What is an IoT Platform?
The term “Internet of Things Platform” or “IoT Platform” means different things to different people. Broadly, it implies a software as a service (SaaS) product that can oversee a fleet of connected things. It performs multiple tasks—hence the word “platform”—and 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.
Common Functions of IoT Platforms
Managing Device Connectivity
Connectivity management is a staple feature for many IoT platforms. When you login, you’ll be able to check the connection status of individual devices in your fleet and troubleshoot any connection problems that arise. With eUICC becoming more common, look for a platform that supports over-the-air (OTA) provisioning and software updates. 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.
Receiving, Storing or Routing Data
IoT platforms can also provide data management capabilities. They act 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.
Visualizing Device Data
Some cellular IoT platforms 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 devices that are in motion, such as a fleet of connected 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, so you can tell 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.
An application-specific platform leverages input from multiple information sources, connecting them with context about the specific application. Bringing application-centric data, connection data, and life cycle data into 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 login 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.
What Else Should I Consider When Choosing an IoT Platform?
Choosing a platform provider means establishing an ongoing business relationship, so you’ll want to find a company and product that you trust—and one that provides the right support and features to fit your project. Too many unnecessary features or too much provider involvement might be detrimental if they interrupt your product development.
Take stock of your project and what your IoT team needs in an platform. For example, if you’re deploying a smart home product that connects only via WiFi, you probably don’t need a connection lifecycle management platform because you won’t have data plans that require that. Similarly, if you’re building an application that includes a data platform, you won’t need that functionality from your IoT provider.
The platform or combination of services that’s best for you will depend entirely on what you’re building.
IoT Platform Features to Evaluate
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. But the amount of ongoing support and expertise you 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.
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. As an alternative, you can use 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 you increase the number of devices in your deployment over time, the risk to revenue 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.
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 data to be exported or streamed into another system. 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 than 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 login 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 deployment and coordinate communication between the two, adding another layer of complication—and a potential headache—to your project.
Look for an IoT platform provider that makes regular updates and upgrades to the system, indicating that they keep track of emerging security threats and are evolving along with the market to embrace new features. Having the option for a master service agreement (MSA) at some scale is another important point 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 offer the ability to 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.
Taking the time to find the IoT platform that best fits your organization’s needs may be tricky—but ultimately, it’s worth the effort. To a large degree, the success of your IoT deployment rides on the platform’s ability to support your fleet of devices.