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Industrial IoT revolutionizing embedded development

As IoT devices continue to gain traction among consumers, more and more companies are recognizing the need to connect their products to the internet and other applications in a secure manner.

Up until now, applications typically haven’t been connected to each other — and if they were, they were usually hard-wired, which was a much easier task than establishing wireless connectivity. The demand for wireless connected products to the cloud is emerging almost overnight, and is posing serious challenges for device OEMs and their industrial and consumer customers. Many of the organizations dealing with this challenge have had long-standing products on the market which never had to be connected to the internet before.

For example, industrial companies are seeing newly emerging demands such as users requesting instant remote access to fielded devices via their smartphones. These types of industrial large node network systems include smart meters, smart energy, agriculture, commercial building automation and lighting. Most notably, there has been significant interest for robust wireless remote device access and control from commercial building operators and medical providers, who often need to remotely monitor buildings and manage patients.

The application environments of these products often contain highly sensitive and valuable data, making security components inherently important. Upgrading industrial environments with IoT capabilities has unique development challenges based on the security implications and wireless complexity associated with large node networks.

Surmising security and connectivity challenges

What becomes glaringly obvious once companies begin embarking on the integration phase of large node network implementations is that the connectivity and security phase is the most complex portion of system development, and it requires a highly specialized skillset.

Typically, it can take three to five years for a person to achieve full proficiency of finely tuned wireless and secure connectivity development skills. Combine this training challenge with the fact that there is a global shortage of security and wireless developers and it becomes clear that hiring an internal team to manage connectivity and security development and integration is extremely costly. Even if a company has the in-house expertise to develop the connectivity and security aspects of the project, the majority of the company’s product development time will be spent on these two utilitarian elements of the product and not on the differentiated product functionality itself.

Wireless technologies are always tough to get working, especially the robust large node networks required in industrial settings. New wireless technologies or integrating new radios with new MCUs/MPUs is a significant integration and system testing exercise which doesn’t add any inherent value beyond the fact that data is connected. Many applications take longer to get the basic wireless connectivity working robustly than is needed to create the rest of the application.

Another challenge to consider is finding a robust and flexible wireless standard. While BLE mesh might gain traction, it is new and unproven in industrial settings. Implementations using the 802.15.4 standard are in use today and will most likely be the backbone for new low-power wireless mesh networks in industrial environments. One such 802.15.4 standard is ZigBee, which will most likely share the market with a newly arriving 802.15.4 standard called Thread.

Some of the increasingly popular non-mesh protocols to watch include the Sub-Gig protocols SigFox, LoRa and wireless M-Bus. Cellular (GSM) has also been widely used for many years and newer implementations such as LTE, CAT 1, CAT M and NB-IoT will become increasingly more attractive to industrial low-power, low-bandwidth IoT use cases where connecting to the cloud by Wi-Fi or Ethernet isn’t practical.

Building from the bottom up

Development teams which make any arbitrary unconnected embedded device today that simply want to connect their device will need to either start with a production-ready secure connected platform, or add deep security and wireless connectivity before they can even start real development of a connected system.

The security and robust connectivity of devices and applications need to be the underlying foundation of the product, versus an added layer after the functionality of the product has already been built. Security must be robust and embedded. Faking security isn’t a good idea and faking solid wireless connections won’t survive a day fielded in the real world. There is no avoiding the need to get these must-have platform components into place. If not approached correctly from a development perspective, these two items will define the critical path and result in the nearly always fatal project dynamic of “can’t get there from here,” where lack of technical sturdiness derails the project very late in the development/integration cycle.

Developers who evaluate, develop, prototype, iterate, field test, install and maintain commercial large node networks based on an out-of-the-box commercial secure connected platform almost certainly will achieve quicker and more deterministic deployment versus starting from scratch.

Each development project is a unique undertaking based on the environment and application, as well as the internal processes within the company footing the bill. Consequently, there are numerous customized ways to approach the problem, yet for many of these companies, a comprehensive out-of-the-box development is key.

Regardless of the solution set you identify for your situation, there are a few key elements you should consider. An open software framework that supports new, emerging and legacy network protocols is imperative. A solution should also have proven multiprotocol interoperability, which gives designers the flexibility to incorporate a wide array of wireless protocols that can work together or independently. Multiprotocol interoperability also enables end-to-end wireless communications in heterogeneous large node networks.

Secure connections from end node to the cloud

As noted earlier, embedded security is a major challenge that changes and evolves on a daily basis. As we all know, there is no silver bullet in security. Regular security updates to any and all connected devices are required — no matter how many embedded security layers are within a device. We and other market leaders are constantly innovating new ways to stay ahead of security threats.

Companies should choose a solution that addresses the latest network security requirements to protect user and system data through encrypted wireless communications, which prevents unauthorized access, as well as interception, man-in-the-middle and replay attacks. Using the proper authentication and encryption measures are also critical feature.

Most companies cannot afford to spend the time and money or acquire the expertise required to build a secure connected wireless system to the cloud with a la carte development boards, which require connectivity and security integration between the components themselves. The system level development platform approach is in its early stages, and we anticipate many more exciting changes in the future.

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