Evaluating and choosing an IoT platform: Look before the leap

The key to smart platform investment is to "look before you leap": Which elements of a platform are essential, and which aren't?

By Matthew J. Perry
January 29, 2016
Railroad switches at at Frankfurt Central Station. Railroad switches at at Frankfurt Central Station. (source: By Arne Hückelheim on Wikimedia Commons)

Businesses preparing to launch IoT platforms must have strategic goals clearly defined in advance. They also must consider the hazards of launching unstable platforms and underdeveloped applications. In this climate, in which so much technology is new and its uses are still being analyzed, it is possible to jump into a solution that creates more problems than it solves. “Look before you leap” is a phrase to remember when assessing the elements of a platform that are essential to competitive differentiation, and which can be left alone.

A thorough review of technology needs and strategies will also help to assess vendors. There are many who simply can’t provide the comprehensive, distinctive services and products your industry might need. Since the track record for even the most experienced platform vendors is only as long as the technology itself, it can be difficult to determine which can be the best partner and technology provider.

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The stakes are high, particularly for companies that depend on IoT technology for growth, funding, and legitimacy. The best defense against failure is a thorough review of what IoT has done for your industry already, and selecting the verticals where it can make the most difference, before a vendor is engaged.

Platforms are complicated, and a great deal of their functionality rests below the application level. Unless a company has reserves of talent that already built out technology stacks, the DIY model is inadvisable in terms of cost: most of the technology stack provides no immediate value-add, and it is expensive. Time and resources are better applied to the identification and development of applications that help the company stand out among the competition and better serve its market.

The following general categories are important jumping-off points for analysis of a company’s IoT platform needs:

  • The scalability of the enterprise. An IoT platform must not just support the needs of today. How many new applications might be added to a company’s product suite? How many devices might plug into the application over time? If an enterprise can expect to grow at a pace comparable to the projected expansion of the IoT, the platform must be sufficiently robust and extensible to support future deployments.

  • The extent of legacy architecture. A great deal of existing IoT connectivity is agnostic, designed to work within a variety of infrastructure systems. There should be a detailed analysis of which legacy elements of a company’s infrastructure are indispensable and which can be phased out over time. The efficiency of an IoT platform solution will depend on how new generations of technology can interlock with the old.

  • How a feedback loop can aid outcomes. An increase in rich data—perhaps an overwhelming increase—is one of the key payoffs of IoT investment. Industries must consider what types of data will make the most difference to performance outcomes, revenue streams, and communication networks. There should be benchmarks in place, projected outcomes that can serve as guidelines for selecting data management systems and the security infrastructure supporting them. Determining where the new data and analysis can make the greatest difference should inform the choices that define the function and reach of the platform.

  • How IoT can affect business-customer interactivity. By extending on- and offline engagement, IoT platforms can strengthen the connection to real-time customer experience. Mapping out standards that will enhance satisfaction and lock in profitability for later generations of products will help developers distinguish which features their platforms should have.

  • Data management strategies. Since the digital universe, like the physical one, is now in a state of constant expansion, data storage is perhaps the most critical tool of all. Buying more storage capacity may seem like an obvious answer, but it’s a shortsighted one. Storing bytes of data at orders of magnitude beyond what is actually needed is expensive, and the storage methods can quickly become unwieldy.

    Industry experts must evaluate priority data streams and determine who will access them and when. If mobile applications are important to the business model and data volume will be high, data providers will have to be built to scale. Hybrid cloud models (a blend of private and third-party services that can promote scalability at lower cost than storing all data in private, more expensive servers) may be a smart option for industries that must store massive amounts of data, not all of which is proprietary.

  • Your own expertise. IoT platform vendors should be able to tell you a great deal about how new technology can develop and how to refine your business models. But however transformative IoT can be to your business practices, it will not transform your industry at large. Intelligent IoT vendors will remind you that no one knows your business better than the team you have in place. Businesses should expect to grow and learn with new technology, not to be replaced by it.

This post is a collaboration between O’Reilly and PTC. See our statement of editorial independence.

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Post topics: Software Engineering