5 Nov 2018
Cost and System Incompatibility Sees Industry IoT Disconnect Continue
The fear of losing data as legacy systems fail to properly integrate with Internet of Things networks, as well as lingering doubts over return on investment, are still proving bars to the widespread implementation of the connectivity revolution.
While the much-trumpeted Internet of Things (IoT) revolution is clearly under way, it's not necessarily going to run smoothly. Indeed, a surprising number of attendees and exhibitors at this year's California-hosted Internet of Things World – which claims to be the planet's largest IoT event – were concerned that several key issues, including costs, difficult legacy systems and scepticism as to the financial benefits, were still deterring many potential users.
Despite such reservations, many business sectors are clearly embracing the idea of connecting everyday objects to the internet via built-in electronics, enabling remote communication, monitoring and control. Among the first businesses to see the benefits of IoT and commit to the necessary investment have been telecommunications companies (telcos), banks, healthcare providers, e-commerce platforms and logistics players.
One exhibitor with interests in several of these sectors is One Tech, a long-established Dallas-based software company, which has adapted its existing productivity platform to ensure IoT compliancy. Taking stock of the early IoT adopters, Sales Director Cameron Forch said: "Overall, telcos have proven to be the best customers. AT&T was a big user of our existing operating platform, so it was natural for us to partner with them during their IoT migration. In terms of other verticals, there's healthcare, there's finance, there's insurance, there's manufacturing and there's supply chain."
In the case of Minnesota-based NimbeLink, manufacturers of the kind of embedded modems required for IoT connection, its customer base – while overlapping – is slightly different. Outlining where most of the company's business is coming from, Chief Marketing Officer Peter Nilsson said: "We get a lot of work from the agriculture industry, as well as from the construction, transportation, supply chain and logistics sectors. One thing they have in common is that they all want quick, reliable connections – and that's exactly what we provide."
As observed earlier, while some business sectors have been quick to embrace IoT's benefits, others have been far more reluctant to commit. It's an issue that Ontario-based Prolucid, a specialist in systems integration for industrial IoT applications, is only too familiar with.
Highlighting the problem, Systems Integrator Marcus Jacom said: "In general, the industrial sector has been slow to embrace IoT. For many such companies, they want to be 100% sure that it's going to work before they invest, partly because they know that installation is going to require some downtime and then, on top of that, there will also need to be a degree of retraining. There's also the feeling that, if everything is working fine right now, then there's no real point in changing it."
That's not to say that there's no area of manufacturing where IoT is gaining traction. Indeed, Jacom believes that in businesses, where profits can be dramatically enhanced by cutting down on the number of products that fail quality-control tests, there's a compelling argument to switch to an IoT-based system.
Expanding upon this, he said: "What we're finding is that those companies that operate on very tight margins and that need to reduce their number of rejected products are more than willing to invest. If you're manufacturing plastic bottles and you have 10% wastage, then it may not matter. If you're manufacturing cars, it's a very different story and that's the kind of business that can see clear cost benefits in IoT."
Apart from cost concerns, the other big issue for many companies is the challenge of integrating existing IT infrastructure – both hardware and software – with new IoT applications. For many, the possibility of legacy data handling systems being disrupted – or even corrupted – is just too big a risk. Unsurprisingly, a number of exhibitors at the event believed that they had solutions that could assuage all such concerns.
Keen to introduce the benefits of his company's remedy to just such a scenario, Kevin Hubbert, an Account Manager with Californian software provider Grid Gain, said: "We accept that data is sacred and, if it's in a system and it works, why would you want to rip that out? What we do, though, is slide in between your existing database and application layers. This allows you to increase speed, performance and scale with no need to rip and replace.
"In a situation where, say, everybody is looking at their online statement 10 times a day, the initial developers wouldn't have anticipated that load and the system won't have been designed to handle it. By sitting on top of your legacy system, though, we make it faster, more scalable and give it the capacity to handle far higher workloads."
Despite the assurances offered by Grid Gain and a number of other companies, there are some that believe such technical difficulties have sufficed to make IoT a no-go area for many businesses. Looking to capitalise on the sector's perceived problems in this regard was San Francisco-based Helium, with its proudly brandished 'The Internet of Things Has Failed' banner soon becoming a talking point at the event.
Explaining the rationale behind its bold and provocative positioning statement, Dai Gemmel, the company's Head of Product Marketing and Planning, said: "For anyone attempting to initiate an IoT-reliant project, there's just too many choices, with endless options when it comes to hardware, software, wireless connectivity, security authentication… If you're like me, though, you'll just want to attach a sensor to a physical asset, collect data and start analysing. Why would anyone want to have to deal with all this other stuff?
"Then there's the issue of connectivity costs. Many airtime providers, especially the cellular guys, are not focused on devices with a low data requirement. They want to sign up the big-data users that will allow them to make correspondingly big profits. They're into 5G, virtual reality, augmented reality and so on, areas that are the polar opposite of IoT, which is all about small data volumes and lots of connections.
"For our part, we are trying to get around all of these problems by simplifying the way devices connect to the internet. To that end, we have developed a standard platform, which comes with both hardware and software, as well as modules that can be easily attached to sensors, with the modules then connecting to specified gateways. We have made the whole process far simpler and much less intimidating."
While some businesses are still looking for reassurance prior to making the IoT leap of faith, many consumers have proved less wary and have embraced the convenience the technology delivers. This has emboldened a number of manufacturers to introduce IoT upgrades to their existing product ranges.
A prime example of this is Eton, a California-based manufacturer of alternatively powered electronics systems, including hand-cranked radios and solar-powered speakers. In association with the American Red Cross, it also produces the Blackout Buddy, an emergency light and battery unit, which has been one of its first products gifted an IoT upgrade.
Introducing the changes to the unit, Chief Operations Officer John Smith said: "We've had the Blackout Buddy on the market for about 10 years now, but we've only recently added in an IoT-ready motion sensor. We believe that this has really added to its usability.
"Buyers now have the option of saying: "Hey Alexa, it's night time," which would activate the sensor's motion detector function. They could also set it to alert mode just by saying: "Alexa, I'm leaving the house." Not only will it then protect your property, it will also text you if any incident occurs. Ultimately, it's only the user's imagination that limits how it could be used. Thankfully, it's really taken off for us and I see that as a sure sign that IoT is well on course for mainstream acceptance."
Internet of Things World 2018 took place from 14-17 May at the Santa Clara Convention Center in California.
James O'Donnell, Special Correspondent, Santa Clara