?
  • How secure is it? Yes, it may use AES 128 or 256, but how are the keys secured? ARM’s secure element is a very good example of how to keep that key secure.
  • What about device management? Anyone can exchange data for you, but do you really want to make a mistake when updating firmware over the air (OTA)? You could lose all your deployed products if a packet gets lost. 

These are just some things to think about. The IoT is a great, woolly wild west; just know what you’re getting into and whom to talk to. I spoke with Nick Dutton, VP of Zentri last week, and he pointed me to this video. It’s from ARMTechCon and is very useful and informative. I’d even go so far as to say don’t even think about going IoT til you review it.