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Pi or production: Choosing a best-fit IoT gateway prototype

Gateways play a critical role in IoT applications. They manage end devices in a complex environment, collect and analyze data from these devices, and communicate aggregated data to the cloud. Determining how to apply these requirements to your specific IoT use case is an important first step. As prototyping an IoT gateway can help, I’m often asked about the best approach. And, more specifically, if Raspberry Pi or another technology is the best starting point. The answer depends in part on your particular needs when it comes to power, connectivity and exterior appearance — and your business case.

As a result, in this article I’ll walk through two common IoT gateway prototyping approaches, Raspberry Pi and commercial-grade production gateways. Both with the common goal of scalable, cost-effective mass production in mind.

Raspberry Pi

Raspberry Pi can be a great prototyping option. It has a strong community and basic connectivity at a decent price.

Power is a critical consideration for your IoT gateway, especially as many commercial buildings today use Power of Ethernet (PoE). Installing Ethernet cabling, considered a “low voltage” installation, simplifies installation and reduces cost as PoE is less expensive than wiring in an outlet. Unfortunately, Raspberry Pi does not offer PoE as an option. However, this is mitigated by simply adding a PoE adapter.

The Raspberry Pi 3 has both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth built in. But this can pose an issue if you try to stream too much data as the two radios will compete for airtime. For example, if your project will scan Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) for nearby devices advertising sensor data or location information, your system will effectively be deaf every time the Wi-Fi radio sends a packet to the cloud. Conversely, if your use case requires cellular connectivity, using Raspberry Pi means you’ll need to plug in a USB modem. You will also require a daughter card if you need BLE 5, Thread, ZigBee or other proprietary mesh protocol.

Can you imagine the Raspberry Pi with its open plugs, connectors and motherboard at your local restaurant or retailer? Luckily, the popularity of the Raspberry means that you can easily find enclosures, (though most are intended for hobbyists). In my experience, companies want a sleek IoT gateway enclosure with design elements for cable management. (And perhaps even has wall or ceiling mounting options for their IT installers.)

Production-ready gateway

Next let’s assess production-ready commercial IoT gateways against these three elements.

Production-ready IoT gateways often come equipped with popular commercial-grade features such as PoE. Many commercial building spaces prefer PoE to simplify and reduce the cost of installation. An added benefit? Most wireless access points are powered by a switch that has a battery backup, so the IoT system using the same switch can still function even if the power goes out.

Connectivity is where a commercial IoT gateway can really shine. For example, some IoT gateways support Wi-Fi at both 2.4 GHz and 5.8 GHz, as well as give users cellular connectivity options. No matter how much data you need to transmit, it will do so smoothly, without competition for time on the air.

In addition, leading commercial-grade IoT gateways will also provide support for BLE 5, Thread, ZigBee and possibly other proprietary mesh protocols. Thus, decreasing the engineering resources needed to design and manufacture your gateway product.

When professional appearances matter, production-ready IoT gateways conceal cables and typically include wall and ceiling mounting options. And, in most cases, will ship directly to your end-user customers where installers can simply open the box and add your gateway to the building. Leading gateway providers will even enable you to customize the gateway’s exterior, branding it with your company colors and more.

At the end of the day, deciding which path to take for your IoT gateway prototype is not easy. A majority of the drawbacks with the Raspberry Pi can be mitigated by adding to it. Yet, adding elements can add time and cost to the process. Conversely, production-ready gateways come equipped with many popular features and functions. Yet, this means that you may end up paying for features that you don’t need and/or won’t use. To effectively assess which approach is best for you, I highly recommend starting with the end goal — scalable, cost-effective mass production — and work backward to find the right gateway for your needs.

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