Graceful evolution amidst IoT disruption

May 11, 2018


The IoT mash-up of cloud, gateway, and embedded sensor devices screams rip-and-replace. After all, when you?re in the midst of a paradigm shift, you can discard the history, right?

The IoT mash-up of cloud, gateway, and embedded sensor devices screams rip-and-replace. After all, when you’re in the midst of a paradigm shift, you can discard the history, right? While this may be true in some respects in the consumer IoT space, nothing could be further from the truth when it comes to Industrial IoT (IIoT). Legacy systems abound. Large investments have been made. The costs associated with integration requiring new (i.e. risky) technologies and down-time required can be staggering. Are the obstacles too difficult to overcome in the industrial sector?

Shifting the paradigm of industrial systems

The real value of the IoT paradigm lies in data access and analysis that, to this point, has not been widely adopted in the IIoT. What was once called an embedded system is now being called a sensor in IoT. The term "sensor" tends to shift focus away from the primary mission of the embedded system and re-classifying the device as a data acquisition point.

While this may be acceptable in the consumer space, losing focus on industrial embedded systems, the functional requirements and primary purpose within the system is a dangerous proposition. Rolling out an IIoT environment requires embracing these systems and augmenting their data sourcing capabilities – not throwing away and starting from a view point of "data source first, job function second" mentality.

Embrace, extend, enhance

Echelon is a company in the IIoT space with strong roots in the foundational components of embedded and IoT systems. The company started about 28 years ago with creating chip sets and communications messaging around connectivity through twisted pair or power lines. Their vision was to integrate the physical layer connectivity and software stack to allow easy application development. It was on this premise that the LonWorks network was born.

"We created a software development kit that was abstracted so you could put it on any network media" Sohrab Modi, CTO and SVP of Engineering with Echelon said. “We got traction with large customers in a variety of areas – building automation, building automation, elevator control, security systems controls, emergency lighting to name a few. The system was used in local train systems to coordinate doors and braking systems."

In 2014 Echelon entered into outdoor lighting solutions in anticipation of the emergence of the smart city. This includes lighting, cameras, and control systems within the smart city.

"Part of the infrastructure for smart city is the edge server and gateway” Sohrab said. “It’s a core requirement for deployment. So we created the SmartServer IoT which is now in its third generation. A key feature of the SmartServer IoT is to bridge the gap between the legacy connectivity for deployed devices and modern connectivity available today. Many companies want to start their deployment with a clean slate, but what about the billions of dollars in legacy communications systems that are deployed now?"

Embracing legacy

Part of what makes the Echelon solution different and the LonWorks protocol important is the philosophy behind the technology. What are the devices? What is the data access objective and how to do enable its delivery?

The LonWorks environment extends beyond a legacy-friendly integration. Things like automatic discovery – how do you enable, discover, and identify a legacy device – which is key to the integration of legacy systems.. LonMark International has a certification process that allows companies to register profiles and certify interoperability. These profiles can be loaded into any device, anywhere. This enables edge servers (in a smart city for example) to search, identify, auto discover, and interact with these legacy devices.

The Echelon IoT Access Protocol (IAP) exposes modern web services interfaces based on MQTT and REST which provides faster, easier application development and device integration. This provides the ability for IoT developers to access devices in a convenient way while the solution integrates the legacy connectivity needed to interact with the device.

Keys to scaling

Scaling is another critical factor in IIoT and edge servers are key in this area. The system needs to be architected such that each component can be operational autonomously. Things like large scale outages where upon restoration, the system can gracefully onboard the burst of devices coming on line must be addressed. Single failures within the environment shouldn’t cause broader service outages. Smart edge servers can help distribute the workload when bursts of activity occur.

Final thoughts

I asked Sohrab Modi for the most important key factor for successful IIoT systems. He said, "If you really want to have your deployments be successful and cost-efficient, then you must have an embrace, extend, enhance mentality. Embrace legacy systems. Extend these systems with additional capabilities that have value. Then enhance the environment to create additional value from things like artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and other analytics functions."