“…not only an IoT gateway, but also IoT enablement” Q&A with ON World
Research is ongoing on the topic of how IoT infrastructure vendors are positioning and differentiating themselves as IoT platform providers.
Editor’s Note: Mareca Hatler is Director of Research, ON World. Hatler investigates Internet of Things technologies including wireless sensor networking, MEMs, energy harvesting, and cloud-based IoT platforms. Edited excerpts of our Q&A follow:
Embedded Intel Solutions: How are you seeing IoT gateways evaluated with regard to issues such as security, for example?
Mareca Hatler, ON World: Security is becoming more and more important. It does depend on the market, in that IoT is not just Industrial or Consumer or Utilities or Cities, it is all of the above, and there are going to be different security issues there. Security is not just in the gateway, it is throughout the whole system.
Depending on the market, a lot of end users don’t have enough experience to determine if the IoT gateway meets security criteria. These users need their vendor to be not just an IoT gateway manufacturer, but instead to be the provider of a whole IoT platform. That is probably the biggest trend that I can talk about right now. We are seeing more and more companies, such as Cisco, Digi, Kerlink, and Sagemcom, offer not only an IoT gateway, but also IoT enablement. Hundreds of other IoT connectivity, device management, and application enablement platform (AEP) companies may or may not also provide IoT infrastructure, including gateways.
At ON World we are going to dig deeper into how IoT infrastructure vendors are positioning and differentiating themselves as IoT platform providers. A lot are partnering with third party companies in order to provide that IoT platform. They are not necessarily developing everything themselves, but I would say that security is one of their core competencies. If they are a gateway company, and they are not cybersecurity experts then they are probably not going to have a lot of market share.
Embedded Intel Solutions: For other attributes that the various markets want to see IoT enablement encompass, would ruggedization be on front burner more so than compactness?
Hatler, ON World: Yes, thinking about the industrial market—and much of the IoT world now is focused on Industrial, and Smart Metering and Smart City outdoor applications—for those types of applications, compact is an important point, but it may not be the most important point. For some industrial/hazardous type environments, weatherproofing the IoT gateway and ensuring that the gateway, as an electrical device, is certified to operate in the types of environments it will be used in is necessary. This may require different packaging as well as time to get certified.
Another point is that it is not only basestations vs gateways that must be considered, but also public vs private networks. LoRa stands out from cellular based LPWA and Sigfox in that it can be used in both public and private networks. And because of that, you get into different issues.
Let’s say you are an industrial company, and you have a few hundred assets that you want to get data out of, then you don’t really need the carrier-grade scalability that is going to be a more expensive gateway. You may want to have that, but you don’t need it. But if you are a carrier and you have thousands of assets, then you need a carrier-grade type gateway, and whether it is ultra-compact or not is not important to you.
It is challenging to talk about IoT gateways without focusing on a specific market and/or technology that have different user requirements, capabilities and support different types of networks. If it is a public network you definitely want that carrier-grade reliability, security, and all of the ruggedized, weatherproof packaging for the gateway. But if you’re thinking about IoT gateways in terms of the indoor private world, then compactness could become a more important consideration.
Embedded Intel Solutions: Are some folks aiming lower-cost solutions at markets that don’t need the ruggedization, and even within the market of those who do need the ruggedization, are there lower-cost solutions emerging?
Hatler, ON World: There are lower-cost, outdoor, reliable, secure gateways out there that may be from a lesser known vendor or perhaps they don’t have the complete IoT platform. So, there are trade-offs, and you have to dig really deep to look at that. We are seeing a lot of pressure on the pricing, with a lot more competition, and many more lower-cost IoT gateways out there. Comparing them is really challenging.
For example, The Things Network does not charge a subscription fee, although one still needs to purchase the appropriate hardware. It is a public LoRa network that offers its own in-house created gateway as well as recommending third-party gateways. There are several networks that are used ostensibly for thousands of connections that are fairly low cost. Are they carrier-grade? That could be fuzzy. They would probably say they are fairly close to that yet nowhere near the carrier-grade pricing.
Embedded Intel Solutions: Is “carrier-grade” a well-defined enough term?
