When the Internet of Things (IoT) was still years over the horizon, mobile operators could hold it up as the next big development which was going to heal the MNO business model and justify investment in 5G. Now, the 5G networks, with their support for huge numbers of sensors, and very low levels of latency and power consumption, are almost upon us and it is clear that the wireless connectivity will be the simplest part of deploying and monetizing a large-scale IoT platform. Billions of connections are a tasty challenge for operators for whom connectivity is their lifeblood. Thousands of applications and services, serving hundreds of vertical markets and harnessing billions of pieces of data – these are more daunting.
As the attention of MNOs shifts from connectivity to the service layers where the real money will be made, there are more and more initiatives aiming to help operators (traditional or new) create open and flexible software platforms capable of delivering that elusive wireless IoT profit model.
The past week alone has seen a quartet of interesting announcements in this area from the Linux Foundation, Telenor/Cisco, InterDigital and Nokia – all of them potentially disruptive, in their different ways, and making it clear that if MNOs are to survive in the IoT, they will be working with very different partners and value chains.
The infiltration of open source into the closely guarded proprietary world of mobile networks is one of the most radical aspects of 5G. The Linux Foundation is hosting a large number of projects which could disrupt the economics and processes of the mobile industry from the RAN to the core to the network management software.
Now it is expanding its activities in the IoT field, promising the first major code release from its EdgeX Foundry initiative this month. In April, it announced the EdgeX Foundry, aiming to build a common open framework for IoT-oriented edge computing which would make it easier for developers to create a broad ecosystem of services, based on unified building blocks.
Though other projects like the OpenFog Consortium and Open Edge Computing groups – and aspects of ETSI’s Multi-access Edge Computing (MEC) work – may be addressing similar issues, EdgeX has the strongest open source credentials and the potential to forge links with other Linux Foundation-hosted projects such as CORD (Central Office Re-architected as a Datacenter), which also has a heavy focus on the mobile edge and the IoT.
These common frameworks will need to converge at some point to avoid fragmentation, but at least a choice of three or four platforms will be better, Linux Foundation argues, than the anarchy which exists today. “The complexity of the current IoT landscape and the wide variety of components available, are creating paralysis among businesses looking to deploy Industrial IoT solutions,” it said.
The first major release of EdgeX Foundry, dubbed Barcelona, will be available later this month and aims to enable an interoperability framework which is agnostic to hardware, operating system or connectivity and forms middleware between sensors and clouds. (The Foundation has adopted an alphabetical naming scheme based on locations, with California and Delhi next in line, and plans two releases per year.)
The overall objective is to “enable an ecosystem of plug-and-play components that unifies the marketplace and accelerates the deployment of IoT solutions”. In practical terms, as well as reducing fragmentation and encouraging a device and developer ecosystem, the framework aims to improve start-up times, performance and overall footprint by relying on highly efficient edge-based microservices written in C or Google’s Go Lang language.
A preview of a Go Lang implementation is targeted for early 2018, promising a far smaller footprint than the current Java baseline.
Philip DesAutels, senior director of IoT at the Foundation, said in a statement: “We believe that EdgeX will radically change how businesses develop and deploy IIoT solutions, and we are excited to see the community rally together to support it.”
The initial work was based on the FUSE code which Dell donated under an Apache 2.0 license. It consisted of 125,000 lines of code and over a dozen microservices, and was accompanied by an SDK for developers. Building on that, the Barcelona release will more than double the test coverage across EdgeX microservices while stabilizing key APIs (application programming interfaces) and improving code quality.
It will add reference device services for commonly used protocols and connections such as BACNet, Modbus, Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), MQTT, SNMP and Fischertechnik. It will also add new northbound interfaces to connect applications to cloud IoT platforms such as Microsoft Azure IoT Suite and Google IoT Core, as well as supporting connections via MQTTS and HTTPS.
EdgeX Foundry, which now has over 60 members, says it is also making significant progress towards defining unified APIs for security and system management
Among the 60-plus members are Analog Devices, Bayshore Networks, Device Authority, EnOcean Alliance, FogHorn, Opto 22, Canonical, CloudPlugs, Cumulocity, Dell/RSA, ForgeRock, IOTech, Linaro, NetFoundry, Neustar, RFMicron, Vantiq and VMware.
