Interoperability: The Secret to a Scalable IoT Network
IoT is an ecosystem game. No single technology in the market can deliver a complete, end-to-end IoT solution on its own. From connectivity, sensors and gateways to the cloud and application systems, an IoT architecture is composed of various components working in concert with each other. While ensuring a seamless data flow along the IoT value chain is critical, it is only half of the battle.
Today’s exploding number of IoT vendors has turned the IoT ecosystem into a highly complex landscape. To address multiple applications and challenges, an IoT infrastructure often needs to incorporate cross-domain hardware and application systems. Likewise, it must be flexible enough to effectively integrate future devices that may come with different hardware models. Beyond vertical integration within a specific industry or application, the diverse nature of the digital ecosystem means that horizontal interoperability between different devices and systems will also be critical to the success of a scalable IoT network.
A Lack of IoT Interoperability
Despite its utmost importance, IoT interoperability for many vendors is still a goal to work towards. A large number of existing IoT solutions are proprietary and designed to operate only within a pre-defined hardware or infrastructure environment. Examples include protocols tied to vendor-specific chipsets or wireless connectivity bound to a single third-party managed backend. The lack of IoT interoperability means that data can’t be effectively exchanged across disparate, sometimes overlapping devices and systems.
From the IoT adopters’ perspective, these closed ecosystems, or better named as silos, pose multiple problems. They hamper effective integration of new IoT devices and solutions that can tackle a wider range of operational issues. Supporting heterogeneous IoT infrastructures for different applications can quickly inflate costs and complexity beyond what companies can handle.
Vendor lock-in also deprives users of control over their data, network uptime and infrastructure management, while preventing them from switching to more cost-effective hardware options in the future. Technical instability is another potential issue, given the inherent risk that the vendor fails to deliver the agreed services and product functionality. This results in impaired Quality-of-Service and network scalability or even security holes.
Designing an IoT Architecture for Interoperability
The best way to circumvent these challenges is to prepare your IoT networks for interoperability from the start. Despite today’s highly fragmented IoT landscape, here are three rules of thumb for IoT connectivity that will help navigate your network design.
1. Open, Industry Standards
Solutions incorporating proven standards are built upon an open, universal framework recognized by Standard Development Organizations (SDO). Besides assured Quality-of-Service, open standards foster global transparency and consistency, eliminating incompatible variations in technical design and product development. This fuels worldwide adoption, cross-vendor support and interoperability in the long run. Adopting standard-based protocols, specifically, allows you to benefit from a growing portfolio of compatible off-the-shelf hardware across verticals. You can also avoid the risk of backward incompatibility due to any strategic changes by the proprietary vendor.
2. Software-driven Technologies
In industrial environments, IoT devices often abide by a rigorous set of safety and reliability regulations. Deploying wireless solutions with a hardware-driven approach is challenging in this regard, as you are bound to a certain device type and must depend on the respective vendor(s) to go through the certification process. Software-driven technologies, on the other hand, can be flexibly plugged in any legacy devices and infrastructure that already meet your operational requirements – whether sensors or industry PCs.
3. Open Interfaces
IoT interoperability on the application layer entails effective data transfer to different user’s application systems and servers. Open sourced messaging protocols like MQTT or CoAP and Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) based on RESTful principles are key drivers of cross-application interoperability. In a private network architecture, having these open interfaces natively embedded in the IoT gateway enables direct data transfer to your preferred backend for analytics and visualization, without relying on a third-party managed server.
To wrap it up, interoperability is key to robust and scalable IoT network, and requires particular attention in your architecture design. Leveraging a standard-based, software-driven communication platform with built-in open interfaces allows for easy deployment in legacy environments while ensuring long-term interoperability with cross-vertical hardware and systems.