The fifth edition of IoT Solutions World Congress took place in Barcelona a few weeks ago. During it, two IoT industry heavyweights made some noteworthy comments on the state of the IoT market.
There are only three IoT use cases, according to Vodafone’s head of IoT development, Phil Skipper. One of these is asset tracking. A second is remote monitoring. The third, which depends on 5G capabilities in Release 16 of the 3GPP standard, is ultra-reliable industrial control.
The Industrial Internet Consortium’s (IIC) CTO, Stephen Mellor, spoke about technology hype and the value of sharing end-user stories. Ideally, these should go beyond ‘proof of concept’ profiles to show how technology works and proves its value.
Mellor was critical of the 10 years that it took the telecoms industry to define a framework for hardware, transport and application layers. While concluding that the “high level industry stuff and low-level connectivity” are reasonably well defined, he pointed out that a lot of what takes place in the middle is neither well defined or easy to understand.
Middleware and IoT platforms
Vodafone and the IIC make good points in relation to the present-day view of IoT. Much of the IoT industry’s thinking and received wisdom focuses on devices and connectivity. Asset tracking and remote monitoring fall into the class of relatively well-bounded silo applications.
Many of these are linked to closed-loop, business-process and industrial control applications. However, the concept of interoperability will re-shape these use-case ideas. As illustrated, an evolutionary path exists from current to future IoT solutions. This will involve higher degrees of collaboration across departmental and business boundaries. Connectivity will be commoditized and innovators will create value created by enhancing application logic through data sharing.
Beyond the silo applications phase, large organizations and small businesses operating in extended supply chains will benefit from interoperability. In such situations, economic and technology-management factors favor shared, horizontal IoT platforms. The next stage of evolution will involve interoperability across organizational boundaries, which corresponds to the world of federated IoT arrangements.
The platform capabilities, in between high-level industry knowhow and low-level connectivity, are a form of middleware. This layer in the ‘middle’ enables IoT applications — business logic — to interact with connected devices and sensors. Another way of looking at this middleware component is as a means of abstracting technical complexities in the IoT solution stack. Abstraction masks complexity and leaves application developers and device vendors to concentrate on what they do best. In other words, they no longer must custom build the full IoT stack for each and every use case.
Data hub use case
The idea behind separating sources and consumers of data via a middle layer is evident in an emerging IoT use case known as the data hub. This is where several organizations share data sourced from their IoT devices towards a common purpose. One such example is the City of Dortmund. Its local energy utility, DEW21, is creating and comanaging a new data hub company that enables the combination, analysis and linkage of non-personal data to create smart city solutions in new application areas. Examples of this approach include intelligent parking management, supply line leakage detection and air quality measurement.
Another example is ConVEX, the newly launched UK initiative to develop a connected vehicle data exchange. This data hub aims to facilitate the commercial exchange of related data types, such as data from connected and autonomous vehicles as well as data from transport networks and about the environment. The data hub concept will streamline the process for private sector businesses to develop connected and autonomous mobility services. It will simultaneously help cities to achieve their goals of safer, cleaner and affordable transportation.
For the data hub concept to scale and support multiple use cases, there needs to be a set of common and interoperable capabilities. Take the example of device management which appears is almost every IoT solution. A common approach, such as LWM2M, makes it straightforward for vendors to supply devices with a generally accepted remote management capability.
That makes life easier for systems integrators and for solution developers. It’s an approach that eventually leads to scale economies. To support IoT solutions more broadly, there are many other common services, such as middleware services that enable security, registration, subscription and discovery capabilities.
As other organizations explore the middleware capabilities that enable more complex and cost efficient IoT solutions, horizontal-layer standardization will be of critical design importance. Will existing industry heavyweights succeed in creating large ecosystems through a handful of packaged solutions or de facto standardization? Or, will an open standards path as advocated by oneM2M and 3GPP prove to be more enduring by enabling a wider spectrum of IoT innovation?
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