EdgeX Foundry and its supporters reveal an enterprise heritage – though the framework could help simplify and coordinate MNOs’ efforts as much as anyone’s. Indeed, the key challenge of the IoT for mobile operators is not to support huge numbers of low latency connections, but to understand how to adjust their business processes and models to a market which is all about big data and enterprise services. As such, they will need to learn from, and partner with, organizations and projects which come from that environment.
This is seen in a carrier-specific IoT initiative, which sees Telenor working closely with Cisco to devise the “Android of network infrastructure”, as the Norwegian group claims. The new platform is clumsily called WorkingGroupTwo, and it aims to drive an “innovation ecosystem” for operators, which would help them launch new services more quickly and easily, especially in the IoT, by using common tools and APIs.
At the heart of the system is a virtualized core network and associated developer tools and open APIs. This is deployed on an operator’s infrastructure and is then used to support large numbers of service providers in the same way as MNOs currently support MVNOs. Billing capabilities are built-in and providers can either launch services directly to customers, or in partnership with the operator. They pay an upfront fee and a monthly rate to the host operator.
The platform is already live on Telenor’s Swedish and Norwegian networks, but WorkingGroupTwo is being spun off as a separate business unit and is looking to offer the platform, and associated services, to other operators round the world. The unit’s CEO, Erlend Prestgard, says it has already signed up a consumer-facing European operator, which will use the platform to develop services for a sub-brand.
The initiative is not IoT-specific, though executives believe this will be the primary source of new service providers in the coming years. But more broadly, WorkingGroupTwo will target MNOs and MVNOs which want to differentiate themselves on the nature and quality of their services, rather than just on price. Many of those opportunities to differentiate will come from the IoT, where services have not yet been commoditized as consumer offerings have been.
The justification for 5G will have to come from new business-to-business and IoT revenue streams, not from chasing the ever-smaller consumer dollar. And if a traditional operator, or vendor, manages to create a compelling wholesale services platform, they will be on their way to a 5G business model. Canny MNOs will accept a shift towards more wholesale revenue, because they will not be able to support the full range of IoT use cases directly – instead they will need to support large numbers of specialist service providers. Flexible software-driven networks, bandwidth-on-demand and network slicing will all help to enable a radical reinvention of the MVNO model to support far larger numbers of partners, on a far more flexible, ‘as-a-service’ basis.
Telenor, which is one of the most advanced operators in the IoT, is clearly thinking on these lines and developing new revenue streams at each place on the value chain, including a white label platform for other MNOs. It developed the software, starting four years ago, and established the new business unit last week. Cisco contributed parts of the technology stack, including the packet core, as well as collaboration and security software features. It also brought in investment from private equity firm Digital Alpha.
Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins said in a statement: “Our joint efforts will help mobile operators automate the delivery of mobile cloud services and deliver innovation at a faster pace.”
That will be essential, because if the MNOs do not adapt to a world of thousands of MVNO services and partners, others will seize the initiative from them. Cloud platform providers are working to integrate wireless connectivity into their offerings. That may be via MNO alliances, like Amazon’s and GE’s with AT&T, or it may be via an open connectivity framework in shared spectrum, which does not have to rely on the MNOs’ networks.
Even the MNOs’ own vendors are moving into connected IoT platforms and managed services, and if they see their traditional customers failing to pick up the 5G/IoT baton, they will be happy to sideline them into the dreaded bit-pipe role, and work directly with enterprises and IoT service providers.
Nokia has been the most active of the major vendors in creating service platforms which could support its traditional customers, but could just as easily support a direct enterprise model. The Finnish vendor has, in recent months, launched or enhanced its cloud-based hosted mobile core, its multi-access connectivity frameworks and its IoT tools, as it pursues its goal of significantly diversifying its customer base by reaching out to vertical markets, which may be looking for specialized services and networks.
One of its initiatives is WING (Worldwide IoT Network Grid), a managed services offering which was announced in February and has now deployed its first real world application. At last month’s Mobile World Congress Americas, Ankur Bhan, global head of Nokia WING, told Mobile World Live that there have been six months of pilots, but a production unit will go live during this quarter.
