Wireless IoT Architecture: 6 Building Blocks Explained
Beyond a simple catchword, the Internet of Things (IoT) is here to stay. According to the latest IoT Survey by PwC, 93% of executives believe IoT’s benefits outweigh its risks, and 70% have ongoing and under development IoT projects. Yet despite its growing prevalence and widely known opportunities, navigating the IoT ecosystem is often simpler said than done. With so many pieces working in concert with each other, enterprises might find themselves struggling to assemble the IoT puzzle.
The truth is, while each IoT system is unique in its combination of chosen solutions, the underpinning components that lay its groundwork are more or less uniform. With a solid understanding of the fundamentals, you can streamline IoT complexity and design your own system in a more efficient way. In this blog, we decode six building blocks of a wireless IoT architecture you should know. These include edge devices, connectivity, network gateways, network and device management, data center/the cloud, and IoT applications.
1. Edge Devices
Edge devices, or the “things”, are where the IoT data chain starts. Quite often, they refer to smart sensors that can automatically pick up information about their surroundings, human vital signs, or conditions of the larger equipment and machine they are embedded in. These sensors vastly vary not only in their sensing functions but also in the sensing technology and the precision level guaranteed.
Newer sensors come with a self-contained and compact design to enable multi-sensing ability and easy installation. Besides the sensing module itself, smart sensors are also integrated with a microcontroller for processing, a wireless transceiver for communications, and most likely a battery unit. In large-scale industrial and commercial deployments that incorporate thousands of devices, long battery life is deemed critical to minimize the cost and complexity of network maintenance.
Acting as the voice of edge devices, the connectivity link is responsible for transporting sensor data to the corresponding IoT gateways/ base stations or, in some cases, directly to the cloud/backend system. The increasing pervasiveness and readiness of wireless communications have been seen as one of the leading factors expediting the IoT revolution. Your connectivity choice largely depends on range, power, throughput, mobility, alongside other important network requirements dictated by the use cases in question and the operating environment of end devices. Beside prevalent cellular, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and mesh solutions, the newcomer Low Power Wide Area Networks (LPWAN) have quickly gained a foothold in the IoT space, due to their unique characteristics for industrial and commercial markets.
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3. Network Gateways/ Base Stations
As a larger number of IoT devices are low-computing, resource-constraint sensors, they lack the ability to communicate directly to a central server and the end application. As such, a network gateway is often deployed as the bridge between edge devices and the upstream IT infrastructure. It aggregates data from numerous, heterogenous endpoints, converts the data into transportable formats and offloads it to the processing server via high throughput backhaul connections like wired Ethernet or WLAN.
Amidst the unabated rise of edge computing, many IoT gateways are now embedded with enhanced functions and analytics capabilities. Beyond wireless signal decoding, newer gateways can filter, pre-process and even analyze data right at the edge to lessen the burden on the core IT infrastructure while minimizing latency and response time in mission-critical scenarios. Note that despite its unique benefits, edge computing is not always a must in an IoT architecture.
4. Network and Device Management
Sitting between the edge network and the data processing layer, the network and device management piece is responsible for device lifecycle management, alongside network maintenance and troubleshooting. While often overlooked, this element is critical to ensure only authorized devices can access your IoT network and impending bottlenecks can be swiftly spotted and resolved via a centralized, intuitive UI portal. It additionally provides a streamlined way to provision, de-commission, monitor and control a vast number of endpoints, allowing you to seamlessly scale your deployment. A versatile network and device management tool comes with an open, lightweight and platform-independent design, together with cross-vendor device support and robust integration tools.
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5. Data Center/ Cloud Infrastructure
Providing the fundamental IT infrastructure for your IoT applications, the data center is your central repository where all data ingestion, storage and processing take place. Traditionally, data centers have often been installed on-premises and managed by the enterprises themselves. Yet, as the enormous wave of IoT data floods in, hyperscale cloud infrastructure is taking over the stage. The elastic and agile nature of the cloud allows the computing resource to be flexibly scaled or downsized on-demand. Simultaneously, you can avoid the cost and hassle of deploying, running and maintaining on-site servers, while being able to access your data from everywhere.
Top-tier cloud vendors offer solid tools and services like real-time streaming, rule engines/workflows, data orchestration and machine learning frameworks to facilitate the development of powerful IoT applications on top of the cloud infrastructure.
6. IoT Application
An IoT application is the end-user touchpoint where data is synthesized, analyzed and presented in a straightforward, visually engaging manner to address real-world problems and empower intelligent, data-driven decisions. Often cloud-hosted, this could come as a mobile app, a web service and/or a desktop application and is easily integrable into your enterprise systems for process and workflow automation. The IoT application is a vital component of your connected architecture, as it is where value creation actually happens.
Some IoT applications come fully out-of-the-box and are bundled with the compatible connected devices in a single offering, whereas others are tailored-built with the help of an application enablement platform, allowing them to be device- and connectivity-agnostic.
IoT systems drastically vary, and some may include additional layers not mentioned here. Yet, these six fundamental components should provide a reference architecture to help you better navigate the IoT ecosystem and piece together the essential moving parts that best cater to your or your customer’s use cases. Additionally, it’s important to bear in mind that security must be the seamless thread that weaves through every component of your entire IoT architecture.