IoT
07 November 2019

What is an IoT platform?

A real control tower, an IoT platform allows you to control a fleet of connected objects on a granular level. Before choosing the type of IoT platform best suited to your needs, it is necessary to understand how the infrastructure

A real control tower, an IoT platform allows you to control a fleet of connected objects on a granular level.

Before choosing the type of IoT platform best suited to your needs, it is necessary to understand how the infrastructure that connects the devices and their data to the networks works.

 


What is an IoT platform for?


In its simplest form, an IoT platform is the element that centralises the communications of connected objects.

The IoT platform can thus be imagined as a control tower that connects a fleet of thousands of objects scattered around the world.

 

The specificity of IoT platforms

 

IoT platforms are cloud solutions capable of interfacing with communicating devices.

Such a platform is usually composed of a set of IoT application software distributed on a set of servers, coupled with generic pre-existing components (database and message routers).

This set exposes, on the one hand, interfaces dedicated to the communication with the connected objects and, on the other hand, graphical user interfaces (web) and programmatic interfaces (API) dedicated to third-party systems.

 

The challenge of communication protocols

The specificity of IoT platforms lies in their ability to interface with communicating equipment. We have just seen this.

Let’s go further.

Communication between objects involves the use of protocols.

There are a multitude of protocols with different dialogues, each with its own use cases and operational constraints, such as the internet protocols MQTT or HTTP, or radio technologies such as LoRa or Sigfox.

 

One platform for two function areas

Two main areas of functions can be fulfilled by an IoT platform:

  • The so-called “business” functions, which are specific to the solution’s final use cases;
  • Technical functions, forming a “toolbox” for fleet managers and technicians, enabling them to ensure that all the components of the solution – from connected objects to the cloud – are working properly and to remotely control the fleet of connected equipment.

 

Business functions

The business functions are specific to each project context and cover specific uses and needs, linked to the exercise of a business. They are the reason why the connected solution is implemented.

In most cases, these functions are based on the collection and processing of information measured by the equipment deployed in the field. 

For example : 

  • Environmental conditions: temperature, humidity, pressure, luminosity, air quality and presence of chemical compounds ;
  • The operation of existing machines. Namely, vibrations, wear and tear, consumption of industrial tools, vehicles and networks (flow rates, pressure/voltage in gas/liquid distribution networks, electricity, etc.);
  • Measurement of human activity/traffic: detection of presence, counting of people/vehicles.

 

The information collected is then used in real-time.

For instance, to detect with low latency the occurrence of a failure and immediately notify operators.

On the other hand, this data can be accumulated and processed en masse for more statistical analysis (e.g. global performance reporting of a complex system; behaviour modelling via machine learning/IA).

Less often, business functions rely on the remote activation of systems:

  • Opening/closing of doors, gates etc.
  • Control of industrial machines (cadences, programmes)
  • Displaying messages/notifications to users
  • Control of valves/relays in distribution networks.

 

The technical functions of an IoT platform


By bringing a connected function to objects, it becomes necessary to ensure that this new communicating dimension works properly.

This is what we mean by “technical functions”.

The technical functions will therefore concern the “basic” operations common to all IoT platforms and specific to connectivity.

In order to guarantee the proper functioning of the fleet of devices, the IoT platform must be able to monitor the status of each device to ensure data feedback. In addition, it can also carry out the operations necessary for the smooth functioning of the objects connected to it.

The technical role of the IoT platform may be as follows:

  • To monitor the communication status of each piece of equipment to detect abnormal behaviour (e.g. loss of signal, too frequent feedback, etc.) which may be an indicator of a network problem (loss of coverage, operator failure), hardware (electronic failure, power supply problem) or software (bug, incorrect configuration);
  • To monitor battery levels for autonomous objects and plan on-site battery replacement/recharge interventions
  • To detect hacking attempts;
  • To monitor the consumption of data/network resources of the object pool to optimise subscriptions to network operators;
  • To carry out software update campaigns for objects, to correct bugs or introduce new functions;
  • To allow detailed diagnosis of the state or even remote control of equipment to help explain and correct abnormal behaviour;
  • To allow the registration of new equipment to be added to the existing fleet and the decommissioning of active equipment.

 

 

The example of water and energy suppliers

To make these 2 families of IoT platform functions more concrete, here is a practical example.

Before the arrival of IoT platforms, GDF was forced to send technicians on-site to find a malfunction in the gas network. Having connected measurement equipment now allows them to monitor the gas distribution network remotely.

In this case, the business functions are: detecting gas leaks from the measurements provided by the sensors, while the IoT-related monitoring consists of ensuring that all the sensors are in proper working order.

 

Which IoT platform to choose?


Now that you are familiar with the use of an IoT platform, it’s time to make your selection from the solutions available.

The term IoT platform covers a variety of technical solutions. In fact, this sector is so new that each player offers a unique solution, with its own approach.

Here are the different approaches you may encounter and the associated risks/limitations that we advise you to check before making your choice:

 

Hardware specialists

The designers of connected objects such as gateways who sell them in series have a very hardware-oriented approach.

What is the risk of this approach? 

They are not very focused on business functions and sometimes not very open to competing hardware. Therefore, sometimes their IoT platforms can only communicate with their own equipment, which limits their functions.

 

Network operators

Network players often design IoT platforms using specific communication protocols.

What is the limit of this solution? 

The risk is to end up with limited communication. And thus exclude objects that work with other communication protocols.

Sigfox is a good example illustrating this limitation. It is a platform that does not allow communication with objects using other protocols.

To know which platform to choose for your project, read our IoT platform comparison.

 

The big players in the cloud and hosting


Infrastructures such as Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure, Samsung Artik, Google Cloud Platform, IBM Watson IoT or OVH have the advantage of not being tied to a particular network or hardware. It is therefore in their interest to choose relatively open or standard protocols to reach the maximum number of customers. They are the most present and also the most influential players: by forming partnerships with hardware manufacturers, they make themselves indispensable.

As a matter of fact, even if you don’t choose their IoT platform, it often happens that the chosen solution is installed by these cloud providers, who also tend to keep prices down.

 

Business specialists


As their name suggests, these players offer solutions tailored to a particular business.

For example, companies specialising in building management know how to manage air conditioning, heating and lighting systems. With the rise of the IoT, their management platforms have naturally evolved into IoT platforms.

There are many such platforms: agriculture, logistics, cold chain, health, to name a few.

 

Integrators (like Rtone)

Finally, players such as Rtone, or other integrators, know how to develop specific customised solutions.

The IoT platform is then architected on the basis of your business needs while benefiting from the reuse of principles or modules proven on previous projects.

The Rtone approach has the following advantages

  • Not being limited to a specific device – we integrate with existing equipment as well as with custom hardware designed specifically for your project;
  • Open to any network or radio technology;
  • To be fully adapted to your business domain and your own constraints.

This is what we have thought of with the Rtower solution – a solution that is both standardised, scalable and free.

 

As you have seen in this article, the IoT platform solutions available on the market cover very different realities. It’s will not be suitable for all projects.

The choice of your IoT platform, therefore, depends on your project, your connected objects and your uses. 

To get a clear view of all these offers, we advise that you rely on the expertise of a connected solutions developer experienced in Cloud solutions. 

If you would like to discuss this, please contact us.

 

by Charly Hamy, CTO Cloud & Mobile

 

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