10 Questions to Ask an IoT Platform Provider
Shawn Wasserman posted on April 05, 2016 | 16131 views

Choosing an Internet of Things (IoT) platform for a product design is no simple task. Let’s say your current devices are isolated in their own networks, or perhaps not connected to the internet at all. Connecting them to the IoT isn’t as simple as adding some sensors and a network.

Another challenge is dealing with all the data your IoT devices generates. According to IBM, 90 percent of the information collected on the IoT will remain unused. So when engineers are choosing an IoT platform, consider one that will also allow you to set up analytics and logic for that data.

“There is no perfect IoT software vendor today and some systems are built more for data sharing than others,” said Bryan Kester, director of IoT at Autodesk SeeControl. “No one provider can cover everything in a single system, so there is sometimes a need to have two systems.”

Here are 10 questions that will help engineers narrow down their IoT platform options.

1. What are the Core Differences Between IoT Platforms?

 Demonstration of PTC ThingWorx’s linking IoT data to a digital twin and displaying that in an augmented reality interface.

Demonstration of PTC ThingWorx’s linking IoT data to a digital twin and displaying that in an augmented reality interface.

Why not start with the hardest question: “What sets you apart from the others?”

This initial question helps you to make some deductions about IoT Platform’s capabilities and the applications the vendor is targeting. 

For example, many IoT software providers noted that they provide ‘no-coding, drag-and-drop’ techniques to build the customer’s IoT applications and dashboards. As it turns out, almost all IoT platforms providers offer this function.

However, one IoT platform function that was unique to our vendor poll was PTC ThingWorx’s augmented reality and digital twin capabilities.

ThingWorx Augmented Reality technology enables solutions that automatically see, recognize, and interact with ‘things’ by projecting real-time information onto each unique thing,” said Joe Biron, senior vice president of ThingWorx Technology. “Developers can build immersive 3D experiences with the mobile vision platform, delivering high performance with creative freedom and flexibility.”

If augmented reality is important to your IoT design, this question would have helped you quickly surface a potential IoT platform.

IoT Analytics Questions for IoT Platform Providers

2. What Types of IoT Data Analytics Are Available?

One of the biggest benefits from connected devices is the ability to collect big data around products, workflows, businesses and customers. Device manufacturers can use this data to guide future designs and business decisions.

However, processing all of this data is a challenge.

“The data coming from connected devices and sensors can be endless, but it is often untapped or underutilized in terms of its potential impact to their business,” said Sam George, partner director of Azure Internet of Things. “When you are able to combine and analyze device and asset data with other types of business data, you may be able to uncover insights that were out of reach in the past.”

Therefore, your platform should really deliver IoT analytic abilities. The more insight the platform can bring to your organization, the better.

“Because Netvibes is an analytics dashboard, businesses can automate actions based on data insights: it's business intelligence meets artificial intelligence,” said Florent Solt, CTO of Netvibes. “With Netvibes’ automatically generated charts and graphs, users can explore the data visually. With Netvibes MisoData, users can simply drag-and-drop two charts together to instantly compare them and identify trends and correlations.”

Users should also look for IoT platforms that conduct complex data analytics. For instance, “ThingWorx Analytics, powered by the Neuron engine, automates the analysis of data from things to address a range of important challenges,” explained Biron. “These challenges include detecting failure patterns from data, modeling correlations, predicting failures, prescribing remedies and prioritizing recommendations against cost constraints.”

Unfortunately, engineers are not data scientists. As a result, they may not be able to choose the best analytics algorithm for their data set. Some IoT platforms in our vendor poll mentioned that they offer artificial intelligence that will choose the best data analysis algorithm autonomously.

Once the data is crunched, many IoT platforms have the ability to set up triggers based on the data analytics. These triggers send instructions to the device, or other things on the internet, when certain data conditions are met.

One interesting trigger system mentioned in the IoT platform vendor poll was the Potions setup from Dassault Systèmes’ Netvibes.

