Year of the IoT platforms
2015 has been the ‘year of platforms’, quite a few of which claim to be IoT based. Partly driven by the IoT hype and investors backing new IoT start-ups, and incumbents rushing to declare they have the IoT platform solution, not to mention a few M&A’s. However, a deeper inspection of many of these reveals that most are in fact what we would classify as ‘device-clouds’, which offer REST or message-queue based protocol’s with closed solution data formats and very limited application building capabilities and tools - in essence, the ability to get sensor message data using their formats into their clouds, which you then have to interact with to enable and end-to-end IoT solution use-case.
Further, aside from the investment in time in understanding their API and UI frameworks, your data is retained in their platform under their rules. I won’t even mention a few well-known IoT device-cloud platform vendors who failed to respond to several of even my most-basic of enquiries as a signed-up developer, leaving me to really wonder how they would respond in an emergency!
Current research (Reuters) shows that there are well over 260 IoT related companies, many of which are publicly listed, most of which are providing some level of platform services. For consultants or CTO’s trying to better understand and advise which of these might be a good fit for a company’s strategic IoT services strategy, it’s a brutal minefield of information and choices to navigate!
Back to basics
As an IoT consultancy and ISV, we were looking for a long term IoT solution partner who could provide some level of useful tooling from devices through to enterprise systems integration for end-to-end customer IoT application use-cases in both wide and deep verticals. We also wanted choices around advising our government, enterprise and corporate customers on how they could host their IoT platform services. Very few IoT platform vendors actually offer the ability to host their solution easily on-premise, for example, or in a customers private data-center, or in a hybrid combination such as private, Azure IaaS, and Amazon AWS IaaS all at the same time. Additionally, almost no IoT platform vendor solutions actually offered a solution development speed advantage, when you factored in the API and framework time investment needed to really become productive and deliver artefacts of the solution that had real business value (e.g. not just simple dashboards of temperature and sensor readings, but an actual full application from a wide range of use-case requirements!).
ThingWorx & PTC
I had been following the progress of ThingWorx as an IoT solution and industry disruptor since early 2013 with interest, since they didn’t seem to be following the large ICT incumbent’s take on M2M & IoT in thinking that existing middleware or Telco cellular management platforms could solve the IoT challenges emerging. As we were also working with companies in the Smart-Ag sector, I really took notice when the ThingWorx and OnFarm solution partnership emerged, showing just how flexible the platform truly was for a deeply vertical & wide IoT use-case (wide, because of the need for interaction with data sources from many adjacent industries, and big-data such as weather and seed genomics etc). This was when I decided to invest some quality time in assessing their IoT platform solution.
This process continued to the point where after establishing good personal contacts with the ThingWorx team (whom were very responsive) it became clear that here was a solution that seemed to provide all the IoT platform choices that our customers were after (avoiding some of the challenges and gaps mentioned above). The ThingWorx technology allowed it to be hosted on everything from a RaspberryPi to on-premise servers, to public & private IaaS cloud providers with ease. When PTC, a very large US based software company integral in the global high-tech manufacturing sector, acquired both Axeda (which we had also been assessing) and ThingWorx, this assured us that here was a company that was ‘here to stay’ and was going to receive increasing investment support going forward. ThingWorx were also in the process of establishing their plug-in (Extension) MarketPlace, where we could write our own solution enhancing software packages and promote our own unique factor in their ecosystem. We then invested in committing to the training based in their US facility, and joining their partner program. The more we work with their solution now, the more we feel this was absolutely the right decision (yes, we do work with other IoT AEP vendor solutions as well, so know by way of direct comparison).
With the hype and promise of the IoT, more money from investors and VC’s continues to funnel into established companies and new start-ups, so the feature landscape remains increasingly competitive. There are some very good open-source IoT platform solutions now emerging that are quite often ‘good enough’ for select use-cases (but you must understand the DIY invest fully required just to save on licensing costs!), and rightfully, the feature shift is now moving to smarter information processing and management with machine-learning (e.g. predictive maintenance use-cases) and standards based device management protocols and solutions.Fortunately, PTC seem to understand this, and have acquired companies like ColdLight and their Neuron machine-learning solution that will become part of the ThingWorx platform. I predict we’ll see more partnerships and M&A’s with data-science analytics solution providers and IoT platform vendors in 2016 as well. There are some large well-established vendors and Telecommunications bodies now in various standards alliances, but standards ultimately live & die by their industry adoption, and we probably won’t start to see the dust settle from this until well into 2017 or 2018. However, standards are an important factor for large enterprises (including Telco’s and MNO’s) and governments when considering services platform based solutions, so we’ll see more emerging standards support in IoT AEP’s very soon because of this (e.g. oneM2M, GSMA with CoAP, LWM2M, DTLS, IPv6, OIC & AllJoyn based standards), and some IoT device-clouds already support these now.
Specifically, we’ll continue to invest in use of the ThingWorx platform for customers that need a rapid as-built IoT AEP solution, and who want choices around how it is hosted for their specific needs, and don’t have a particular technology framework alighment. In our experience to date, this is the solution that best delivers on the ability to create end-to-end IoT applications in timeframes that exceed business expectations, when compared to IoT device-clouds with large feature gaps, or continuing in-house or outsourced traditional software development projects.