What is an IoT platform and how do you choose the right one for your business?
It’s important to understand what IoT platforms are capable of so you can match one with your organization’s specific needs.
What is an IoT platform?
In general, an Internet of Things (IoT) platform is a software as a service (SaaS) product that can oversee a fleet of connected devices. It performs multiple tasks — hence the word “platform” — and its features vary from product to product.
Some vendors offer an IoT platform that’s actually a management system for the data your devices gather. Other platforms focus on device management, with the ability to deliver remote firmware updates and configuration options.
In the world of cellular, “IoT platform” likely refers to a connection-centric life cycle management platform needed for activating a line of service, changing a plan, managing billing, monitoring a service, or deactivating a device.
And some IoT platforms are hybrids, offering a combination of features. It’s important to understand what these products are capable of so you can match one with your organization’s specific needs.
Recommended reading: 7 Steps to Accelerate Your IoT Business
The different types of IoT platforms
Let’s take a closer look at some of the categories of IoT platforms out there.
IoT cloud platforms
IoT cloud platforms provide a wide swath of cloud services, from collecting and transmitting IoT data from end devices to storage and analysis. These are typically marketed as “end-to-end” IoT platforms because they may include all the services you need depending on your use case, including connectivity and device management. Some are designed for smart factories, some for consumer and smart home applications, some for specific verticals such as medical devices, and more.
IoT connectivity platforms
For many IoT applications, a separate connectivity platform is not needed — for example, if the devices connect via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, connectivity management can often be handled by the IoT cloud services platform. However, in other applications, such as connected cars or industrial IoT monitors, additional support may be needed to manage connectivity. These devices often rely on cellular or LPWAN, meaning the IoT data must flow through a cellular network before reaching the internet. An IoT connectivity platform manages this flow of data and may also include other services like geolocation, over-the-air updates, and remote provisioning.
IoT device platforms
IoT device platforms give you the hardware components you need at the developer stage to build an IoT device. You’ll want to select a device platform based on where you are in the development process. Early on, it’s best to look for off-the-shelf hardware to help you speed up the prototyping process.
When you’ve reached a final product and need to scale up, it’s time to seek out custom hardware that’s optimized for your device’s functionality, size, and other variables.
Recommended reading: Top Development Boards & Shields for IoT Projects
IoT analytics platforms
Ultimately, the value of the Internet of Things is not the devices — it’s the data they gather and the insights they can provide. Many IoT cloud platforms give you some analytics and data management capabilities, but if your application involves more complex technologies such as machine learning (ML) or artificial intelligence (AI), you might need additional support to process and analyze data.
Recommended reading: What’s the Relationship Between IoT and Big Data?
What the right IoT platform should do for you
When choosing a platform, it’s important to consider your needs and how well the IoT solution will align. For example, if you’re designing a product for the IoT market, you’ll want to be sure the platform can support your development process and accommodate any changes you’ll need to make in the future. You should also look for a solution that’s easy to scale as you grow. Let’s look at some of the functional areas an IoT platform should be able to cover for you.
Make managing device connectivity simple
Device connectivity is an essential component of any IoT product. To be successful, your device needs to connect to the network as often as needed, depending on the use case and function. Fortunately, connectivity management is a staple feature for many IoT platforms. When you log in, you’ll be able to check the connection status of individual devices in your fleet and troubleshoot any problems that arise. With eUICC becoming more common, look for a platform that supports over-the-air (OTA) provisioning and software updates. The ability to manage connectivity and update your device’s firmware remotely will save you time and headaches. A connectivity management platform may also provide tools to track data consumption, switch devices between different networks or lines of service, and keep track of whether devices are driving ROI — another valuable tool.
Receive, store, and route your data
Data management is another key function to look for because you’ll want a central hub to manage and synthesize the data collected by your devices. The IoT platform acts as a receiving point for the data generated by your end devices, and depending on the features offered, may store data in the platform or route it to third-party applications for processing and analysis. Based on your needs and use case, look for an IoT platform that provides easy-to-access overviews of your data and allows for integration with other analytics tools and business systems.
Help your business visualize device data and provide key insights
Many IoT platforms come equipped with easy-to-use data dashboards that are customizable based on which data you need to see. If you’re not feeding all your data directly into a third-party analytics software system — and even if you are — these dashboards can be very useful, giving you a quick overview of what’s going on with your deployment.
Some cellular IoT platforms also include visual alerts when anomalous usage is detected or when a device is compromised. These alerts allow you to immediately spot a suspicious device and take action by pausing the device’s connection, for example. For connected devices in motion, such as a fleet of scooters, geospatial visualization can provide location information such as where the device was last detected and its path of travel over a period of time. This allows you to see if there’s a malfunction or security concern to investigate. IoT platforms may also provide visual aids to illustrate billing information, coverage and connection problems, and data usage over time. The goal of device management visualization is to quickly deliver insights about what’s going on with your fleet — so you can deal with anomalies before they become problems.
Provide application-specific support and data in one place
An application-specific platform leverages input from multiple information sources, connecting them with context about the specific application. Depending on your use case, this can be useful because combining application-centric data, connection data, and life cycle data in the same platform creates a very powerful tool — especially for customer support. For example, if an IoT-enabled refrigerator isn’t functioning correctly, a customer support representative could log in to the application-specific platform, see if there’s an error or connection problem with the device, and interpret what’s happening based on that data.
