What Does It Take to Create a Connected Business? Q&A with Avnet’s John Weber

Why we’re going to see more low-cost WLAN-connected devices for IoT applications, the need for developer education, and more.

Our thanks to John Weber, a strategic solutions architect at Avnet, who recently shared his insights on a number of IoT-related topics.

EECatalog: Are developers helping their customers make as strong a resource of the Cloud as they could? What more can be done?

John WeberJohn Weber, Avnet: With our customer base being primarily OEMs, we see a lot of customers that are traditionally hardware product development customers struggling with how to make use of the cloud. The real question is: “What does it take to create a connected business and why do that?  There really needs to be a clear answer to that question.  I’m speaking here of OEMs that would normally just create hardware products. Some may be connected already but not for the purpose of transporting data back to the data center, for example to be able to perform remote software updates. Some are not connected at all.

In any case, there is a lot of investment required to create a connected business, and once the vision is clear it becomes much easier to get executive sponsorship to be able to do that. Without a CEO, CTO, COO leading the effort, then we see a much lower rate of adoption. Not only that, then the way in which the product or service is extended to utilize the cloud is much more realizable. The cloud can provide in-field software maintenance and the compute resources to do things that would never have been possible otherwise. It can extend functionality in a way that is much easier for the end user to consume.

Getting back to what more could be done, we need more developer education across the board, both at the edge and for the entire system architecture.  We need to show them how to connect their devices quickly and easily, enhancing adoption.

EECatalog: What are some fresh ways of looking at the “keep within a power budget of X” versus “include all sorts of functionality” conundrum?  How can recent technology developments help?

John Weber, Avnet: When you offload workloads to a data center you can reduce compute requirements at the edge, which corresponds to lower power consumption, lower cost, lower cost of development. But sometimes requirements force customers to go in another direction, where for various reasons they need to build-in extra compute capability at the edge.  Here’s a good example—municipal parking systems, or smart parking (Figure 1). These systems usually consist of a number of sensors that connect wirelessly to a gateway of some sort, which then performs various operations on the data and then communicates with some sort of application running in a data center (cloud). Once you have that gateway installed on a pole or a building, or even buried in some cases, the customer does not want to physically interact with it. It costs lots of money to do that.  I think it was Dell that recently estimated that it costs 3x more to replace something in the field than to simply build more compute functionality into it.

Figure 1: Weber notes smart parking is one area where extra compute capability needs to be built in at the edge. Courtesy commons.wikimedia.org

Figure 1: Weber notes smart parking is one area where extra compute capability needs to be built in at the edge. Courtesy commons.wikimedia.org

You asked about products that can help here. Two years ago, connecting to the cloud via wireless LAN required a microprocessor running Linux or other OS because the wireless LAN software and, TCP/IP stack, and other network protocol software was only supported in high-level operating systems. Now, silicon vendors such as TI and Broadcom have integrated a great deal of that software directly into a wireless module, easily adding WLAN client connectivity to a product that could be operated by a microcontroller. This enables low-power, low-cost WLAN-connected devices for IoT applications. I think we’re going to see a lot more of that in the future.

EECatalog: How can legacy systems take advantage of the IoT? What do developers need to know to advise their customers about overall plans for legacy systems?

John Weber, Avnet: My customer is typically the engineering development team at an OEM, so I’ll assume that by the term “Legacy systems” you mean existing, but unconnected, products. The purpose in connecting them is really to gain access to data, to enable new functionality, to improve customer experience, and transform business models  That’s what we’ve seen. We have customers that we’ve serviced for years building unconnected commercial food appliance products (as an example) and now coming to us and asking for advice on where to start.  These customers are really, really good at building reliable appliances and not so experienced at connecting them.  Why would they do this?  In most cases it’s to gain access to data captured by the device to help make business decisions. Preventative maintenance is THE typical example—helping to ensure that mission-critical equipment is always running (or at least has the minimum allowable down time) by being able to detect a prospective failure before it happens and scheduling both the delivery and installation of replacement parts.

Another trend we’ve seen is customers completely changing their business model to a services business—the so-called “hardware as a service” or HaaS model—where they enable a recurring revenue business by providing hardware at little to no cost, in a subscription model. In most cases, OEMs are designing products to meet the requirements of their end user, so actually advice would go in the other direction!  They would want to design products that will fit within the end user networks and pay special attention (especially for enterprise customers) to the IT requirements of the end customer. For example, if an end customer is using Active Directory , there would be a good reason to supply LDAP support as an option.

EECatalog: How can synergy among various applications, especially in the area of security, be encouraged?

John Weber, Avnet: IoT technologies are still very fragmented, even though in 2015 we saw the start of a good bit of consolidation in some of the major players. All of this fragmentation is a good thing because there are a lot of competitors building innovative solutions. Eventually it has resolve into a handful of frameworks and generally accepted architectures. We may be seeing that now with two of the major standards bodies—the AllSeen Alliance and the Open Interconnect Consortium.

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