The impact of the Internet of Things (IoT) is made clear by its moniker as the third wave of computing – right after computers and smartphones. All three waves are still having a massive impact on all aspects of society. Embedding sensors and compute power in consumer products and industrial equipment has unlocked a new world of insights, optimizations, and autonomous behavior. We expect IoT to continue to transform many industries in the coming years, and we see interesting challenges ahead that fit our core expertise: continuous integration extending to the embedded domain, and an overall need for higher code quality delivered in ever-shortening cycles. In this new and exciting domain, we can utilize our Cloud and DevOps expertise, knowing that Microsoft is adding IoT-specific features and services to the Azure cloud on a regular basis. End-to-end security and robustness are must-have ingredients in the IoT domain, and we are ready to deliver.
IoT is here to stay
Regardless of which analysis report on IoT you open, the trend is clear: IoT is on a strong growth trajectory, with no signs of slowing down anytime soon. Even our personal lives are touched by IoT: from smart lighting to intelligent thermostats, more and more consumer products are becoming “smart”, meaning they can share data to ultimately deliver new services and new experiences. And as we are becoming accustomed to having real-time insights into key data such as our home’s energy footprint, it only makes sense that those same types of immediate insights drive major digital transformations in the corporate world.
At its heart, IoT is about connecting “things”, an intentionally broad term that encompasses an entire world of physical devices: machines, vehicles, and buildings often come to mind, but “things” also include human- and animal-wearable devices, sensor networks deployed across farms or nature reserves, and many, many more. Connecting all these devices together gives unparalleled insights into what is happening in the real world, in real-time. Those insights alone can help transform businesses since understanding and the ability to measure is at the heart of making improvements. Taking actions based on the insights generated by connecting things is the next step in creating an IoT-powered value chain, regardless of whether those actions are performed by those same things or somewhere else entirely.
Predictive Maintenance is but one of the strong recipes for success IoT can bring to the table: by analyzing equipment sensor data & behavior, looming failures can be detected and corrected before service is interrupted. This not only applies to major industrial equipment but can be just as valuable for keeping your domestic heating equipment up and running: instead of sending a service engineer every year, IoT makes it possible to only send someone if and when your boiler is in need of maintenance. This drives down cost, improves the quality of life, and prevents unnecessary travel, all in a single stroke.
IoT touches many industries
IoT is sometimes labeled as the “real-time revolution”: a major change driven by data that gives insight into the here and now. This availability of immediate data has an impact on almost every industry. Precision farming uses sensors to monitor crops, weather, and livestock, allowing farmers to respond in the right way, at the right time. Valuable assets in construction can be tracked and secured but can also be used to their fullest potential by connecting real-time insights to planning and resource availability. Inventory tracking in warehouses and stockpiles improves the efficiency and effectiveness of supply chains, and monitoring spaces in office buildings and stores can dramatically improve safety whilst reducing the CO2 footprint.
Although there is a huge number of potential use cases in each industry, there are a set of common denominators that can help us to understand where opportunities lie. Most use cases fall in one of three main categories: core optimizations, improving performance and experience, and transforming businesses. As an example, reducing inventory and optimizing logistics can help reduce cost, whereas real-time insights can dramatically improve customer experience. IoT can also be a driver to develop new business models in existing industries and help companies shift from building products to delivering digital services.
In addition to classifying IoT initiatives in terms of their impact on the business, we identify six domains across a multitude of industries, use cases, and generic applications like predictive maintenance and remote inspections, to further reduce the complexity of the IoT landscape. These domains help us create focus in building our expertise and our portfolio of services, and we have found them to be helpful in assessing customer realities as well:
- Connected assets: owned stationary equipment
- Connected vehicles: tracking location and many other aspects of vehicles on the road
- Connected products: (durable) consumer goods
- Connected spaces: includes smart buildings, but also any other facility where automation revolves around optimizing occupancy and space utilization
- Connected inventory: non-connected goods tracked by external control mechanisms
- Connected people: wearables and other tools to augment workers and individuals
IoT needs a team to drive it
Doing IoT “right” takes more than connecting a few devices and calling it a day. IoT adds complex aspects to the already complicated world of enterprise architecture and IT management: it comes with a whole new class of embedded IT devices that need to be managed in terms of connectivity and updates, but that also have their specific challenges including power management, battery status, and physical security and maintenance.
