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The rise of general-purpose over single-purpose IoT

When we look at the industrial IoT landscape, much of the early industry attention had been centered on single-purpose use cases. However, we’re now beginning to see the various components of the IoT ecosystem evolving to enable general-purpose use cases.

In reality, it’s the general-purpose use cases that underpin the potential for digital transformation, which is where the real long-term business value lies. If companies fail to adopt a general-purpose approach to IoT, they will fail to evolve the digital capability in their enterprise, which ultimately enables the innovation and business model optimization that digital transformation promises.

Single purpose for a single problem

Single-purpose (or at least limited purpose) yields highly vertically integrated platforms which solve very specific problems at scale. The purchasing decision in enterprises for such technologies tended to be mainly the domain of the operational technology (OT) folks. Many segments start out single purpose for the obvious reasons; there’s a very specific return on investment argument (i.e.,” if we can do this, it’s worth that”) and being specific reduces the scope to being something achievable.

However, over time, enterprise IoT architects will encounter multiple single/limited uses cases and will need to assemble a robust architecture that addresses use cases where the specifics aren’t known, i.e., general purpose or programmable. Over time, the general-purpose architecture becomes more attractive and the “legacy” single-purpose use cases get ported to the general-purpose architecture. When this happens there is also a natural handing over of responsibility to the IT teams within the enterprise. Increasingly, we are witnessing this shift of responsibility for IoT projects from OT to IT.

Keep it Software, Stupid

We can think of single purpose and general purpose in terms of Hardware and Software. Almost everything now is driven by software (small ‘s’), however, not everything is designed to be programmed for the applications we haven’t thought of yet. Software (big “S”) as an approach or mindset comes with a philosophy of being able to create the next thing or improve existing things over time. When software is “frozen,” it fundamentally loses that essential attribute and is hardware-ified (aka firmware).

We therefore, with our Software mindset, can distinguish between what is programmable and what “was programmed” but is no longer essentially “Software.”

The majority of today’s end-to-end IoT platforms have a vertical focus and, as a result, are single or limited purpose. While they’re made mostly of software (programmed), they aren’t general purpose (programmable).

General-purpose IoT: Solving problems today and tomorrow

General-purpose industrial IoT is about using the advantages of Software over Hardware, i.e., programmability. With general-purpose industrial IoT, a business can invest not in a specific purpose, but instead in the ability to create and evolve a digital capability which enables the digital transformation that is unique to their business.

The key enablers of general-purpose industrial IoT are the general-purpose cloud platforms, like AWS IoT and Azure IoT and all the infrastructure behind that, including analytics, machine learning and so forth. These “cloud” elements are already in place and are proven as the “general components” of a range of specific use cases.

Other key enablers are sensors and the myriad of local area networking technologies (wired and wireless, powered and low-power, etc.), coupled with intelligent IoT gateways that have at least the capability to fulfill the promise of “Software”.

What’s needed now is a general-purpose edge network. This edge network, to be general purpose, needs to be both programmable (software defined) and connected to the general-purpose cloud. It goes without saying that it needs to also be secure and trustworthy. Most importantly, it must be delivered as a service.

IoT needs a software-defined edge network

A general-purpose edge network needs a software-defined access network securely connecting the physically remote assets to whatever computer resources are determined by the application.

In the same way that the cloud needed a software-defined network to underpin the connectivity requirement of the software which is its essence, general-purpose industrial IoT needs a software-defined access network. The edge network needs to be virtual in the sense that the edge network figures out how to overlay the software-defined topology onto the underlying physical network pieces. The edge network needs to be intelligent, which is to say, it can just work given the constraints.

When the access network is designed or purchased for a specific use case, the imposed constraints, for example, access technology or access costs (MB tariff plans), remove the ability to execute general-purpose use cases over the network.

General-purpose industrial IoT includes the ability to deploy new software, either new use cases or improving existing use cases.

For CIOs, this means looking beyond single purpose and instead investing in creating the platform for continuous digital transformation. Deploy intelligent gateways, for example, Dell Edge, which is a PC in a box, rather than “dumb” or “appliance” gateways. Assume the access network (first mile) is heterogeneous. Purchase data tariffs which are in line with general purpose, i.e., you don’t know how much data you’ll use, but over time it’s likely to increase, and factor in not just the application data usage, but also the usage to continuously deploy new software.

For enterprises to successfully embrace digital transformation, they will need to consider how they can decouple the access network from the cloud and enable the virtual intelligent edge. They will need to look at connectivity management platforms that support secure, intelligent over-the-top, edge-to-cloud and cloud-to-edge application connectivity. Ideally, these intelligent network connectivity services will be truly virtual, be available on-demand and can scale with the businesses’ requirements.

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