M2M As An Integral Part Of The Enterprise
The objective is to enable easy integration of M2M data into mainstream applications, databases and enterprise service buses in order to optimize critical business processes. Think of it as the "Internet of Business Things."
M2M solutions deliver significant benefits, as evidenced by the track record of this innovative industry, but the great majority of the wireless M2M solutions are realized in vertical, so-called silo architectures. In addition, proprietary technology is employed because there was and still is a dearth of standards.
This is in stark contrast to the enterprise model, which is horizontal and based on standards. Therefore M2M applications such as fleet and asset management and mainstream business apps like ERP and CRM operate in environments that are significantly different from enterprise environments, both technically and culturally, and this represents a significant challenge when trying to integrate M2M with the enterprise.
Ideally, integration would be based on M2M solutions that are standards-based, open and cloud-centric: see "M2M: Looking Further Ahead." However, this development only facilitates integration: it does not enable the bidirectional seamless transfer of information between M2M apps and business processes.
M2M solutions emerged more than 20 years ago, although the term was not used at that time. They were literally machine-to-machine, being deployed on factory floors and in vending machines as well as a few specialized industries, e.g. oil and gas. Communication was wireline and the data was normally integrated into business processes. However, in recent years, the M2M development action and innovation has increasingly been wireless--short-range RF and wide area cellular, with solutions proprietary and silo-ed.
A recent survey conducted by Axeda indicated that companies having physically static assets that generate M2M data on events or parameters are increasingly likely to use wireless because of the rapidly falling cost of cellular versus other alternatives. Fixed lines often need new labor-intensive installation activity and have a requirement to route data through on-site networks. Cellular connections enable direct wireless connections to machines:from the asset to the cellular network to the application platform. There is no need to connect to the corporate network: no need to involve local IT.
The Axeda survey also showed that the majority of the early adopters who participated are planning to integrate their connected products into the enterprise so that the data can be shared with other departments. Around 11% have already integrated M2M data, and another 67% are interested, planning or scheduling integration with ERP and CRM systems in order to: optimize field service capabilities; enhance customer service; and automate asset management and configuration management.
What are the Key Issues?
Integration is relatively easy when data is transmitted over an enterprise LAN; communication over a wide area cellular network is radically different. For example, there is a long, multi-vendor value chain, which includes the mobile network operator, and there are operational issues, e.g., the SIM cards have to be deployed, activated and managed. It's not rocket science, as evidenced by the proliferation of M2M apps, but it does require the specialist knowhow and experience of a solution provider.
Moreover M2M is a fragmented industry, which breaks down into nine main sectors and numerous sub-sectors (see the "M2M World of Connected Services" map on Beecham Research's site for details).
On the other side of the equation, there is an equally complex set of integration challenges, e.g., whether to use SOA (service oriented architecture) stacks or a lightweight standalone ESB (Enterprise Service Bus, a software model used for designing and implementing the interaction and communication between mutually interacting software applications in a service-oriented architecture).
Systems integration therefore requires specialist knowledge and experience in both the M2M and enterprise environments, and this is hard to acquire. The big SI players tend to see M2M as an industry that operates on the dark side of the moon, and regular M2M vendors are way out of their comfort zone when it comes to the enterprise back-office systems. That's the main reason why we remain at the early adopter stage.
As Robin Duke-Woolley, CEO of Beecham Research puts it: "M2M is now on the radar of CIOs. Integration with ERP and CRM is very much on their agendas, with increasing interest in how such data can strengthen the competitive edge of their companies in their own markets. As part of that, there is also growing interest in data analytics to store and mine the data from remote devices in order to gain new intelligence about customer needs and new market trends."
Feet in Both Camps
Axeda has the requisite set of M2M and enterprise skills, which they position as the "Internet of Corporate Things": a B2B subset of the notion of the Internet of Things. Their offering is predicated on the management of the physical products that an enterprise delivers to its customers, and the management of that company's corporate assets, including facilities and plants, operational equipment, vehicles and goods being delivered. And it begins with the fundamental understanding that supporting customers' use of a company's products requires connectivity, monitoring, remote service, usage analysis, ERP/CRM integration and value-added services.
The offering also includes managing internal corporate assets and operational infrastructure, which requires an understanding of the complex web of interconnectivity between assets, places, people and information. Companies need to integrate M2M data into their mainstream applications and processes in order to leverage the functionality of their connected products and assets, and thereby create new applications and business models that differentiate their offer.
This schematic is a neat illustration of the way that data emanating from various M2M solutions can be leveraged when it is integrated into an enterprise's CRM/ERP systems. Alarms, for example, can generate a CRM ticket or case, which improves customer and field service. Data can also be sent to a billing or supply chain management system in order to eliminate the mistakes that can come from manual processing.
Axeda's platform includes application services and data management, as well as an integration framework that employs standards-based message queue technology to enable integration with enterprise systems, including ERP (e.g., Oracle and SAP), CRM (e.g., Salesforce.com), plus billing and data warehouses.
Connectivity services, software agents, and toolkits are employed to establish connectivity between devices/assets and the Axeda platform, and all major media types can be used: cellular, the Internet, Wi-Fi, or satellite. Connectivity to legacy devices/assets, i.e., those that have been deployed and that run in a silo solution, is provided in different ways. For example, agent software can be installed on or near the devices. Alternatively, the proprietary TCP/UDP messages can be translated into the company's data model. This is done on the fly.
Obviously this process must not interfere with the legacy solution. This is accomplished by the rules engine in the cloud that decides what to do with the data. If the data is for the legacy app, then it will be forwarded to the regular application server: no rule is applied. Data destined for integration can have different rules; for example, if the device data is indicating an abnormal condition, then it will be forwarded to the relevant mainstream app because it's data that they may need to see immediately. According to Axeda, this is a key requirement because if a pure message broker is used then all the M2M will go to the backend systems, which will be overwhelmed.
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