Hatler, ON World: That is actually one of the things we are investigating. I don’t think so. There are certain must haves that fall into that. We talked about. If security, scalability, and ruggedization are combined together, and there are probably certifications that go along with those as well, that would fall under carrier-grade, but I don’t think there are any rules about that.
It’s one of those things where you investigate it and ask, “Can it do this, this, and this that I need for my IoT network that is going to support potentially thousands and thousands of nodes?” If the answer is “yes,” you might say, “Okay, I will consider it carrier-grade.”
Embedded Intel Solutions: Do you see any gaps widening between what end users believe they can get versus what designers working with IoT gateways can achieve while balancing size, weight, power, and cost concerns?
Hatler, ON World: I think end users—a lot of them– are surprised to find the ease of use they were expecting may not be there. Again, that is where the IoT connectivity platform comes in. If you have an IoT gateway, and you don’t have a lot of tools to go along with that and really get it up and working and connecting and having all the things that you may need—even things that you may not be aware you need such as geolocation—then you are going to find out after you first deploy the IoT gateway that it is significantly more difficult than you thought.
I am sure that is why more vendors are providing an end-to-end IoT platform. The end user is wanting a smoother experience. That is probably where the gap is. If an end user thinks that they are going to get an IoT platform and they are actually buying a gateway, then they are going to be disappointed because it is not the same.
Security is always, always an issue and then the second one is ease of use—making it not just easy to deploy and to maintain and managing all of those devices but making sense out of that data that you are collecting. What good does it do an end user to have all of this data if they can’t interpret it or understand it?
So, you need to have a lot more software. If they are not going to develop software in-house, hardware developers must partner with other companies. You have to provide intelligible data in a usable format and which can integrate with users’ existing systems. That should all be seamless for them, so there is a lot of work there, not just on what people call the connectivity side, but also device management, the formatting of the data, the AEP.
With open APIs, people can take that data that they are collecting and get it into an existing or new application that they understand. End users don’t just want the IoT gateway. They want solutions. They are thinking, “How am I going to use this data and is it going to be intelligible for me, and is it going to be in a format where I can use it in multiple other parts of my business?”
Embedded Intel Solutions: What do users want when they want IoT gateway “manageability”?
Hatler, ON World: I think that goes along with what we were just discussing, this idea of being able to maintain and use that system. From an end user perspective, they don’t want to keep having to call the vendor and ask for additional help on that network. They want to be able to use it.
That is why the IoT platform is just so important. Another important point is a few years ago, I would say about four or five years ago, an IoT platform wasn’t really possible. The only people that could do what we now call IoT—it used to be called M2M—had a lot of expertise in the various industries, and they used proprietary and industry-specific software for it.
And now, with the Cloud, and all these Cloud platforms and frameworks and infrastructures that are out there you can do a lot more things. The Cloud can support all kinds of different integration, lower cost, and ease of use for the end user. That is part of the reason why it is such an exciting time for IoT. It is not just the networking technologies that have gotten better and better and lower powered and more secure.
But not to go too crazy with the Cloud because another term that you have probably heard of out there is the fog system, which is partly Cloud, partly on-site—a little bit of both, because some companies may not want it to be one hundred percent Cloud. That is when the IoT gateway becomes more of a network controller. So, it’s not just connecting devices to the cloud, it’s managing that network and holding a lot of intelligence about that network. So that is another growing trend.
Embedded Intel Solutions: What are your high-altitude perspectives on the differences—to smart cities, to any aspect of our day-to-day lives that IoT gateways can make? Why should we care about them?
Hatler, ON World: That is tough to answer because for your city, you are not thinking about how that gateway is going to make a difference. You are thinking about solutions, and the IoT gateway is just a window into that opportunity. Increasingly with the latest low power wide area (LPWA) network technologies, whether they use licensed (e.g., cellular, NB-IoT or LTE-M) or unlicensed spectrum (e.g., Sigfox, LoRa or RPMA), the IoT gateway is completely transparent to the end user. They are just connecting to that network—it’s just there.
Soon, you will just buy the sensors or asset trackers, attach them to your equipment or assets and you are connected. Then you’ll use a simple Web-based application to monitor and process the data collected. If it is a public network, you won’t have to deal with gateways at all.