Stacking rings. For technology grownups

The Internet of Things is stacking up to be an interesting force for the future.
Read time 10min 20sec

It’s hard to pin down a precise explanation for what makes up the Internet of Things (IoT) stack. The problem is that the platforms and solutions are evolving as rapidly as the applications they’re used for. Three years ago, the IoT stack was smart applications, data analytics, connectivity, sensors and product infrastructure. Or thereabouts. Today, that stack has been shoved onto a technological precipice, with Gartner predicting that edge computing will continue to lead the trend charge in 2019 and a Forrester survey claiming that the edge is where all those complex datasets are about to be analysed. There are claims that the edge will eat the cloud and this heralds changes to how IoT will stack up.

The IoT architecture consists of multiple sectors and tiers that allow for the collection of data from sensors connected to, or embedded in, assets and devices. The data produced by IoT devices is processed by the computing and analytics that are powerful enough to interpret the information while sitting right on that edge that’s getting all the attention. The movement of IoT data to aggregation systems and data repositories is handled by a network, dashboards and reports are used to translate the data for humans, and the entire pipeline has to be curated for efficiency, capability, agility and security. And every inch of this stack has to be crafted in such a way to ensure that the organisation is capable of understanding its data and doing a decent job of leveraging its IoT investment.

The thing is, this stack spans anything from factories to vehicles to clothes, to lighting to essential business processes, to the people who populate the hallways and plants. It’s also being disrupted. Now there are elements of the stack and solution that are being commoditised, rented out or reshaped to reduce costs and capex investment.

There’s enormous potential to be found within the devices, applications, algorithms, data, systems and software that comprise the IoT stack, but the trick to dragging this potential out is to manage it within expectations, budgets and organisation requirements. There’s never been a one-size-fits-all, not with spandex and definitely not with IoT.

That’s why things can get tricky. The business has to plan and manage the IoT stack as intelligently as the systems themselves. Strategically, there are some questions that have to be asked:

  • Can the existing systems be retrofitted?
  • Where will the data be hosted?
  • And, will all systems, sensors and devices be integrated into a single gateway or will this be managed across multiple touchpoints?

Ultimately, it’s essential that the business is capable of scale to ensure it gets those fast and efficient results it was looking for when it first started to slide down the IoT stack.

Within the local market, a key ongoing challenge is that of connectivity.

Willem Conradie, PBT Group

As the technology becomes increasingly affordable to manage, it means that these considerations have to be on every business table, not just the big ones. To manage it all, the consensus is to start with the right devices, work with the right suppliers, and pay attention to security. When it comes down to it, whether the edge is eating cloud or IoT is eating them both, management of the stack is about using the technology to ensure optimal productivity, solve real-world problems, and get the results that were printed on the packaging.

Q & A

What IoT, stacks and South African businesses have in common…

Brainstorm: What are the essential elements of any well-rounded IoT stack?

Inus Dreckmeyr, CEO, Netshield South Africa: Security is critical to the success of any installation. Decision-makers have to ask themselves about the risks around people getting hold of the information generated by IoT devices and what they will do with that information once they have it.

Pravin Burra, CEO, Analytix Engine: The organisation needs to put together a feature team comprising technologists, mathematicians, data scientists as well as business specialists with domain knowledge who are prepared to iterate, experiment and define use cases. Most important is to define what winning looks like at the start of projects.

Craig Nel, Mobile and Cognitive Experience Business Development, Oracle: A solid and well-rounded IoT strategy can help companies successfully approach IoT solutions. To reach a successful outcome, companies must bring together all layers of a technology stack and key players of the IoT solution like sensors, cloud storage, processing capabilities, machine learning and more.

Johan Steyn, chair: Special Interest Group AI and Robotics, IITPSA: An effective data strategy and suitably skilled data engineers are imperative. The correct use of the data produced by IoT devices is the life-blood of AI and machine learning.

Brainstorm: What are some of the challenges impacting on the efficiency of the development of a robust and capable IoT stack?

Morne Maree, senior product manager: IoT, Vox: IoT is an entire ecosystem, from devices right through to business intelligence, and requires a considerable investment if a business wants to see value at each layer. There isn't a one-size-fits-all play to IoT. Every customer is different, with their own unique requirements and this calls for an IoT journey that’s built per customer as opposed to a fairly standardised and seamless go-to-market approach.

Willem Conradie, CTO, PBT Group: Within the local market, a key ongoing challenge is that of connectivity. Stable and strong connectivity is key, and this is an area the local market needs to mature in to ensure the IoT stack and be fully leveraged.

Terje Moen, co-founder, IoT.nxt: Connecting to all edge devices is the single biggest challenge that impacts on the efficiency of IoT.