When deploying data platforms or applications, there are usually easy fallback scenarios if something goes wrong. In IoT, there is the added challenge of not only deploying to thousands of devices that only offer very limited ability for interaction but also to devices that are often hard or impossible to reach if something goes wrong. Every IoT developer has experienced some version of sending out an update to a device, only to be rewarded with the deafening silence of a no-longer-responding piece of equipment.
In addition to the complexity brought on by the volume of data that an IoT solution can generate, many developers have only had limited experience in working with time-based data streams that typically come with IoT scenarios. Although the Microsoft Azure cloud platform has several easy-to-leverage components tailored to this, managing real-time data flows is just another aspect that drives up the complexity of an IoT project.
An overview of key IoT challenges would not be complete without mentioning the elephant in the room: security. Every IoT device deployed increases the attack surface of an organization, potentially with poorly secured devices that rarely get updated. Stories of casinos being hacked through their fish tank automation system make for good headlines, but also bring major headaches to IT and security departments everywhere.
The news coverage of IoT in the market comes with additional side effects: not only will the expectations for the success of an IoT journey in a typical organization be very high, but you can almost guarantee there will be a commercially available platform or solution out there that can cover at least some of what that organization is trying to achieve. The “build versus buy” decisions in IoT can become very complex, very quickly, especially in domains where the end state is a landscape of built and bought components that are expected to work together seamlessly. A typical example is a “smart building”: there will be different systems from different vendors for lighting, climate, and access control, but the end-user expects a smart space that just works. In practice, we often implement point solutions for various subdomains and then add a “platform of platforms”: a control layer to make a system of smart components act as one entity.
Ingredients for a successful IoT journey
To tackle IoT successfully, it is imperative to embed four major disciplines in your to-be organization: envisioning, developing, continuous improvement, and governance. Envisioning is all about establishing and guarding the vision for the IoT journey, and keeping the higher-level goals top of mind: what is the purpose and the expected outcome of an IoT initiative, and how do ongoing development and new insights influence the overall direction and priorities?
Building the ability to run, maintain and further improve IoT solutions into the supporting organization is often postponed, but needs to be there before the first launch of a product, even if it is only in pilot or MVP stage. Solutions that are built with a “you build it/you run it” DevOps mindset easily morph from pilot to production stages, whereas quick-and-dirty prototypes end up costing much more in the long run. Especially in IoT, observability and instrumentation are paramount, since it is much harder to see what is going on in the field.
Developing IoT solutions right requires a proper blueprint and a consistent architecture for both cloud and devices, where all aspects of software craftsmanship and cloud-native software development come into play. Quality and standardization must be enforced across integrations, cloud platform, and embedded devices, and these environments should be treated as a continuum, rather than as separate universes.
Governance ties the other three disciplines together in terms of architecture, security and compliance, cost control, standardization, and interoperability. These aspects apply to all elements of an IoT initiative, ranging from connectivity and gateways all the way up to data management and advanced visualizations.
Your IoT journey, powered by Xpirit
We help clients that have not started on IoT yet, as well as clients that are already (well) underway on their IoT journey. Whether the primary driver to start on IoT is to innovate or to catch up with the competition, our North Star Vision and IoT roadmap propositions help chart viability, establish priority, and build an IoT master plan. Often, the next step is to do several quick prototyping sprints where we dive deep, to quickly address challenges and uncertainties. We introduce aspects of our IoT Reference Architecture to build things first-time-right where appropriate. In parallel, we use our IoT Center of Excellence blueprint to help you build an organization that can nurture and grow your IoT initiatives. With those building blocks in place, we help you move from prototype via pilot to the launch of the Minimum Viable Product, and beyond.
With customers who are already underway with IoT, we usually start with an IoT assessment, which yields a broad and objective view of the status quo. Together with selected partners, we look at software, hardware, data, security, the validity of the underlying business case, and many more aspects. Depending on the outcome, we bring in the right propositions to help tackle any challenges we may have uncovered. We aim to move all four disciplines forward over time but focus where attention is most needed.
What sets us apart is our ability to deliver according to your needs: our “us/together/you” approach means we want to empower you and your teams. Xpirit can quickly boost existing IoT teams with the required expertise, provide ongoing support and mentoring to teams over a longer period, or deliver an IoT journey end-to-end for our customers. We are continuously evolving our portfolio of services and our IoT accelerators, including an IoT reference architecture and a blueprint for an IoT center of excellence. We augment our own expertise as needed with help from our trusted partners, especially when it comes to hardware, embedded software, and connectivity.
Interested in learning more? Have a cool project to talk about? Want to work with amazing people on IoT projects? Reach out to IoT CTO Tijmen van de Kamp (firstname.lastname@example.org)