Have knowledgeable, responsive support teams
No matter how smart you are, it’s inevitable: something will go wrong, and you’re going to need help fixing it. It’s important to know there’s a human monitoring the network and keeping things running at all times, so look for a provider with a 24/7 support channel. The amount of ongoing support and expertise you will need from a platform provider depends on the size of your team and the scope and focus of your project. Self-serviceable platforms provide the ability to oversee and troubleshoot most minor issues without consulting the platform’s support team, but it’s still important to know they provide advanced support for your network operations team when needed. And since getting an IoT project up and running can present a steep learning curve, it’s wise to look for a vendor with the capability to onboard your business to the platform.
Provide robust security
Just like at the device level, the Principle of Least Privilege applies at the IoT platform level. The older model of granting comprehensive administrative access assumes you have a single person managing your fleet. Every device activation, change of data plan, and debug must go through them. In today’s world of IoT deployments at scale, that’s not practical — and it’s not safe to grant that level of access to your entire team.
For the most effective security control, look for an IoT platform that allows role-based access control to assign different responsibilities and privileges to each individual on your team. For example, an IT team member might be responsible for device management, while a finance team member has access to data usage and can make needed changes in the line of service.
As the number of devices in your deployment increases over time, the risk to revenue also increases. Controlling access to different facets of the IoT platform can help mitigate that risk. If everyone has administrative access, someone could make a mistake — and the financial impact of that mistake keeps getting bigger as the number of devices grows.
Recommended reading: The Ultimate Guide to IoT Security
Offer customizations that support your IoT solution’s specific requirements
Every IoT use case has slightly different needs. Many platforms offer some level of customization, but make sure the one you choose has the ability to adapt to whatever you need it to do. For example, if you want the functionality of an application-specific IoT platform without building the entire thing yourself, find a platform that allows real-time data to be exported or streamed into another system. An API allows you to develop an application-specific tool that can interact with your IoT platform. That power to integrate systems can actually be better in the long run, instead of building your own platform from the ground up, because each entity can focus on what they do best.
Some IoT platforms also allow you to add task management tools to streamline collaboration between team members. These tools let users log in and see which tasks have been performed and what still needs to be done, cutting down on accidentally duplicated work.
Another option to look for is the platform’s ability to support eUICC, remote provisioning, and profile swapping. In some markets, you’ll need eUICC support to get connected in the first place, as it’s becoming a prerequisite to choosing a line of service. If your provider doesn’t offer eUICC, you’ll need to find an additional provider to handle that part of the deployment and coordinate communication between the two, adding another layer of complication — and a potential headache — to your project.
Recommended reading: eUICC: What it Is and How it Works
Consistent product delivery and platform updates
Look for an IoT platform provider that makes regular updates and upgrades to the system. This indicates that they keep track of emerging security threats and evolve along with the market to embrace new features. Having the option for a master service agreement (MSA) at some scale is another important feature to look for, along with a willingness to hear about your application and understand your needs.
Some platforms are starting to deliver proactive management features, such as collaborative workflow management and machine learning tools. Workflow management tools can define a workflow and codify it inside a platform, which is essential in a collaborative work environment. It streamlines events, allowing you to see them on a single pane of glass and take action faster. Machine learning tools can deliver insights about your devices, analyzing surface data to highlight trends around usage, security, and anomalous events. Once these events are surfaced, the workflow engine pushes action items out to the specific people on your team best equipped to handle them.
How to choose an IoT platform
As you look for the IoT platform that’s the best fit for your project or deployment, here are some basic steps to follow to help you evaluate your options.
Step 1) Consider which stage of development and execution your company is in
First, look at the stage of development your company is in. If you’re currently in the product development phase, you’ll want an IoT solution that can support prototyping and testing — and that can continue to change with you as you move through the process.
Step 2) Search for reputable IoT platform companies
Look for a reputable platform company and — preferably — one that’s been around for a while. The last thing you want is to launch your product and then realize your IoT platform provider is going out of business or discontinuing their services. One way to vet a platform is by asking them for testimonials from other customers. Better yet, ask other developers in your network which platform(s) they’re using and if they can make any recommendations.
Step 3) Evaluate their ecosystem size and your programmatic access
Make sure the IoT platform provider you choose has the support you need from an application standpoint. How simple is it to add on the apps and integrations you need, or export your data to third-party programs in real-time? Also, look at how much programmatic access you’ll have — some platforms (such as Hologram’s) include access to open REST API, adding flexibility and access in the development stage.
Step 4) Look for IoT platform providers that understand your industry
With so many IoT platforms out there today, you’ll often be able to find a few that specifically target your industry (for example, IIoT or healthcare). Look for a provider that works with other customers in your vertical and understands what you need, as they will be better equipped to offer targeted technical support — and more likely to add features that dovetail with your needs.
Step 5) Look for the customer support staff and resources your team will need
Some IoT platforms offer extensive support and customizations, while others take a more hands-off approach. Evaluate how much involvement and external support your team will need and look for a provider that can offer that. And even if you don’t feel like you will need much hand-holding, make sure your platform provider has a dedicated tech support team that’s available 24/7.
Get online in under a week with Hologram
With Hologram, you’ll spend less time monitoring your Internet of Things deployments and more time innovating. Hologram’s cellular IoT platform enables you to quickly connect and manage any device, anywhere in the world. With a global cellular network, programming access via REST API, and IoT SIMs that enable eUICC remote provisioning and updates, Hologram gives you a full suite of connectivity services — and support — for your IoT projects.