A comprehensive view of the 4 IoT architecture layers

Having a clearly defined IoT architecture framework greatly improves the chances for success of an enterprise's connected deployment.

If your company is like many organizations, it's actively engaged in or considering launching one or more IoT initiatives. It has a goal, a strategy and a desired outcome -- whether to drive revenue, cut costs or optimize business processes. And it may have already selected technologies and suppliers.

But does it have an IoT architecture? And is that architecture specific to this project or a customized version of a more general IoT framework?

You might be wondering why either of those matter -- two reasons. First, organizations with an IoT architecture are significantly more successful than those without. Successful companies -- those that rank in the top third of all companies when it comes to saving money, driving new revenue or improving business processes via IoT -- are 34% more likely to have an IoT architecture than less successful firms.

But that's not just any architecture, which brings us to the second reason it's important. Successful companies are more likely to adhere to an architecture that includes both a general-purpose IoT framework and a specific, customized version for the specific IoT project.

Why both? IoT isn't a stand-alone initiative; it's an extension of IT to the physical world. That means it needs the same strategy and planning that any technology initiative requires, including a plan for how it will integrate into your organization's existing systems and infrastructure.

The four IoT architecture layers

At a high level, an IoT architecture comprises four components: applications and analytics, integration, security and infrastructure (see Figure 1).

IoT architecture components
Figure 1. The four components of an IoT architecture

The applications and analytics component is the piece that processes and displays the information collected via IoT. It includes analytics tools, AI and machine learning, and visualization capabilities. Technologies for this component range from traditional analytics and visualization packages, such as R, IBM SPSS and SAS, to specialized IoT tools and dashboards from cloud providers, such as Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Oracle and IBM, as well as application suite vendors, including SAP, Salesforce and others.

The integration component is one that's often overlooked by IoT teams, yet it's crucially important. This is the component that ensures that the applications, tools, security and infrastructure integrate effectively into existing companywide ERP and other management systems. Providers include the aforementioned software and cloud players, as well as a range of open source and middleware providers, such as Oracle Fusion Middleware, LinkSmart, Apache Kafka and DynThings Open Source IoT Platform.

Security is another component that's often overlooked. IoT security includes securing the physical components of the system via firmware and embedded security providers, such as Azure Sphere, LynxOS, Mocana and Spartan. Traditional security vendors, such as Forescout, Symantec and Trend Micro, also offer packages that focus specifically on securing IoT.

Finally, there's the infrastructure component (see Figure 2). This includes physical devices -- IoT sensors, which capture information, and actuators, which control the environment. Communicating with, controlling and capturing information from the sensors and actuators require a set of networks and platforms. There's the physical network on which the sensors or actuators actually reside; typically, though not always, this is a wireless network, such as Wi-Fi, 4G or 5G. However, data from this network needs to be processed and analyzed, which means it must be transported from the IoT location to the platform, either at the edge or on the cloud, where processing happens. Since the actuator and sensor infrastructure are often different, there may be a different cloud on which the information from the two is combined -- for instance, if a company is monitoring a remote facility via automated cameras, detects a disturbance and wishes to dispatch a drone fleet to that facility. Managing and controlling the IoT infrastructure requires a management layer, complete with agents and applications.

IoT architecture, infrastructure components
Figure 2. The IoT architecture infrastructure components

Do all IoT initiatives require such a complex architecture? No and certainly not at first. However, it's important to recognize that these components will likely become critical downstream, and having an architecture enables IoT architects to plan intelligently for that day and beyond.

Bottom line: Have an IoT architecture for any IoT initiative you're launching. This architecture should make clear how you handle the four components of applications and analytics, integration, security and infrastructure. And your infrastructure architecture should include plans for how you'll design and manage the networks and platforms that you will ultimately require.

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