Francois Stols, CTO, Netstar: A lot of the historical challenges have disappeared with the advent of various IoT-enabling companies and technologies. On the device level, we see national RF networks such as the Sigfox-based SqwidNet network as a massive enabler. On the data side, cloud providers, like Microsoft Azure, have made it easy for us to deploy fully scalable and elastic implementations.

Brainstorm: What are the critical considerations when managing and planning the IoT stack?

SAP’s George: The first important consideration is that multiple stakeholders are involved. Working with specialists in each tier of an IoT stack has the potential to rapidly reduce implementation times, as well as make available the latest cutting-edge technology and expertise. With this approach, it’s important to own or control the solution architecture and holistic design of IoT implementation.

Ross Hickey, CEO, Trinity: The full cost of development and ownership, speed to market, scalability, and interoperability. Generally, the economics of building and owning the IoT stack to deliver your own business case doesn’t stack up, so it’s best to find a partner with a platform that covers the IoT stack in layers so that you can focus on your business.

William Petherbridge, systems engineer, Fortinet: Ideally, enterprises should have platforms in place before they start building an IoT stack, but chances are that most enterprises already have IoT devices on the premises. To pre-empt future risk, they should be taking control of the environment now, getting the right people involved in managing risk, and raising awareness of the potential risks across the enterprise.

When IoT fell down the manhole

Want to know how to manage the IoT stack in the most unexpected of places? Read on.

There’s a Frost & Sullivan report, produced for SqwidNet, that says South Africa has around 6.1 million manhole covers that are used by telecommunications companies and municipalities.These round, solid plates protect people, animals and detritus from falling down holes in an authorised manner and provide access to underground areas for maintenance, repair or upgrade purposes. Often, these covers are stolen or they go missing, which puts people and animals at risk.According to Johannesburg’s mayor Herman Mashaba, there were around 104 manhole-related deaths in 2017/2018 – that’s one person dying every three days because of a missing manhole cover. This was not a risk that Dark Fibre Africa (DFA) was interested in taking, especially when the company has a significant stretch of manhole operations across the country.

DFA owns around 35 000 manholes that form part of its terrestrial telecommunications infrastructure, providing protection for critical network junctions and access points for maintenance teams. A fair number of these manholes have been fitted with electronic access systems, but they only detect when a manhole has been opened by an unauthorised person. It was determined that there was need for an additional solution that would provide more in-depth alerts if the cover was forcefully breached.

“We provided them with a smart manhole tamper detection solution that can detect unauthorised access, detect if objects are thrown into open manholes and more,” says Ushal Moonsamy, executive: solutions, SqwidNet.

“We used the ABCD model of IoT solution development to manage the stack for this solution.”

ABCD stands for application, backend, connectivity and device. It provides DFA with visibility into their manholes through a variety of IoT-enabled capabilities, such as real-time notification of access, vandalism detection, visibility, email and SMS alerts, battery messages and mobile applications. These little bundles of complex technology, including daily battery updates, were stuck onto the manhole covers with double-sided tape. That’s one way to manage the stack.

Connecting to all edge devices is the single biggest challenge that impacts on the efficiency of IoT.

Terje Moen, IoT.nxt

The other is to embed the technology alongside sticky human ingenuity. The VisoTamper device that was stuck to the manhole cover sends a Sigfox message whenever it is tilted more than 45 degrees. A QR scanner is used to link device ID to a specific manhole and then movement of the covers can be monitored through a DFA dashboard.

“We realised that IoT solutions are only limited by human creativity and that solutions can actually be modified to suit different problems,” says Moonsamy. “There has been a scourge of vandalism and theft of backup batteries at cellular towers recently so we’ve modified the solution to suit this use case as well. Ultimately, it allows for deeper visibility into the assets, regardless of where they are.”

And managing this stack is as simple as tracking the battery usage, ensuring that the devices remain attached and adhering to ongoing maintenance. It’s not a pile of software, complex language and technical jargon; instead, it’s an incredibly South African way of solving a very South African problem.

“The data from the manhole tamper devices is correlated with data from electronic access systems and maintenance schedules to determine if the opening is authorised or not,” says Vino Govender, executive: marketing, brand and communication, DFA. “With near real-time visibility of the status of manhole covers, the frequency of scheduled physical inspections can be drastically reduced, or in some cases eliminated. This provides an immediate saving in fuel and vehicle maintenance costs and frees skilled personnel to focus on other areas of the business.

“Knowing the status of specific manholes allows resources to be assigned more effectively on a daily basis to address areas of the network that are most in need of attention. Potential network faults can be proactively addressed in exposed areas, as opposed to the more traditional reactive, or scheduled approach,” he concludes.

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