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SAN FRANCISCO -- Before the advent of IoT, leading companies could create value with a proprietary technology stack that locked in customers. However, as connected technologies have taken off, experts at the IoTBuild USA conference echoed, IoT interoperability and interchangeability have quickly become requirements that companies are scrambling to accommodate.
And it's not just about new digital businesses creating connected apps and tools. Established businesses and industries are finding disruption in their value chains, too. However, for success, they are finding that IoT interoperability is key.
For example, IoT won't just help inform consumers, but will make it easier to adapt to shifts in the way power is generated, stored and managed, said Laiq Ahmad, chief enterprise architect and chief technologist at Pacific Gas and Electric Company on a CTO panel about driving digital transformation across organizations. "The growth of smart meters is critical," he said. "There is currently a hub-and-spoke model in the energy industry, and that could change with the growth of solar and distributed energy storage."
Car companies are seeing the same trend and are looking for a way to stay current with a faster rate of app and consumer device release than car replacements. At another panel on IoT interoperability at the IoTBuild conference, Sai Yagnyamurthy, director of global strategy at Ford Motor Company, said, "We are looking at IoT and interoperability when it comes to cars and how they interact with other devices whether in the home or the city."
Finding value in IoT interoperability
Cesare Garlatichief security strategist, Prpl Foundation
It's important for enterprises to focus on where they can add the most value. Companies might be tempted to innovate at every level of the IoT stack, but it's not practical for even the largest companies to build everything from scratch. "No one builds everything, including the chips," said Cesare Garlati, chief security strategist at Prpl Foundation, which is focusing on open source IoT interoperability. There are no margins in competing on basics, like security, he said, adding that "there is a middle ground where you can add value without doing everything."
One approach to thinking about where to add value might be to look at the IoT stack through a slightly different lens than engineers have used for traditional IT infrastructure, said Kati Walcott, CTO at the OpenFog Consortium and principal engineer at Intel. The OpenFog Consortium has developed a reference architecture to support IoT interoperability, interchangeability and composability for different use cases across different levels:
- Level 1 -- Device or technical interoperability layer
- Level 2 -- Syntactic level of interoperability corresponding to protocols like XML and JSON
- Level 3 -- Semantic layer for enabling AI and deep learning to make sense of it
- Level 4 -- Ambient loop layer for enabling feedback loops between people and machines
The ambient loop is a new way of thinking about designing IT systems and is not included within the traditional OSI model. It relates to connecting the person to IoT infrastructure. "This is creating the ability to use a device and for our wishes to be translated into the environment," Walcott said.
Interoperability and interchangeability at IoTBuild
The OpenFog model also makes it easier to think about the distinctions between IoT interoperability and IoT interchangeability. Interoperability relates to the ability to connect IoT workflows across technologies from different vendors, while interchangeability relates the ability to substitute one platform for another, like trading out an Arm chip for an Intel one.
"When I look at this from the goal of OpenFog, this adds a lot of value to the customer," Walcott said. "We are looking at interchangeability from the perspective of networks, services, languages, semantics and ontologies."
Interoperability can help improve the consumer experience and keep costs down for enterprises, said Ford's Yagnyamurthy. For example, there are several different protocols and plugs for charging cars. As a result, many cities have three different types of charging stations for electric cars across the street from each other. "It becomes an operational headache for us when we have to talk about the investments to create those charging stations," Yagnyamurthy said.
Interchangeability will make it easier to update the faster components in modern cars in response to newer technologies. For example, Ford would like to provide a simple upgrade path to faster wireless networks or advances in intelligent communication between cars. "Interchangeability is crucial," he said. "The big question is, 'When can we get to the point where we can interchange at a low cost and it is a simple swap?'"
Learn IoT interoperability from mature verticals
One challenge in enabling interoperability and interchangeability is the fragmentation in the IoT stack, said Hardy Schmidbauer, co-founder and CEO of TrackNet and one of the founding forces behind the LoRa Alliance, which is creating standards around radio communications. It's important to first focus on building up interoperability in areas where there is less fragmentation, he said. For example, telematics is a relatively mature vertical since enterprises have been working on use cases like improving trucking efficiency for many years. This makes it easier to create a framework for exchanging information across different kinds of devices and applications to make sense of this data.
But other areas are immature, he said, and enterprises are still trying to figure out what kinds of use cases will deliver value for users. "In completely immature verticals, like smart cities, no one knows what a smart city is," Schmidbauer said, adding that this makes it harder to find where and how to exchange data, or harder to make sense of how information across different applications will create value.