As the Internet of Things (IoT) continues to mature and starts to gain traction across most vertical and regional markets, the role of the IoT platform is sharply in the spotlight. IoT platforms are a means by which organisations can manage the complexities of IoT deployments, simplify their operations and accelerate time to market. Cyril Hullin, the vice president of product marketing at Sierra Wireless, tells Robin Duke-Woolley, the chief executive and founder of Beecham Research, that the platform approach is well understood but the variety of choices now available mean organisations need to choose their platforms with care to ensure they are the best suited to their needs.
Robin Duke-Woolley: What are your thoughts about the IoT market and the stage it has reached today?
Cyril Hullin: It is really now that IoT starts to be pervasive in all industries. Now everybody understands IoT will have an impact in many industries, if not all of them, and that it will change the business and operational models.
The market has undergone many initial trials, which is good, and it is now in a maturing phase. However, some players are learning the hard way that things might be a bit more complex than they were expecting. It is being proven that in many cases it is more difficult to achieve the efficiency levels and expected benefits, such as the desired return on investment. Many players are discovering it is more complex to achieve the right level of agility and come up with technically viable solutions and applications.
And there are many reasons for that; in some cases, it has to do with lack of real control of the total cost of ownership (TCO) of solutions users have launched, or the many efforts involved in assembling a technical solution that is not focused enough on the business application which is crucial to deliver the benefits of the connected devices. Quite often, the focus on getting the devices connected and working is given a higher emphasis than the application side.
Many people who want to deploy IoT have lots of questions and clarifications they are seeking answers to. Most of these revolve around the ways to connect the devices in the most efficient way. For example, what are low power wide area networks (LPWANs) and what is the unlicensed LPWA? What is CAT-M or narrowband-IoT (NBIoT)? What do each of these mean to me, for example in a roaming context?
We in the industry collectively have a role to educate the market, inform about the realities of IoT, help things move faster and help the ecosystem reach its maturity.
RD-W: What about the maturity that your customers at Sierra Wireless have reached with IoT?
CH: Without a doubt, things have evolved significantly. Compared to the situation just a year ago, among our customers there is a growing need for hybrid solutions. Customers want to deploy both low data and high data rate IoT applications, not just one of these, so the spectrum of their needs is wider now.
RD-W: Can you give some examples of this?
CH: Take Ingenico, which has been deploying IoT for payment terminals for many years now. That same customer now has more needs than simply connecting point of sale (POS) terminals. They want applications that are richer in data, for purposes such as advertising.
In the utilities space, countries that started with smart metering around 15 years ago are now launching their second wave of smart metering. This involves moving from smart metering applications of a few kilobytes per month to hundreds of megabytes per month.
In the automotive space, where Sierra Wireless is very strong, we are seeing a very fast-moving ecosystem. In the past, the industry just required low data telematics and basic applications like eCall. Now there is a strong trend towards consumer electric vehicles. This requires onboard telematics, the need for firmware to receive regular updates, and entertainment applications. In addition, there are various regulations to comply with. All these require increasingly advanced IoT deployments.
RD-W: How do you see Sierra Wireless’ role in the IoT market developing?
CH: Sierra Wireless is an IoT pioneer. Historically we had a vision for horizontal solutions, through platforms and through connectivity offerings. Sierra Wireless has a services business unit among our units which include the hardware business that is responsible for offering routers/gateways and connectivity modules. Sierra Wireless is particularly focused on original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) that operate in a number of verticals: we provide them with the necessary toolbox to build their vertical solutions. In the services business unit, through our recent acquisition of Numerex, Sierra Wireless provides pre-built managed asset tracking solutions for a wide variety of different use cases.
Through Numerex we have a strong presence in specific verticals, such as security and alarm communications, in asset tracking and in tank monitoring. In each vertical, we offer a set of hardware devices and all the necessary platformbased solutions to address customers’ needs.
RD-W: IoT platforms have come to be a large area of the market and there are multiple players. How is AirVantage, Sierra Wireless’ IoT platform offering, different?
CH: Sierra Wireless offers a cloud-based IoT platform under the name AirVantage. AirVantage enables enterprises to deploy and manage global wireless IoT services for monitoring asset shipments using a single pane of glass, meaning one screen to access data for all connected devices.