“Netvibes makes it simple for anyone, even non-programmers, to instantly create a new Potion with specific triggers and actions,” said Solt. “You can choose from pre-made Potions or create a new Potion by dragging and dropping ingredients: for example, if A or B triggers happen, then do X and Y actions. Technical users can switch to ‘Advanced Mode’ to write their own Potions from scratch using Netvibes Programming Language.”

3. How Customizable Are My IoT Dashboards and How Do I Create Them?

 Netvibes dashboards. (Image courtesy of Dassault Systèmes.)

Netvibes dashboards. (Image courtesy of Dassault Systèmes.)

Engineers will want the freedom to design a dashboard that fits any number of formats.

“[Dashboards] aggregate, analyze and act on everything that matters to you or your business,” said Solt. “It’s easy to program your dashboard to act for you automatically based on data insights. [They can] automate interactions between apps, devices and data or control your smart devices in the Internet of Things.”

All of the IoT platform vendors polled have similar non-coding dashboard customization. Typically, these dashboards are created using drag-and-drop programming tools. However, some platforms offer wizards to give engineers a more guided workflow. Many IoT platform providers will also export the dashboard into HTML code so it can be used in any browser.

You may want to consider an IoT platform that offers a library of pre-programmed functions you can use in your final dashboard design. This will help to simplify the dashboard development and get an IoT system to market faster.

IoT Data Collection and Control Questions for IoT Platform Providers

4. How Does IoT Data Collection Work?

The fundamental part of any IoT platform is its ability to communicate and collect data from smart devices.

Kester outlined the typical approach an IoT platform uses to collect data. “First, you need remote firmware to gather data from connected machines and then central management of that firmware.”

However, due to the disparity in firmware and protocols in the IoT industry, data collection isn’t always easy—and how IoT platforms perform this function can affect the design of your IoT device.

Below is how each IoT platform surveyed responded to how it solved the data collection challenge:

  • PTC ThingWorx uses bi-directional communication through edge components on the device, the cloud or the gateway. The edge components will provide all the file transfers and software updates.
  • Amazon Web Services (AWS) IoT uses the devices’ gateway for the bi-directional communication. Designs can also have physical connections with ZigBee and Bluetooth.
  • Autodesk SeeControl sends computation, firmware distribution and machine management to the cloud.
  • Dassault Systèmes Netvibes requires that the device is already online in order to connect to the IoT platform. Dassault Systèmes has partnered with Xively to connect IoT devices to the Internet.
  • Devices connect to the Microsoft Azure IoT Hub can use API and standard protocols to set up the communication. Azure offers a software development kit (SDK) to help set up the connection.
  • Currently, Cisco’s Jasper will only connect using a cell network. They do not offer any firmware management at this time. Cisco has announced plans to offer more connectivity options. Control Center manages the meta-data from the device’s communication with the cloud.
  • TheThings.iO uses three operations for bi-directional communication with the device: write, read and subscribe. Firmware can be upgraded over-the-air (OTA).

5. How Does the IoT Platform Monitor and Control Connected Devices?

“Currently many of the devices out there are segmented, on highly non-connected networks or proprietary networks,” said Paul Didier, AVnu Alliance board of director and IoT solution architect at Cisco. “With IoT, a lot of the core system device applications are impossible with this segmentation, like big data analytics.”

Didier explained that to solve this challenge, engineers will need to add a layer of communication protocols and API’s on top of the individual networks along with a control system to relay instructions back and forth. This is where the IoT platform comes into play.

An overarching IoT platform can still let each individual network control its proprietary things. The platform just communicates with these smaller networks for big data, optimization and system control opportunities.

This control over individual devices and networks is typically performed by a rules engine and a series of logical instructions written by the user within the IoT platform. Some examples of rules engines include:

  • Dassault Systèmes Netvibes’ Potions
  • AWS IoT’s Rules Engine
  • Microsoft Azure IoT Hub
  • Cisco’s Jasper Control Center Rules Engine

The goal of asking an IoT platform provider how it monitors and controls a connected device is to dive deeper into compatibility issues you might run into with your current infrastructure. We polled a number of IoT platform vendors on this question.

6. How Does the Platform Handle IoT Security?

Consumers and businesses alike have serious concerns about IoT security. The IoT platforms we polled seem to have a similar structure for securing data at every part of the system.

