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13 December 2019

AWS updates tease power of the cloud players, but IoT still in limbo

Amazon’s rather lucrative side-gig, AWS, has had quite a busy December, announcing a raft of new features for the largest cloud computing platform. On the product side of things, AWS IoT SiteWise was significantly expanded, but zooming out a little, AWS’ list of announcements really illustrated the point that all of this IoT advancement is for naught if the major cloud platforms don’t start forcing consolidation among the traditional business software and ERP industry.

The first stages of the IoT journey involve connecting a previously unconnected thing to the internet. This could be a direct connection to the device in question, or an indirect internet connection, such as through a gateway that acts as the bridge between a Zigbee sensor and the wider world. Either way, once you have connected that device, it becomes useful, from our IoT perspective.

You can pull data from it, use it to control a physical process it is connected to, and combine it into an existing business application. This could be using a temperature sensor to monitor indoor temperatures, and then issuing an according command to a connected thermostat, inside a building automation deployment.

But the next step, the one with which we are currently struggling, is how to connect that building automation application, in this example, to other applications – both for that user but also for the wider world. The energy provider would want to have access to it, the equipment providers would want to see that data, and the facilities management teams could also glean insight from this access.

However, security, privacy, and regulatory concerns stand in the way, as well as the big question of whether intertwining these applications is good for the businesses’ bottom lines. But if there’s one group of companies that are able to overcome these concerns, it’s the cloud computing providers.

They are perfectly positioned to be universal translators, sitting at the top of the stacks of all these applications and able to act as the conduit between them. They have sufficient expertise and influence to assuage government regulators that the data they handle will be secure, and their position at the top of the stack means that they can enact changes in their product offerings that should flow down through the rest of the stack. Their central position makes them excellent candidates for data marketplaces, where the data itself could be monetized.

However, as with all markets, there are rivals and different approaches, which mean that applications inside one environment face further integration hurdles. Convincing AWS, Google, and Microsoft to ensure that all their customers should be able to seamlessly connect to each other is a rather difficult sell.

Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be another way to reach the billions-and-billions of connections that are associated with the term ‘the Internet of Things.’ To further muddy the waters on definitions, the Internet is the infrastructure, while the Web is the information and services that are available on top of this networking infrastructure.

We will quite easily reach an Internet of Things, but what we actually want, returning to the argument above, is the Web of Things – where services can be built on top of these connected devices that form networks of networks. If we just stopped at the Internet of Things, we would be stuck with island upon island. If these islands could be joined together, we can actually create something more valuable than the sum of its parts.

So, if the view that the cloud computing platforms are going to be the kingmakers, what we don’t want to see is the kingdoms warring among each other, preventing their subjects from trading and moving between territories. But this is a real risk. So how do you bring kings to a table, and convince them to cooperate? History tells us that intermarriage between the lineages is the key, but this is where the metaphor runs out of legs.

AWS SiteWise was unveiled in Preview Mode last year, but has now gone into general availability. It is a service designed to collect and organize industrial equipment data. This is a service that will catch the eye of the likes of Siemens, Bosch, and GE, as well as the dozens to hundreds of other major manufacturers of industrial equipment.

Many of those vendors have been experimenting with providing their own PaaS offerings in conjunction with physical assets, as an attempt to get into the services game, and while many will be using AWS for their hosting needs, it should worry them that AWS could start pilfering those customers.

For now, SiteWise is a way to link industrial gateways to Amazon’s cloud, where their data can be analyzed and presented to staff. The SiteWise software can apparently be installed on common third-party gateways, or on an AWS Snowball Edge box, which is one of Amazon’s data migration tools, which is also being pushed as an option for edge-processing.

There are now five brand new features that should improve the attractiveness of SiteWise. Data can now be collected in MQTT and REST APIs, no longer just through OPC-UA, and now users ca create virtual models of their facilities – to better understand their operational environments.

The third announcement was the addition of new transforms and compute metrics, for running on your data, and the fourth is the ability to publish a live data stream, which you can then set up access to using MQTT subscriptions, for pushing data to other applications.

The final piece of news was the launch of SiteWise Monitor, a tool that will create a ‘fully-managed web application,’ which AWS says provides enterprise users with visibility into the equipment data stored in SiteWise. This then lets users build dashboards to share internally, as getting people to understand the data being collected remains one of the largest problems in the IoT.