Platforms – simplifying the infinitely complex
It’s all too easy for a rapidly emerging technology sector to get caught up in its own particular world. As companies rush to establish their place in what was once just a blank space on the map, aggressively promoting their own particular visions and product strategies, potential customers can become confused by a blizzard of ill-defined buzzwords and marcom hype.
n the IoT community, nowhere is this blizzard blowing thicker and more strongly than in the area loosely known until now as ‘Platforms’. The functions, features and definitions of each company’s particular platform inevitably reflects their own origins and heritage and the decisions that a company made in its early R&D investment cycle, for better or worse, now have to keep up a fast changing world. One company – Telit – has recently stepped away from this semantic muddle and has chosen to brand its latest solution as an IoT Portal instead. To get an insight into how important a single word can be in reflecting a wider strategy of product and service evolution and differentiation, M2M Now’s editor, Alun Lewis sat down with Alon Segal, CTO at Telit IoT Services to talk platforms – sorry – portals…
M2M Now: Alon, there’s a lot of confusion about what exactly an IoT platform is – and what it isn’t. Telit’s new offering – stated as combining connectivity management with application enablement – is interestingly called ‘a portal’. What’s the reasoning behind this choice of words as positioning in the marketplace?
Alon Segal (AS): The communications sector has long had a problem with its vocabulary – it’s what happens when an industry is moving so quickly and many different players, all with slightly different backgrounds, are all targeting the same, as yet, largely still unmapped terrain. There sometimes seems to be a simultaneous mix of fragmentation and conglomeration, with companies trying to work out which features and functions will play best in their markets. The end result is often companies throwing everything – including the proverbial kitchen sink, though it’s obviously connected now and part of the Smart Home – into their sales proposition.
At Telit, we’ve taken a different kind of strategy and one that’s informed by a perspective that’ll be familiar to anyone who was involved in the evolution of the concept of ‘middleware’, back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, driven by companies like IBM and Oracle/BEA. On one hand, you have a set of key building blocks, while on the other, you have the means to ‘glue’ these into place in infinitely flexible ways, with minimal cost and time overheads. It all depends on what particularly you’re trying to achieve with the end system – and you can then also disassemble and recycle them to create new functioning stacks as situations change.
A lot of our competitors have what might be termed a ‘thin’ vision. What we’ve tried to do, building on our historic foundation as a mainly hardware vendor, is redefine the argument, so we see our Portal as providing an umbrella type approach that’s able to do multiple things simultaneously: connect things, manage those things and the data that they produce, and then integrate that distributed infrastructure and information feeds with the wider world of an enterprise’s own business rules, systems and processes. The boundaries of that enterprise’s world, by the way, are also having to become much more porous as much of the value of the IoT will only be realised by working more closely with partners. That involves sharing data and information with third parties appropriately, flexibly and securely – and that in turn means that any platform or portal architecture must be able to act as a springboard to the outside world, just as much as it gathers data from it.
M2M Now: What was Telit hearing from its customers that drove you to adopt this strategy and what specific issues is it designed to address?
AS: While each customer is different in their own ways, one key recurring theme was the need for consolidation. While you’ll find many of the same recurring functions and features are needed by companies looking to exploit M2M and IoT services, how these are mixed and matched can vary hugely between enterprises. It’s very much a Pareto Principle sort of world, familiar to many systems environments where 20% of the functions are used 80% of the time – but what functions make up that 20% can vary greatly and will almost inevitably change over time, especially as a customer changes their own business strategy in response to the potential of the IoT. Being able to guarantee smooth scalability is, for example, a particularly critical aspect during the product and service lifecycle for many enterprises.
Some of our customers spoke to us about how in the past they had ended up having to move from one service provider portal to another to monitor and manage their IoT deployments. This not only led to a waste of valuable management time, but it also meant that errors inevitably crept in, synchronising services and client and account relationships was over complex and the friction involved in moving between and coordinating silos slowed any innovation to a crawl.
With our IoT Portal, it’s now possible to aggregate multiple connected device platforms – both from our own portfolio as well as from other Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) or MVNOs (Mobile INTERVIEW The communications sector has long had a problem with its vocabulary – it’s what happens when an industry is moving so quickly and many different players, all with slightly different backgrounds, are all targeting the same, as yet, largely still unmapped terrain Virtual Network Operators – with our web-based account management tools providing all the functions you need.
That philosophy is also why we designed the Telit IoT Portal as a single-sourced solution for end-toend platform services that’s capable of working in the kind of complex multi-point deployments that are now occurring across a wide range of markets and regions. It’s powered by our deviceWISE IoT platform – you can’t get away from using that term, however much you try – and enables you to connect, integrate and manage with visibility, control, interoperability and intelligent across an entire global IoT value chain. In contrast to most other ‘solutions’, Telit’s single portal management environment – offers ‘a la carte’ services that can be selected and configured to suit a customer’s particular needs. Clearly the adoption/use of multiple Telit IoT Portal services allows for tighter integration and that means that it also comes with all the advanced services, resources and tools needed to add even more value and functionality by enabling application control, administration, security, data management, device management, connectivity management and connectivity data planning.
