Different organisations require different functionality from IoT platforms in order to operate their services effectively. IoT platforms therefore must be able to operate at a variety of levels in order to satisfy market and end user demands, Mobeen Khan, the associate vice president for IoT Solutions at AT&T, tells Robin Duke-Woolley, the founder and chief executive of Beecham Research
Robin Duke-Woolley: There are an increasing number of IoT platforms in the market. What is AT&T’s place in this market and how do you see your role as different to the many others?
Mobeen Khan: There’s all the stuff about being secure, scalable, highly available and all the things you would expect from a carrier-grade service, but let’s take that as read. We mainly look at platforms in two different ways. Firstly, there are platforms that AT&T has and continues to invest in that allow us to let customers manage their IoT connectivity solutions in the most efficient and advanced way possible. These platforms enable our Global SIM, they enable policy management, SIM management, multinetwork and global connectivity and many other features and we have had those for many years and have been part and parcel of our differentiation in the marketplace. The umbrella for that today is called our AT&T Control Center. All of our customers use these systems either directly through the portal or using application programme interfaces (APIs) to manage their IoT solution connectivity. This is AT&T’s Service Management.
RD-W: Just for clarification on that, can you explain what you mean by policy management?
MK: There are many kinds of policies, procedures and behaviour that you need to capture. For example, let’s say you manufacture a machine in Vietnam and you ship it to Germany and then it gets deployed in Canada. You might set policies that when it’s in Vietnam and on the assembly line being tested running diagnostics these would be a no-charge event. When it’s in Germany, and about to be shipped, the geofence of the warehouse it’s in knows there will be a separate charge billed to XYZ account because it’s not yet been shipped to a customer. Then when it gets activated in Canada, now the billing starts for the customer that bought that machine and activated it. You can pre-programme those procedures as a policy profile in the Control Center in advance so you don’t have to do that every time the machine is shipped, or tested or activated.
RD-W: Is AT&T’s second set of IoT platforms then at a higher level than connectivity?
MK: Yes. The second set of platforms we invest in are those that allow systems integrators and developers to build and deploy in a scalable and reliable way the IoT solutions themselves. This is at the application layer. For example, let’s say you are an IBM Bluemix developer. Your applications run in Bluemix, and your data is saved in Bluemix. You could go into Bluemix, set up an account and go to their IoT page and what you would find is the AT&T Control Center. You could activate the APIs of that Control Center through Bluemix, which allows you to build the end solution and activate devices and all that. And you will find AT&T’s IoT platforms which are called Flow and M2X.
What those allow you to do is basically get data from these IoT devices into an app or into an analytics portal or into the cloud. Why is that important? It sounds simple but getting data from IoT devices is a very complex proposition. It is complex because there are no standards. It’s not like you have Android and iOS and everything knows exactly where to go. There is no procedure there.
There are thousands of variations of operating systems, communication protocols, and chip sets, and the ability to write on top of the device chip set. There are literally thousands of combinations. Developers of these IoT solutions have to become experts in device programming but they spend an inordinate amount of time just getting the data. Not so much what they’re going to do with the data. IoT solutions are all about manipulating the data and making new insights and using it in your processes. But they’re spending too much time just getting the data in the first place. What we are trying to solve with our platform is to get you the data in an easy way so you can start to integrate it into your applications. That’s the second layer of platforms that we focus on.
RD-W: What other activities at this application layer are you supporting?
MK: There are five main elements that we focus on from a technical strategy perspective:
First, we integrate with the device ecosystem. As a carrier, we are close to the device ecosystem because we certify every one of those devices on our network. We know how these devices work and we are embedding those capabilities into our platform on the other side of the devices and in the cloud that will extract the data much more easily than anyone else can. Being a carrier, we know those devices, it’s a competitive advantage for us in the platform space. There are thousands of platforms out there. They all focus on the data layer and what to do once you have the data. We’re fine with that, with that running somewhere in a cloud or even something like Bluemix running that. But that piece of getting the data, that’s really hard. We’re focusing on getting you the data.
