Whether you’re new to IoT or a seasoned veteran, you’ve probably heard the term “IoT Platform” before. After all, there were over 300 IoT platforms as of 2016 and this number continues to quickly grow (I’ve heard there are now over 700). The IoT platform market is growing at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 33% and is expected to reach a $1.6 billion market size in 2021.
IoT platforms are a critical component of the IoT ecosystem, but we’ve found that for many people, it’s not clear what an IoT platform is exactly or the differences between them.
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.
With all the varying kinds of hardware and the different connectivity options that you just read about in the previous section, there needs to be a way of making everything work together and that’s what IoT platforms do.
IoT platforms help:
Because IoT is a system of systems, rare is the organization that has expertise across all the relevant domains. IoT platforms exist to help businesses overcome technical challenges without the need to figure it all out in-house.
For example, your organization might be really good at building hardware and decide that you want to make your hardware “smart”. Instead of the expensive and time-intensive process of hiring software developers to build everything in-house, you can instead use an IoT platform to get up and running quickly and more cost-effectively.
However, there is a tradeoff. IoT platforms that save you time may cost more in the long run depending on how they’re priced. This is because they charge use-based and/or subscription fees that can add up over time. But you still get the benefit of significantly lower up-front costs (no CapEx).
IoT platforms that are inexpensive up front will likely cost you time. This comes back to the same point in bold above, the less you spend the more work you’ll have to do on your own, which takes time.
In the next chapter we’ll explore how to choose an IoT platform.
How do you know which IoT platform is the best? As much as we’d like to give you a simple answer, as with most things, it depends. O’Reilly Media puts it nicely:
“Each industry vertical — healthcare, manufacturing, energy, and banking, to name a few — will present its IT and OT specialists with particular conditions and problems to solve. Municipal police and fire departments, for example, will depend on a platform that ensures communication between field operations and command centers. Energy and transportation companies will search for ruggedized solutions that will protect field assets from harsh environmental conditions. Banking IoT platforms will demonstrate robust encryption and security features that protect internal and consumer communications and transfers.”
That being said, there’s a key distinction between enterprise IoT platforms and consumer IoT platforms. Consider: is your application enterprise (such as oil and gas, manufacturing, or asset management) or meant for consumers (such as smart home applications or wearables)?
Enterprise IoT platforms and consumer IoT platforms can differ significantly due to their different needs. For enterprise IoT platforms, a failure in the system can be extremely high-stakes, perhaps costing millions of dollars or even lives. For consumer IoT platforms, a failure might simply be an inconvenience to the end-user.
And even within enterprise or consumer segments, applications can have very different platform needs. However, despite the great variance in IoT applications, there are some common elements that are critical to consider when evaluating the best IoT Platform for your application:
With so many platforms out in the market, it’s likely that some will fail. It’s important to choose a platform that’s likely to be around for several years, otherwise your investment might go to waste if the platform provider folds.
Ask about current and past customers. If they don’t have any, that’s probably not a good sign.
Your needs are going to change with time. Make sure that the platform works when you’re small and just beginning, but will also work when you’re (hopefully) large and growing fast.
In addition to being scalable, the platform should be flexible enough to keep up with rapidly changing technologies, protocols, or features. Flexible platforms are often those that are built on open standards and that commit to keeping pace with evolving IoT protocols, standards, and technologies, as well as offering third-party integrations and robust APIs (APIS are covered in the next chapter).
It’s also important that the platform is network agnostic. This means that it can integrate and work with all major tech systems out there, rather than be locked into one vendor.
As mentioned above, IoT applications can vary greatly. If the platform provider has done previous work that is similar to your application, that’s a good indicator that they can meet your specific needs.
However, note that it need not be an exact match. If you’re building a smart agriculture application, for example, you might look for a use case with similar characteristics. That would be an application that also involves hundreds or thousands of sensors/devices generating data, a similar connectivity (such as LPWAN), and applied data analytics to create useful insights.
Make sure the platform provider is transparent in their pricing; some will show an introductory rate and then hike that up significantly when you actually go to sign up.
Also, how are you going to be selling? If you’re doing a subscription model, then it makes sense to pay a subscription for the IoT platform service, since you can wrap the costs into the pricing. However, if you’re selling hardware, it might make more sense to pursue a platform option with an upfront license so you can wrap that into the development costs of the hardware product.
Security is absolutely critical to any IoT system and an IoT platform must have security built into every layer.
When you ask about security, be on the lookout for: device-to-cloud network security, user app-to-wireless network security, cloud security, device security (including authentication and up-to-date certificates), application authentication, data encryption, data protection (at rest, in transit, and in the cloud), secure session initiation, and concrete plans for updating security, including via over-the-air (OTA) communications.
In the previous chapter, we saw that one of the biggest advantages of using an IoT platform is that it speeds up the time to market. Ask for a realistic estimate of how long it will take to get to market and how the platform provider intends to support you during that journey.
The value of the Internet of Things is in the data. Data can provide actionable insights into operations or simple day-to-day activities to reduce inefficiencies or improve experiences. You should look for basic descriptive analytics, visualization, diagnostics, predictive analytics, and perhaps even machine learning tools. We’ll cover analytics and machine learning in the coming chapters.
Also, make sure to ask who owns the data. If the answer isn’t a simple, “you own the data generated by your products”, this is a big red flag because, again, the value of the Internet of Things is in the data.
In addition to all of these questions, you should be asking, also take note of the questions that they ask you. Do they ask about your budget, timeline, expectations, use cases, etc.? Do they seem like genuinely nice, caring people?
This is one of the most critical considerations. A platform provider that cares about you and your success will go the extra mile and make up for any areas in which their platform might be lacking.