M2M Now: There’s a lot of discussion in the industry about the need for IoT solutions to become much more tightly integrated with other enterprise IT systems, especially as new thinking, new architectures and new services appear on the scene. How have you approached these issues with the Telit IoT Portal?
AS: One particularly important aspect here concerns the recent emergence of Fog computing concepts from out of the Cloud, allowing for the storage and processing of information much closer to the device and the network’s edge than was previously possible. We recognised very early on the huge and multi-faceted benefits this could bring to the IoT environment, triaging data flows, greatly increasing scalability especially in areas where huge numbers of sensors and devices are deployed, such as in Smart Cities. The use of Fog principles also supports true real-time dynamic analysis and applications that could run closer to the interface between the device and the real world – be that a human consumer, a production line or a vehicle. Recent announcements from Telit show how we’re already successfully partnering with Google, SAP and Microsoft to support our customers using their own cloud and fog services for the heavy lifting of analytics. We’ve also made it as easy as possible for our customers to write and run applications over this infrastructure and unleash some of its huge potential, pulling information in to populate dashboards and management information systems and then sharing out actions and insights to individuals, teams and business partners via web and mobile applications. Standards-based APIs simplify working with almost any device module or microprocessor out there, our development kits enable rapid prototyping while higher level tools and interfaces allow for the easy drag-and-drop design and creation of logic flows at the edge.
M2M Now: While we’re busy creating a world in which everything can potentially talk to everything else, there’s obviously the attendant danger of too much openness leading to security failures. The number of high profile data breaches out there seems to be steadily rising each year, leading to the potentially costly erosion of trust in some brands and substantial fines by governments – even IT security specialists themselves don’t seem immune to attack. How does Telit address security issues in the context of your Portal?
AS: Two main thoughts where security is concerned: first and foremost security at Telit is not an afterthought it is ‘baked’ in at all levels – whereas many of the issues plaguing the industry stem from the rush to innovate and get to market and only then try to retrofit security; and, secondly, we’ve always believed that security in depth is the best strategy, adding accumulative layer upon layer, just as it’s always been since mankind first started building his first forts on hilltops with ditches and palisades. If we’re to realise the many benefits of connected workplaces, utilities, cities, homes and vehicles, we have to start the very basic building blocks that make up those systems and build security in from the ‘thing’, through the network, platform and ultimately the solution.
From the earliest design stage possible – it’s vital to protect the code on individual chips from being hacked during their design, when their layouts are being sent to offshore fabrication plants, and then when they’re actually installed.
Following that, you also have to ensure a secure transport layer – whatever the delivery mechanism. Various threats can come here from once again capturing private data and access codes through to initiating Denial of Service (DoS) attacks to overload sites or spoofing traffic to insert erroneous data.
The platform itself must also ensure role based access controls, authentication and authorisation (who can and should be allowed to talk to the ‘thing’), data validation and session management principles as well as auditing and monitoring capabilities – just to name a very few of the functionalities that Telit provides.
Underpinning this is the ability to securely update code and firmware in the field. Due to the often remote or inaccessible nature of IoT deployments and the often vast numbers of devices that will have been deployed, processes that invoke a truck roll and sending a service tech to patch and update are neither viable nor economical. Building a system that is not OTA updatable is like building a bridge to nowhere, so Telit’s device management capabilities ensure that a system’s security features can stay current.
Telit’s comprehensive security ‘toolkit’ is also available to Telit customers – and plays an important aspect in many of the verticals we serve such as security, automotive, healthcare and many others.
M2M Now: The technology environments that IoT platforms are going to be deployed across are of necessity going to be mostly heterogeneous – and easy interoperability demands standards. What’s Telit’s take on current progress in this area?
AS: It’s certainly true that there’s an incredibly diverse set of standards bodies, working groups, consortia, and horizontal and vertical market communities out there – and the number seems to continue growing with new bodies seemingly being formed every few months. While that’s a potentially good thing in that it shows how interest in IoT is now starting to accelerate and reach into previously untouched domains, it also means that companies – both vendors and customers – have to be careful and identify exactly where they’ll get the best return on their investments of time, membership fees and project sponsorships.
That said, you can divide the various industry bodies into what you might call de jure and de facto activities. There are the true standards bodies such as the GSMA, 3GPP, TIA, ITU and IEEE who often have IoT-focused offshoots, ETSI’s creation of oneM2M being a good example – plus other equally powerful bodies that exist in specific vertical markets such as automotive or healthcare, for example. Then, there are also various consortia of varying levels of strategic importance and I’d highlight here organisations like the Industrial Internet Consortium who are focused on sharing best practice amongst their sector members. Telit plays an important role with many of these groups in a range of advisory and contributory ways, helping sometimes to develop standards and other times sharing best practice or alerting communities to important emerging issues.
The ultimate aim of the IoT sector must be to abstract all the underlying complexities involved into simple, secure – yet effective – solutions that fulfil each customer’s specific needs. Those needs might be intensely personal, involving people’s homes, their health or their communities; they might be vital for society and civilisation as in the case of the utilities, public safety or transport; or they could be commercial and industrial.
Whatever the application area, you could possibly describe our aim as being able to deliver a ‘don’t need to know’ principles type of solution – because it just simply works the way that they want it to!