BACKGROUND IMAGE: iSTOCK/GETTY IMAGES
The quality of Internet of Things applications hinges on large quantities of data -- swarms of sensors collecting rivers of raw data that can be analyzed for predictive maintenance, supply-chain optimizations and other business benefits important to manufacturers. So it's not surprising that there is a glut of choices for IoT platforms, a key component in industrial implementations. The market research firm IoT Analytics lists more than 260 vendors in its latest directory of platform companies.
IoT platforms share a common goal -- to provide a suite of compatible components that help companies quickly roll out the hardware, software and services that underpin IoT applications. But similarities among IoT platforms fade quickly. "Definitions are very tricky because a number of different functions are available across various platforms, depending on the companies that are delivering the platform," said John Byrne, senior principle analyst for IoT at the research firm IHS Inc.
The challenge of multiple IoT platforms
Making sense of a multitude of platform choices can be challenging for IT decision makers who don't want to be left behind in a fast-growing market. Within four years, the IoT sector could grow to $1.7 trillion, up from $656 billion in 2014, according to IDC. Fueling a significant share of that growth will be purpose-built IoT platforms, IDC adds.
In this dynamic environment, how can IT managers select a platform that meets emerging IoT needs without getting locked out of future innovations? Industry analysts advise decision makers to define business and technology goals clearly before committing to particular products or vendors.
Differences in IoT platforms
Peter Christyresearch director at 451 Research
To sort out the platform marketplace, industry analysts group the various offerings into broad categories based on technical orientation. Some platforms encourage the development of applications based on the chipset a vendor engineers for sensors and other edge devices. Examples include the Intel IoT platform and the ARM mbed IoT device platform. Options from Cisco and other networking companies promote connectivity via various wired and wireless network technologies.
Another option, application enablement platforms, offers middleware designed to connect any device to any application with limited or no regard to the industry sector where it's being deployed, said Steve Hilton, president of analyst firm MachNation. By contrast, platform-enabled products provide industry- or application-centric IoT implementations, he said.
Each category offers important services that manufacturers may need when launching IoT, which further complicates platform selection. "No company is offering all of these capabilities within a single platform," Byrne said. "But some providers know where their gaps are and are partnering with others to fill those gaps."
For example, platform provider PTC, which specializes in industrial IoT applications, has been following an active acquisition strategy in recent years. Purchases have included ThingWorx, a suite of application-development modules, and the Axeda cloud service for managing connected devices. At the end of 2015, PTC announced an agreement to add a developer of industrial-automation software to the lineup.
Acquisitions aren't the only way to beef up platform capabilities, analysts said. Vendors are also courting application developers and systems integrators with IoT expertise to help provide complete packages.
Look beyond simply picking a platform
The dynamic, mix-and-match nature of today's IoT market makes it important for IT managers to look beyond picking a platform, experts said. First, analyze larger business issues. "Just interconnecting devices and recording data isn't enough to justify IoT," said Peter Christy, research director at 451 Research. "The challenge is to determine which IoT applications will create real value for your company. From there you can decide what infrastructure requirements are associated with those high-value applications."
Second, create a short list of platforms that offer a comprehensive set of capabilities to meet those needs. "IT managers should ensure the overall IoT platform solution has network management, device management, data management, event processing, alerting and notifications, dashboards and analytics," Hilton said.
Third, because it's difficult to stay abreast of a fast-changing market, IT managers should consider working with experienced systems integrators when selecting platforms and other IoT technology components and then launching applications. "There's definitely a strong role for SI's when it comes to expertise, advice about technology and other companies to partner with," Byrne said.
He said large, well-known integrators can provide expertise, but may not always be the best choice for manufacturers. "A small, niche player may better understand an individual business sector and know which partners are most relevant to work with in that particular area."
Vendors shaping the IoT landscape
IoT apps still sparse