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Revisiting The Internet of Corporate Things

It's a revisit because this term was used in an earlier article, but a lot can happen in 12 months. For example, cloud-centric systems are increasingly prevalent, as is the integration of real-time data with enterprise systems; and online stores for end-user apps are on the radar screen.

We're witnessing network, M2M, and IT technologies coalescing, a development that will lead to new business environments based on remotely connected intelligent machines: machines that collaborate as they become part of larger systems. It's a realistic future deliverable, but right now we're saddled with "things", a term that trivializes the concept, and the overhyped idea of an Internet of Things--the IoT.

GE refers to this new connected world as an Industrial Internet populated with brilliant machines that will allow data to be used in many new, innovative ways. It's taking shape. As indicated in the earlier article, we have platforms that provide the glue between distributed devices and business applications, a development that has moved M2M technology from the shop floor into the cloud, and now it's entering corporate boardrooms.

Therefore, now would seem to be a good time to help executives understand the value of the technology to their enterprises, i.e., "how to include connected products in their corporate strategies and strategic initiatives". The quote comes from Axeda, as does this assessment: "IoT embraces a reality that no product or asset will be an island." The term that best encapsulates this concept is the Internet of Corporate Things.

Part of that understanding involves knowing the difference between M2M and IoT, which is less than obvious, the underlying technology being very similar. Let's keep it simple. Most times an M2M device will have an embedded modem that enables cellular connectivity, with associated data plans, so there is a cost issue as well as the need to have the device certified for use on mobile networks. This means that it is impractical to deploy thousands of devices in an enterprise environment. An IoT device, a thing, will enable short- to medium-range connectivity via an embedded RF (radio frequency) chip.

Both types employ sensors to monitor and measure physical parameters such as temperature and actions: the key difference is the reach. This means that a typical IoT device will be a wireless sensor that communicates with a gateway that can accommodate hundreds or even thousands of individual inputs. The gateway will have an embedded cellular modem that provides wide area connectivity, which is needed to transfer data to one or more back-end servers that could be located in the cloud. However, more functionality than baseline LAN-to-WAN conversion is needed in order to optimize the pivotal role gateways will play in enterprise IoT networks.

Smart gateways
Next-gen multi-function smart gateways need to provide flexible, efficient, future-proof solutions. Flexibility is required to match different environments, so for example shop floor connectivity will need to employ all mainstream wired and wireless interfaces; but cost is an issue that has to be minimized. Less obvious is using the gateway as an application development environment: it makes sense to create and deploy the app in the environment where it will be used.

MultiTech recently launched an IoT gateway technology platform known as MultiConnect Conduit that has the requisite functionality. A configurable, cellular-enabled hardware platform employs plug-in modules that currently employ Bluetooth, LoRa, Ethernet, and serial cable technologies. In addition, there are two development environments: the custom Linux kernel and a drag-and-drop interface powered by IBM's Node-RED technology. The latter allows developers and IT personnel to create applications quickly and easily using drag-and-drop icons within a visual design environment, a process that requires less formal programming experience.

The sensors that monitor and measure physical parameters are low-power, low-frequency RF endpoints. They are small, battery-powered devices that operate in the field for up to seven years, and they can communicate with the gateway at distances over 10 miles. Each gateway can manage thousands of endpoints and transmit their data over the cellular network to the customer's preferred data management platform.

Online app store for corporate things
The ability to download an app to a smartphone or tablet and be able to use it right away has become something we take for granted. The app store model represents a very efficient distribution and deployment process. An online store would allow the IoT application to be deployed by authorized parties in the same way that PC images are deployed to new PCs when they come onto the corporate network. Therefore, this is an automated process with which IT personnel in different locations are very familiar. It is not something most of us think about, but replicating that process for industrial IoT applications will enable the creation of an ecosystem having both public and private sections.

MultiTech has announced Device HQ, an online application store that will provide pre-developed applications designed to manage the gateway and associated end-devices. However at the time of writing, details were not available.

CalAmp has a similar concept. This company assembles wireless communications solutions from a portfolio of devices, scalable cloud service enablement platforms and targeted software applications. They target the M2M and MRM (mobile resource management) space, and in this case their online marketplace will provide a tightly-controlled, secure environment to manage and distribute applications content and services that support business models including revenue sharing, pre- and post-paid transactions, license bundling and more. It also incorporates analytics related to installation, license assignment and status, usage and other key metrics.

The ubiquitous cloud
M2M/IoT is no exception to the trend toward greater use of cloud services. If we return to a typical IoT enterprise network, an ideal scenario would employ cloud-ready modules in the gateway. This is an interesting development that Telit has pioneered. Being "cloud-ready" indicates that these modules have been designed to automatically transfer data between devices and Telit's m2mAIR Cloud, where a portfolio of value-added services is added to the connectivity elements. All that's needed are a few clicks; the rest is automatic. Embedded APIs that are compatible with the company's on-board development environments enable this process. They reduce hundreds of lines of code to simple AT commands that move data automatically between remote devices in the field and relevant applications.

Machines are becoming more intelligent, largely as a result of software. One early manifestation of this development was the design of machines with native remote connectivity, mainly used for diagnostics and maintenance. This article has identified more recent developments that will usher in "machines of the future", a term that Axeda employs. In addition to being connected and remotely serviceable, the addition of GPS will make them traceable.

We touched on the integration of machine data with business systems and indicated how the APIs will enable them to be app centric, and we can also expect them to become eco-friendly and energy efficient. And eventually machines will be collaborative, become part of larger systems, and function as active members of the Internet of Things.