The background of AirVantage is in device management. In the very beginning, we wanted to develop a platform that would handle all devices, monitor their state and health, making sure the firmware and software running in these works well. Later, AirVantage evolved to include managing the connectivity of devices, assigning and managing SIMs in them, and offering services such as troubleshooting, maximising the quality of service (QoS) (with various technical key performance indicators (KPIs) and catering for smart SIM deployment. It is also important to mention that with AirVantage, we are providing a homogeneous and unified user interface (UI) to end-users, which allows them to customise their application rules and introduce new application capabilities.
There is also our Ready-to-Connect proposition, which embeds a Smart SIM profile based on the embedded SIM/embedded universal integrated circuit card (eSIM/eUICC) specification into cellular modules and gateways. These are then managed through AirVantage. This means that the customer, instead of using AirVantage to order SIMs and activate SIMs subscriptions, can be offered gateways and cellular modules with preembedding eSIMs in a subscription model. These items can be automatically paired to the device at the factory level and the customer can then activate the device and the SIM to monitor it as a system within the AirVantage interface.
RD-W: Which types of customer and vertical markets does AirVantage address?
CH: AirVantage addresses many different market verticals and types of customer. For example particularly in the North America region, for the security and alarms applications, AirVantage is primarily used by municipalities and judicial authorities, which deploy their own hardware and have dedicated technical teams. This is a very precise route to market for us. For other types of customers such as manufacturers and integrators of alarm systems, we sell through reseller channels. In the tank monitoring area, Sierra Wireless directly addresses end users like oil and petroleum companies and other chemicals distribution companies, which own and manage fleets of trucks and which install tanks in business and residential properties. We have a direct relationship with all these specialist players. Asset tracking is for us the broadest area due to the great diversity of customers. The applications extend from fleet management to cold chain monitoring. We address these areas both directly and indirectly, making sure we invest enough resources. We offer packaged solutions that include hardware and platform components that fit the customers’ specific needs.
RD-W: The IoT platforms market is currently very crowded. What is the unique advantage that AirVantage has to offer in the market? What are the key competitive advantages of your platform?
CH: The platforms market is indeed very crowded. Platform solutions can be complicated for users, resulting in them having challenges monetising their applications. With AirVantage, the key differentiator is that it is very homogeneous and coherent, offering a broad set of application programme interfaces (APIs) that allow users to handle many dimensions of the customers’ needs through an easy to use interface. AirVantage significantly shortens the development cycle and the time to market for its users compared with other competing solutions.
RD-W: Does the customer have to have Sierra Wireless only devices to use AirVantage?
CH: No, and this is an important point. Many customers will have a legacy with other cellular modules. The Sierra Wireless platform-based device management solution is flexible and adaptable, quite suitable for customers who have had a life before Sierra. We have been getting very positive feedback from customers, especially since we reshaped our selling model about a year ago. We made it simpler and easier to understand: bundled hardware with connectivity, all the necessary documentation for customers to develop applications, continuous support through integration and a consulting service if needed.
RD-W: What is the role of partnerships in IoT in general and in Sierra Wireless’ business in particular?
CH: Partnerships are very important in IoT and for us, partnerships in the area of professional services have helped us a lot in delivering good results to customers that require complex integration within their solutions. For this purpose, we have an ongoing partnership with companies such as PwC for consulting and technical integration purposes. We have worked with other players in order to pre-integrate their offerings in AirVantage and enable us to respond to customer needs. For example, AirVantage can be pre-integrated with all major public clouds, such as Microsoft Azure, Amazon AWS, SAP Hana and IBM Watson. In that way, if a customer has their ERP system in Azure, then automatically we adjust their settings and all data is inserted in this third party cloud, preinstalled and pre-integrated.
RD-W: What are the next steps for AirVantage and for Sierra Wireless?
CH: We are continuously developing AirVantage features and capabilities. Among the important factors for us is the increasing value of data and the need to be able to process device data at the network edge. We are improving our platform offering in that direction, which we think is increasingly important for IoT applications, particularly those using LPWAN connectivity.
We are also committed to an ambitious roadmap with regards to the market verticals we address. Our big focus is in asset tracking, where we are moving very fast in developing a set of tracking devices that fit well with an ecosystem of applications based on our platform. Sierra Wireless’ asset tracking solution combines smart devices and diverse networks to wirelessly track, monitor and manage a variety of high value assets.
We are also advancing our Smart SIM proposition and our role as a full mobile virtual network operator (MVNO). We plan to expand our core network from Europe and US to Africa, Latin America and the APAC region. Today we are deploying smart SIM in more than 120 countries. We are very satisfied with the coverage we have achieved with smart SIM. This product is also based on patented technology that allows for great flexibility and the delivery or really high QoS when it comes to selecting the most appropriate network automatically.