If you are involved with operations technology (OT), you know it’s time to consider a modern IoT platform. But how do you pick the right platform to support your company’s digitization and transformation plans? In my conversations with OT folks, it often takes a bit more discussion to zero in on just what we are talking about before we can get to the strategic considerations. The problem is, there are at least five common interpretations for “IoT platform.” When it comes to IoT platforms, it can be difficult to cut through the market noise. It’s clear that together with machine learning and artificial intelligence, modern cloud-based application development and runtime platforms are changing the industrial software marketplace. But making sense of the emerging platforms market is no easy task.
At ARC, we have identified the following types of platforms commonly referred to as “IoT Platforms”: IoT device level connectivity platforms; cloud infrastructure platforms; cloud application platforms with IoT functionality; analytics platforms; and software solution portfolios. Provider marketing and positioning for these offerings tends to all sound the same, and the messaging overlaps to a significant degree. Let’s take a quick tour of these IoT platforms:
IoT device level connectivity platforms
IIoT Device Level Platforms provide connectivity to edge devices and systems. These platforms also typically provide tools for managing devices as well as developing and deploying applications on devices and in the cloud. They provide context for connected data and may offer modeling, visualization, and certain analytics tools. These platforms are often complemented by a cloud application platform, so cloud-to-cloud integration capabilities as well as enterprise integration tools are often included.
Cloud infrastructure platforms
Companies such as Microsoft and Amazon provide IaaS cloud platforms for all industries, including the industrial, infrastructure, and smart cities sectors. They also offer a wide array of tools and microservices that support analytics, connectivity, data handling and storage, analytics, and more.
Cloud application platforms with IoT functionality
The Application Platform w/IoT Services is fundamentally a cloud application platform, a Platform as a Service (PaaS). It may be built on the open source Cloud Foundry platform, or on a proprietary platform such as Microsoft Azure or Amazon Web Services. The platform is an application development and runtime environment. As such, it may be used for IoT or any other applications. Software is built as micro-services. Basic microservices can be assembled into more complex compound microservices or complete applications. The platform vendor creates commercial applications here and may permit third parties or customers to also build and deploy apps on the platform. A robust application ecosystem is a competitive advantage.
The cloud Application Platform comes with a Core set of (micro) services and development tools that can be used to build applications. A set of Analytics and Data services, together with IoT/Edge services, rounds out the basic requirements for the IoT platform. In addition, some vendors may incorporate third-party or partner services as part of their platform offering.
Another common type of IoT platform is a platform for advanced analytics. Until recently, analytics and business intelligence platforms have been thought of as an engine and toolset for use by data scientists. Companies typically deployed these applications at the business level. Most were expensive, monolithic, and arcane; placing them out of reach for decision support for the typical business manager. But in recent years, things have changed dramatically. Advanced analytics and machine learning tools are typically available as services in cloud application platforms. They are often provided by the platform supplier, but may also be supplied by a third party. Advanced analytics solutions, particularly those that use machine learning to predict asset failure, are becoming widely available in industrial markets. Asset failure prediction can be based on condition monitoring or can be part of a more complex asset performance management (APM) solution.
Software solution portfolios
Several suppliers build their IoT solutions on Microsoft Azure. Others use Amazon AWS or other platforms. These suppliers also use the term, “platform,” for their software offering, but have not positioned themselves as application platform providers. Instead, they position themselves as automation and application experts in selected industrial, infrastructure, and smart cities spaces that now have cloud-based solutions. (“Automation Solution Expert with a Cloud-based IoT.”) The underlying IaaS/PaaS provider (Microsoft Azure, Amazon AWS, Google Cloud Platform) may become the base platform for other applications.
When thinking about IoT platform alternatives, it is important to consider how your operation will want to leverage the platform. Do you expect to build apps yourself? Is it important to have an app marketplace offering third-party apps and microservices available to you? Do you prefer to have a single supplier provide most of the needed functionality?
In addition to these considerations, pay special attention to the included or available machine learning/cognitive computing/artificial intelligence capabilities and how they match your needs. This can be a critical differentiator. Also consider carefully whether you will need a second device-level platform to support your applications, or whether other means of edge connectivity will suffice. Let your desired business process transformation plans guide the choice of platforms.