Consider Autodesk SeeControl. Kester explained that “each component has its own security options and technologies. At the cloud access level, SSL is the trusted gatekeeper used by everyone including banks. Between the cloud and devices, there are numerous options ranging from traditional certificate-based approaches to encryption of each data packet to encryption of the network between the cloud and a specific population of devices in a VPN-like approach.”

Didier agreed that security is one area where standardization can be an asset, particularly in the way that devices declare their identity to other devices. Unfortunately, he noted that not every IoT product developer is adding a way to identify the device or who made it.

“Many don’t have identity to explain who they are, who manufactured them and programmed them,” said Didier. “It’s a foundational piece. For industrial ecosystems, how should devices establish that and offer certification?”

Therefore, when looking to an IoT platform provider, engineers should look for options that specialize in certification. Of the IoT platforms polled, almost all of them noted that they use a form of certification technique in their security strategy. Some like Jasper and PTC ThingWorx are even able to connect via cellular networks, allowing for added protection from SIM cards.

Compatibility Questions for IoT Platforms

7. Which IoT Protocols is the Platform Compatible with?

Perhaps one of the most important IoT platform functionality questions to ask your vendor is about protocol compatibility. Based on the answer to this question, you might be able to knock a few contenders off your shortlist.

“There are two places within an IoT architecture where device protocols are important. Acquiring data ‘at the edge’ from equipment and sensors, and ‘edge to cloud messaging,’” said Biron. If a protocol isn’t compatible with your device, then your whole system will not operate.

There is some pressure on the IoT industry to move toward standardization, or convergence, on a single communication protocol.

“One key move to convergence comes as these products move over standard Ethernet,” said Todd Walter, AVnu Alliance chair and senior group manager at National Instruments. “We can then tap into those standard Ethernet communications. We think this will help with the convergence of communication in industrial IoT.”

However, until that convergence comes about, engineers will need to know what protocols a design and IoT platform can and can’t use.

We’ve gathered some data about IoT platform protocol convergence and compatibility. Here are the protocols the polled IoT vendors said their platforms are compatible with:

  • PTC ThingWorx: REST, MQTT, JDBC drivers, ADO drivers, XML, JSON file, CSV file, PTC’s AlwaysOn, Amazon’s IoT Service, Microsoft Azure’s IoT Hub
  • Autodesk SeeControl: Over 150 device types and various protocols including UDP, CoAP, MQTT, HTTP, XMPP, DDS, Modbus and more.
  • Dassault Systèmes Netvibes: Samsung SAMI and HTTP API with OAuth Support
  • AWS IoT: HTTP, WebSockets and MQTT
  • Microsoft Azure: HTTPS, MQTT  and AMQP
  • Cisco’s Jasper: GSM and 3GPP for networking and Internet Standards like Web Services and RESTful APIs for SaaS
  • TheThings.iO: HTTP/HTTPS, MQTT and MQTT-S, CoAP, Websockets, Modbus, UDP and TCP

8. What IoT Devices Can Be Controlled? Is This More IoT or IIoT?

A list of compatible protocols will tell you which of your devices an IoT platform is compatible with. However, asking the vendor directly for a list of compatible devices is useful.

By looking at the vendor’s list of compatible connected devices, you can see where the IoT platform really specializes: Consumer IoT or the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT).

Engineers who develop products to be used by the IIoT will really want to make sure that the platform has the power and robust functionality to gain the trust of industrial users.

Conversely, those looking to create products for the consumer market will really be looking for an IoT platform that focuses on usability.

Below are the answers of the IoT platform vendors polled:

  • Focus on IoT
    • PTC ThingWorx: Any device on a network connection, third-party cloud or open API. Supports wired, wireless and cellular connections
    • Dassault Systèmes Netvibes: Nest Protect, Nest Thermostat, Withings Smart Scale, Netatmo Weather Station, Parrot Flower Power, Samsung SAMI, WeMo Switch, with more devices to come
    • TheThings.iO: Any device with an IP
  • Focus on IIoT
    • Autodesk SeeControl: Any device with an IP with focus on smart, connected industrial products
    • Microsoft Azure: Business-to-consumer and business-to-business IoT devices. 30 tested and verified partner devices and operating systems
    • Cisco’s Jasper: IoT and IIoT devices on the GSM and 3DPP networks
  • Focus unknown
    • AWS IoT: No information available

9. Which Cloud Storage Options Are Available for My IoT Data?

When it comes to large data storage, there are typically three options: in-house, open-sourced and vendor-operated.