Like other frameworks, WING aims to reduce IoT fragmentation by providing a unified approach at the core and platform levels. The organizations which can control those unified systems will hold the real power in the diversified IoT, and Nokia know it. With WING, it will provide operators with a broad set of hosted services for managing IoT connectivity, devices and applications across national boundaries, based on Nokia frameworks and agnostic to the access technology.
While another new Nokia service, IMPACT, enables enterprises and service providers to manage their own IoT networks and services, WING allows them to outsource that to Nokia itself. Billing it as a “worldwide IoT network grid”, the Finnish firm is making its most aggressive move to fulfil its promise to move into business ‘adjacencies’, to restart growth and offset tough pressures in its core network equipment business.
Deploying, connecting, managing and securing huge numbers of connected devices, and handling all the data they produce, will be far outside the comfort zone of most enterprises, governments and even operators – even more so than running a mobile network, and even in that market, managed services have been on the rise.
Managed services already account for about one-third of Nokia’s revenues, but are targeted mainly at the traditional telco base, and in that market, the firm has been overshadowed by the might of Ericsson. Nokia now hopes to deploy and manage networks and services for its key verticals too. In IoT managed services, the market is immature and there is everything to play for.
There is also, however, a long line of companies chasing the opportunity, including IT giants like HPE; the network vendors; some of the big operators; and vertically specific bighitters like GE.
Like most IoT ‘platforms’ emerging from established giants, much of WING is a tying-together of existing capabilities, including the IMPACT software itself, and managed services offerings. Nokia is pushing the multinational angle in particular, arguing that cross-border IoT networks and operators just don’t exist yet. So it will work with a host of network partners round the world – wired and wireless operators plus specialist vertical networks and potentially unlicensed systems – to offer a global connectivity grid.
Of course, its own technology will enable the ‘command center’ at the heart of the grid, with customers being able to manage devices, billing and customer care on a global basis via IMPACT. Nokia says it will “offer a full service model including provisioning, operations, security, billing and dedicated enterprise customer services from key operations command centers”.
Other types of services which Nokia offers, or has spoken of developing, could then be layered on top of this – security, data management, analytics and so on.
“One thing we discovered in putting together uses cases is the inability for multinationals to offer IoT services because there is no multinational connectivity service that allows this,” Phil Twist, VP of portfolio marketing at Nokia Networks, said at the launch in London in February. “There are US and European solutions but no one has put something in place that federates all this together as a service.”
In fact, some providers do offer a fairly broad international footprint for IoT connectivity, mainly through deals with multiple telcos on an MVNO-style basis (US-based KORE Wireless is one). But Nokia is promising more – to take the whole operations of the IoT, from connectivity up to security and service assurance – off the hands of the enterprise or provider, allowing them to focus on analysing the data from their IoT devices, and delivering services to their customers.
Nokia will also offer a white label version of WING for operators, which can then add international support to services they provide in their own markets. However, the launch still sounds the latest in a series of warning bells, of the impending clash between network suppliers and their core customers, the telcos.
The telcos could have been a logical channel to market for Nokia’s software and services, but instead it is appealing directly to enterprises and governments, and not making carriers into equal partners, even when they are providing connectivity.
This is because Nokia and its rivals need to work towards a day when telecoms is just one vertical among many that they serve, rather than their entire business.
The same could be said of InterDigital, whose main money train used to be mobile technology patents. The R&D organization is now looking to extend its reach to new verticals by stitching together an IoT platform and business from its various products in this area. The platform will be based on specifications from OneM2M, the ‘super standards body’ which has been creating specs with input from a wide range of other IoT-related alliances. And like most of these platforms, InterDigital’s is claiming it will provide a “collaborative, interoperable ecosystem” to avoid fragmentation and accelerate innovation.
The new Chordant business unit is particularly focusing on smart cities, allowing municipalities and their partners to develop systems which tap into data from any source, and can bring together legacy and new assets in a unified way. Like most of its rivals, Chordant promises to hide the underlying complexity form developers as well as providing simple interfaces for partners to access and launch services.
“Building smart cities is becoming an important focus for government bodies worldwide,” said Jim Nolan, EVP of Chordant at InterDigital. “However, it is challenging for cities to effectively utilize all their data. If cities are to maximize and monetize their data, they need a strong, collaborative, interoperable ecosystem.”