David Murphy discusses the complexity of the IoT connectivity space with Russ Green, GM technology and interconnect products at SAP Digital Interconnect.
It’s no exaggeration to say that the Internet of Things has the potential to revolutionise our daily lives over the next few years. Depending whose estimates you trust, there are forecast to be anything between 10bn and 30bn connected devices by 2020.
The devices in question are as wide and varied as the use cases for the IoT. We’re probably all familiar with the concept of the connected car or the connected fridge, but there are many other examples, all of which will benefit from becoming connected.
At one end of the spectrum are things like self-monitoring litter bins, which tell the council when they need emptying to avoid overflowing rubbish and the inefficiency of sending a crew to empty a bin that is less than half full; or a parcel drop-off box that transmits a signal back to the delivery company to let it know that it has parcels ready for collection and delivery. These are low-touch, only requiring small amounts of data to update their status
a few times a day.
At the other end of the spectrum are more data-intensive examples. Sophisticated items of equipment used in the construction trade, such as heavy-duty drills, are self-monitoring to tell the manufacturer or equipment owner (i.e. the construction company) how many holes they have drilled, so that an (expensive) maintenance team can be sent to site to carry out routine maintenance only when the appropriate threshold has been reached. This, along with predictive maintenance, helps keep equipment and assets functioning, reducing costly breakdowns and repairs, and the losses and delays that inevitably ensue. Apps can also be used to monitor equipment location to deter theft or misuse.
These use cases are enabling the companies making this type of kit to develop new business models in which, instead of charging by the day or the week, they can charge by outcome – when a given number of holes have been drilled, for example.
The connectivity layer
The IoT industry is built on four layers. From the top down, there is an analytics layer that receives feedback from a device to understand how it is being used, where it Is being used or when something has gone wrong. Below that is a data management layer to process this data. Below that, a device management layer to control the devices. And at the bottom, underpinning everything, a connectivity layer, arguably the most important, and the most volatile, with standards still in a state of flux and evolution.
SAP Digital Interconnect, formerly SAP Mobile Services, is attempting to remove the uncertainty from this connectivity layer, drawing on its vast experience and a secure and reliable messaging network, and working with more than 1,000 operators around the world, many of whom are now looking to become players in the IoT connectivity space.
“Enterprises can’t ignore the IoT space, but they face a number of challenges when they seek to enter it,” says Russ Green, GM technology and Interconnect products at SAP Digital Interconnect. “First, are they able to scale their IoT solution, to be able to deal with hundreds, thousands or millions of devices if need be, while keeping control of costs? Second, are they ready for the complexity that comes with IoT and managing these different connections and operator relationships? And third, are they able to integrate the connectivity and other capabilities they need to access into their back-end systems through RESTful APIs, so they are not spending half their working day on the phone to the mobile operator, troubleshooting problems?”
These are the issues that SAP Digital Interconnect aims to address through its platform and product, SAP IoT Connect 365, which will be fully GDPR-compliant. The company has been helping enterprises deal with mobile operator fragmentation for the past 10 years, providing connections between the world’s mobile networks to enable enterprises to operate globally, without worrying about this complexity, fragmentation and interoperability, and with one eye on the data and privacy regulations in different parts of the world to keep them on the right side of the law.
Navigating the IoT space
For most of that time, the focus has been on messaging, initially SMS, more recently on the myriad messaging channels available to enterprises and consumers, from WhatsApp to Facebook Messenger, WeChat et al. Now, with most of these same mobile operators clamouring for IoT business and the data tariffs that come with it, the company is helping its enterprise customers – more than 400,000 at last count – to navigate what can be something of a minefield. It’s doing so via an IT transport layer that moves data from sensors and devices to a cloud platform, effectively aggregating the world’s mobile networks to create one huge, virtual network for enterprises to tap into.
“The IoT space is complex in terms of the number of components involved, and as enterprises try to get to grips with it and the value it can bring, they are finding that they need skills and expertise that are a long way away from their core business,” says Green. “Take the company making the construction equipment: for their IoT vision to become a reality, they now need to understand what it means to work with mobile operators, to understand what technologies they use and how to integrate with them, and then to think about coverage and cost. We know from our own research that enterprises are hugely concerned about these issues. For example, 85 per cent of respondents to a survey we conducted said that they were concerned about the security of connected devices and the data that is generated in IoT ecosystems. We see our role as to take these headaches away from them.”
An agnostic approach
As a simple example, Green cites an enterprise that needs a cellular IoT contract to remotely monitor equipment in the UK, so it strikes a deal with one of the UK carriers. What happens, he asks, if they have equipment in parts of the country where that carrier has a poor signal or no signal at all?
“There are many solutions available, not just from the mobile operators, but from other companies that have stepped into the space, such as Sigfox and the LoRa Alliance,” says Green. “We take an agnostic approach, which sees us work with the best provider wherever the enterprise needs a solution. So in that previous example, we might use one carrier where they are strong and another where they are not. We try to shield the enterprises from all this complexity, so they don’t have to worry about who is providing the back-end radio access network. We can only do this because of the relationships we have established with more than 1,000 mobile operators across the globe over the past decade.
“We also run a transparent business model, with no minimum commitment. Our clients pay for what they use, sharing one plan across all devices. The operators might be more interested in the more data-intensive use cases, but to us, it makes no difference.”
This approach also avoids the issue of lock-in with any one provider. “Once you have chosen an operator and something changes, maybe it becomes too expensive, or the operator does not have the next version of the technology you need, once you are locked in to that contract, it’s extremely difficult to get out of it,” says Green. “This is a big issue in a space that is still evolving, where the enterprise interface into IoT is not standardised, and where operators, to be frank, are not terribly user-friendly in terms of working with enterprises on programming interfaces and integrations with back-end systems. We take care of this.”
SAP Digital Interconnect provides its clients with a neutral SIM card for each device. This is provisioned over the air to best suit the customer’s needs, the device’s location and usage, and mobile operator environments. It can also be changed at any time over the air, so the customer can enable the connection to test the device, disable it while the device ships, then re-enable it when it arrives on site. It can also, for example, stop a device from roaming when it shouldn’t be, and prevent the use of the SIM were someone to move it from its intended device to an unauthorised one, such as to their iPad to stream Netflix movies.
“All of this is available through a RESTful API, programmable through a back-end system, a mobile app, any environment you like. So it means we can integrate with any back-end system,” says Green. “And if you can do things through an API, it means you reduce almost to zero the operational cost of humans in the picture.”
In a space as fast-moving as the IoT industry, Green makes a compelling case for working with a partner that can take the complexity out of it.