“There are challenges with big data information storage,” warned Didier. “Cloud is more mature than IoT but it’s still new.”

Since the cloud storage industry is new, some organizations might find the proposition of storing data off-site to be risky. In these cases, the cloud storage compatibility of an IoT platform can be a make-or-break question.

A slight majority of the IoT platform providers polled mentioned that they are able to transfer data to any cloud option, whereas a few IoT platform providers offered their own cloud service option such as AWS, Dassault Systèmes, Microsoft Azure and Autodesk. Many of these cloud providers will even have the ability to offer an on-premise cloud.

“Nowadays there are several cloud storage options,” said Marc Pous, CEO of TheThings.iO. “We’ve met companies that make everything from scratch, others that are deploying open-source projects and finally other companies who prefer to rely on companies like us who can take care of everything. The options depend on the needs and the budget of the company. Actually there are IoT platforms that work with consultancy companies; others like ours are a System as a Service (SaaS). It depends on the model that you want to work with.”

However, organizations should also be aware of hybrid options. Jasper technologies, for instance, offers a cloud system that will store your meta-data. The data actually collected by the devices can be stored in either a public, private or on-premise cloud.

Additionally, ask the IoT provider if you can decline to have them store your meta-data if this is against your company policy. Otherwise, this stored meta-data might serve as a great method to back up the meta-data that will help to track the performance of your IoT system.

Users should also note that when an organization is looking for a cloud option there are other important questions to ask. For instance, Didier suggested the following:

  • “Do they provide disaster recovery or security?
  • “How do you guarantee someone didn’t get your information?”
  • “Can you supply data presence based on government restrictions? Where does the data reside and where is it transported?”

10. Ask IoT Platform Vendors About Licensing for You and Your Customers

If there is one thing that differs drastically from IoT platform to IoT platform, it is how they license their technology. This shouldn’t be surprising for a budding industry that is just learning how to monetize their offerings. Expect a lot of change and a lot of variety.

We gathered actual pricing from selected IoT platform providers. Here is a brief description of the licensing models available:

  • Charging a base fee and an added cost on a per-device basis (PTC ThingWorx and TheThings.iO)
  • Charging based on the cloud usage (Autodesk SeeControl)
  • Freemium licensing model which unlocks functionality for those that pay an annual fee (Dassault Systèmes: Netvibes)
  • Charging users on a per-million-messages basis (AWS IoT)
  • Charging a fee for the cloud usage and additional monthly charges based on messages volume per day (Microsoft Azure)
  • Having operating partners set the fee (Cisco: Jasper)

The different billing options make it difficult to compare apples to oranges when pricing out your IoT platform.

Users may also consider how the IoT platform can help monetize your own IoT products. Will the IoT platform help customize your customer billing? In the case of Cisco’s Jasper IoT Service Platform, the answer is yes.

“Control Center’s flexible billing and rating engine ensures business models as diverse as connected car and smart meter services are addressed,” said Sanjay Khatri, director of product marketing at Jasper. “These are attributes that also help the mobile operators achieve greater profitability with IoT services, with lower operational overhead driven by enterprise self-support and flexibility on how network services are utilized and monetized.”

Dig Deeper in your Search for an IoT Platform

These 10 questions are not the only ones you will need to ask vendors when selecting an IoT platform. However, these questions should help you get to a short-list quickly.

From there, dive deeper into the IoT platform capabilities to see which one is really right for your organization.

To help narrow down the selection of an IoT platform, see how some IoT platform vendors answered these questions in this e-Book.

To see more news and information about IoT platforms see more from the IoT section on ENGINEERING.com and follow our IoT twitter: @ENGcom_IoT.

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