Second, if you look at the cloud world and the apps in the app world, you have essentially a half dozen key players in the cloud world, where CIOs have made an edict to say my data and my apps will live in this cloud. What we have done is put together an architecture where if you build that IoT solution within the AT&T platform and Flow, you can deploy that in a cloud of your choice. So again, going back to the Bluemix example, if you start with Bluemix, you enter the Flow platform, build your app and extraction of data you want to run and then deploy it in Bluemix. That is important from a policy perspective for our enterprise customers and to offer them choice.
Third, in our platforms we are promoting both internal AT&T add-on products as well as our third-party partner products. For example, we offer a business messaging solution for our customers. Take the example of a machine deployed. When an alarm comes off the machine you can use a business messaging solution to send a secure message to your technicians to go and fix that machine. That is an IoT solution moving into the realm of an operational solution. We have many products there, so we are exposing those products and APIs of those products in our platform. That makes it easy for a developer to have access and use those in one environment rather than going to many different environments. For example, with IBM again, they can use their IoT Watson nodes – the analytic nodes – right inside our IoT platforms. So, if you are going to collect data from this machine, and you’re going to pass it on to a Watson analytics engine to give you predictive analytics about whether this engine is about to fail, you could do that from within the environment because we are pre-integrated with IBM Watson.
Fourth, this is making sure that the developers have the reference applications and solutions as well as many pre-built components that they can use so they don’t have to start from scratch. So, the inventory we have built of those pre-built applets are examples that make it easy for developers and system integrators to start stacking on top of. They can share those among their teams, and they can share them with the community at large.
The fifth and final part is making sure that the underlying architecture and technology is built on open source, and built as you would expect from a network operator. So it’s highly scalable – you can deploy ten devices or ten million devices – its reliable, secure, high capacity, a high availability environment.
Those are the five key elements of what we are focusing on to build our platforms and platform infrastructure. These relate to the second layer of AT&T’s platforms that is more applications-focused.
RD-W: Is the first platform – the service management platform – based on Cisco Jasper?
MK: Yes, the first platform – the AT&T Control Center – is based on the Cisco Jasper platform and we continue to make additions and integrations to it to make it more valuable. That is a continuous improvement cycle. The second platform – the application platform – has nothing to do with Cisco Jasper. It is an AT&T set of products that we have built and it is based on open source technology.
RD-W: Have you invested more in the second than the first?
MK: We are investing in both but the first one we have a partner and the second one we are building it on our own.
RD-W: As far as customers are concerned, do you bring together those two platforms as one solution, or do you separate them out?
MK: They are separate. The two platforms are separate in the sense that the AT&T Control Center is used by every single customer regardless of how they build the application and whether they use AT&T platforms to build their applications or not. They will use the Control Center to manage their services, which means all of their connectivity. On the other hand, the application level platforms are optional in the sense that a customer can build their application in IBM Bluemix starting from first line of code and do not need to access AT&T’s application layer platforms as part of that. If they do, they have those additional services. On the other hand, the Control Center is something that every customer touches and uses.
RD-W: Does that mean you have separate pricing for the Control Center platform and then Flow and M2M?
MK: Regarding the Control Center, the standard pieces are part and parcel of our connectivity services. You can add other managed services on top of that, which are paid services. The Flow and M2M platforms are an added layer of charge that are based on price per month charges in top of connectivity.
RD-W: Are all platforms available worldwide?
MK: The Control Center is available everywhere. Our customers manage their Global SIMs anywhere in the world from the Control Center. Flow and M2X are available in North America today and we are looking at deployments in Europe and elsewhere.
RD-W: There is maybe a perception in the market that other companies bring the IoT solutions. This strategy that you have outlined indicates that is certainly not the case.
MK: Exactly so. The question we get asked is – what does AT&T bring? The answer is – we play at every layer of the IoT stack, in ways that other companies just do not play. From all the things we’re talking about, from multi-network, to service management and to the software platform, it’s all about our accumulated knowledge. We have been in this market for a long time and understand the complexities of making IoT solutions really work.