Five questions to ask your Internet of Things contractor

The Internet of Things (IoT) is trending right now, but it isn’t actually new. At Humboldt Solutions, we’ve been designing always-on, always connected hardware for years. The only thing that’s changed is that it now has a catchy name – and with a catchy name comes interest from the consumer space.

This is both good news and bad, for while greater visibility will encourage innovation, the kind of IoT devices you find on the high street are poorly thought-out and woefully supported. A lack of uniformity means you can rarely mix hardware from different manufacturers and security is normally lax, with the same simple password rolled out to a whole batch of products.

Worse, the sector is built on a trust that hasn’t yet been earned. When you take home a consumer device, the first thing it does is talk to its developer’s server. Only if the server stays on line will your hardware be happy. Bear this in mind as you consider how short an outlook most of these companies have – and the fact that many are still burning venture capital with little idea of when, or even if, they’re going to turn a profit.

If that’s left you asking where the positives lie, look to the business space where IoT-like systems have been around for years – without the fancy marketing and unfulfilled promises. Some of our own implementations have been running unattended for a decade or more, and each is fully documented so our clients know that in the unlikely event we disappear, the service will continue.

Before you draw up plans for your own IoT device, be sure your contractor can answer these questions before you go any further.

1. How will it connect back to base?

Make sure your supplier has a clear idea of how the network will work. Ask whether they see it involving a lot of direct connections, or a hub that links each device and acts as a gateway to the net. What are their inventory management plans? You need to know what you’ve got on the network, where it is and how you address it if you’re going to upgrade, control or download data from a specific device on demand.

2. What hardware should I be using?

There’s a reason why we’ve put this second: it’s important, but doesn’t outweigh the fundamentals issues of connections and comms. At the same time, what you need your hardware to do is more important than how it does it, and you can now achieve a lot with a simple off-the-shelf chip on a board. Integrated units that include a sensor, switch and processor cost a couple of dollars apiece and although they aren’t as powerful as the diminutive Raspberry Pi, they’re the perfect solution to remotely controlling something simple, like a value in a pumping station.

3. Is redundancy really an issue?

Installing a backup system increases your costs, so ask your supplier to perform a cost-benefit analysis before they recommend on-site redundancy. Only then will you know for sure whether you’d do better to leave a failed unit in situ until someone can attend it in person for repair or replacement. Often, it’s more important to consider backup systems for the control unit and servers than your remote devices, as if they fail the whole system goes dark.

4. Where will the system be hosted?

Be wary if your supplier will only countenance using their own servers. That will lock you in to using their services for as long as the system is running – often at cost. If you don’t want to use your own infrastructure, ask your contractor about cloud hosting. AWS (Amazon Web Services) is approaching ubiquity in this area, with many providers choosing to employ Amazon’s high-speed, high-capacity rented cloud service as the conduit over which industrial IoT hardware gathers and transmits data.

5. How will you manage issues that arise during its working life?

It’s not only hardware that has an expected service lifetime: software becomes prone to vulnerabilities over time, and security certificates almost always expire after a specified period. This can be as little as five years, which may be considerably less than the hardware’s anticipated service window. When this happens, it can put your whole system out of action. Ask your supplier both how you’ll monitor the firmware on each device, and how you can keep an accurate inventory of certificates and the dates they’re set to expire.

Humboldt Solutions has been developing for the ‘Internet of Things’ since before it even existed. Call us on 01276 415787 or email to discuss how IoT can work for your business, your clients and their customers.

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