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The Internet of Things (IoT) Tech Stack Explained

Ben Obear
May 20, 2017

Due to our innate fascination with novelty, people are always talking about "the next big thing." While this kind of talk is prevalent in all industries and niches, it's most common in the technology industry because technology changes and advances every day. While your industry may not be as volatile or prone to change as the tech industry, technology driven change is coming to your industry via new products and services enabled by the Internet of Things (IoT).

Recently, in the world of technology, there has been a substantial buzz about the Internet of Things and you should pay attention too. Experts and researchers agree the Internet of Things will bring significant change to both your personal and professional lives in the years to come. The tech stack that powers the internet of things — or Thing Stack as we like to call it — enables your company to create new products and services, which help you differentiate your offerings from competitors.

What is the Internet of Things?

The Internet of Things refers to a network of internet-connected objects like vehicles, devices and buildings. Objects are embedded with sensors and electronics to allow them to both collect and transfer information to your cloud database. The Internet of Things allows objects produced by your company to be detected and controlled remotely via existing network infrastructure. This in turn creates the opportunity for a direct integration between your physical and digital worlds. Automated IoT systems gather, report and crunch your data faster and more accurately than humans who manually gather and enter information into your database. The end result is a system that provides value to your company in new and exciting ways.

IoT technology is a cyber-physical system, which relies on actuators and sensors to collect data from the physical world. Cyber-physical systems include broad IoT categories like smart cities, smart grids, intelligent transportation and smart homes. Your IoT objects can be identified via their embedded computing system and integrated with existing internet infrastructure. According to Cisco, there will be about 50 billion IoT objects by 2020.

What is an IoT technology stack?

Traditionally, the adoption of innovative technologies accelerates after frameworks, languages, protocols and standards are defined. Each layer in a technology stack needs to integrate and communicate with the other layers of the stack. As a tech stack matures, it becomes easier and less expensive for your developers — if you have them — to create new products and services.

The IoT technology stack is rapidly developing and maturing into the Thing Stack. This Thing Stack consists of three technology layers: sensors, microcontrollers and internet connectivity, and service platforms.

  • Layer One - Sensors are embedded in objects or the physical environment to capture information and events for your company.
  • Layer Two - Microcontrollers and internet connectivity share information captured by sensors within your IoT objects and act based on this information to change the environment.
  • Layer Three - Through the aggregation and analysis of data, service platforms cater to your customers. Service platforms also control your IoT product's end-to-end experience and enable your customers to define system rules and update firmware.

New solutions, choices, and technologies are developing and emerging rapidly in each of the three layers because use cases differ based on industry, price point, object size, processor speed, power requirements and networking constraints. For example, a utility application intended to monitor a smart meter doesn't have the same connectivity requirements as a healthcare application designed to monitor a patient's heart rate.

Your enterprise IoT application designer reviews your use cases, device requirements and existing data to better understand how to create value. By better understanding each layer of the Thing Stack, you make better decisions about the technologies you should use for your IoT product.

Layer 1: Sensors

Sensors have been used for years in a number of different industry contexts like healthcare, aviation, manufacturing and automotive. Now, sensors are so tiny and inexpensive they can be embedded in all the devices you use personally and professionally. The sensor layer of the IoT tech stack continues to expand as internet connected sensors are added to new products and services.

Besides incorporating sensors into your smartphones and tablets, your innovative competitors are introducing new devices that contain numerous sensors. These sensors don't need to be connected directly to the internet and they sync with your smartphone via Bluetooth LE to send captured data to the cloud. For example, Sensordrone is a Kickstarter project that embeds many environmental sensors into a small dongle. Some of the environmental sensors include color intensity, humidity, gas, and pressure sensors. The dongle collects information about your physical environment and sends this information to your smartphone or tablet via Bluetooth. This example demonstrates how value can be created by new services that use sensors to gather new types of data from your physical environment.

Another category of sensors are embedded in watches, contact lenses, wristbands, and fabrics. Recently, Nokia patented a technique for magnetic tattoos that vibrate from incoming messages or calls. This is possible by spray tattooing or stamping a material onto your skin. The material is then paired with a smartphone or tablet, which lets you interact with the sensor. Microsoft and University of Washington researchers are working on another way to connect sensors to your body through the use of IoT contact lenses that provide real-time updates about the biochemical fluctuations in your body. One use case is to help diabetes patients monitor their insulin levels while using these contact lenses.

Layer 2: Micro-controllers and internet connectivity

The second layer in the IoT technology stack allows for local storage, data processing and internet connectivity. The Internet of Things needs internet connectivity to send collected data to your cloud database. Because some sensors generate over 10,000 data points per second, it makes sense to pre-process data locally before sending it to your cloud database. By analyzing, extracting and summarizing your collected data before you send it to your cloud database, you reduce the volume of unnecessary data you send to and store on your cloud database, saving you money on data transfer and storage costs.

Your microcontroller is a small computer embedded within a chip and it helps your IoT device store and pre-process collected data before it's synced to your cloud database. Your microcontroller possesses a processor, a small amount of RAM to hold data, some kilobytes of EPROM or flash memory to hold embedded software, and solid-date memory to cache data.

In some cases, your IoT device may need to use programmable microcontrollers to take action and turn something on or off. In most cases, these decisions are made via a cloud application, but it makes sense to use programmable microcontrollers when a sensor detects something that could affect the health and safety of your end customers.

The main and most important capability of this layer is networking, which is either wireless or wired. If a device is stationary and can access an external power source, a wired network is sufficient, but a wired network doesn't make sense for many IoT use cases because physical cables are needed to connect to the network. WiFi, wireless modems, and wireless mesh networks are the most common ways IoT devices are connected to the internet.

If you plan to manufacture an IoT device you must keep in mind dependencies for your use cases. Is your device mobile or fixed? Does your device need a battery or is it connected to a fixed power supply? How much data do you need to transfer to your cloud database per hour? Should your device's connectivity be episodic or continuous?

Devices you use to track your health and fitness while bicycling, running, and exercising store data while you're active, and these devices use episodic connectivity. Your device then syncs with the cloud when it's close to your smartphone or tablet. Compare this to the continuous connectivity needed by Amazon Echo's voice based digital assistant who is always listening for your commands, fetching answers from the internet the instant you ask a question. Depending on your IoT product's use cases, you may need continuous connectivity.

When you research Thing Stack vendors, you'll notice a wide range of different networking protocols, hardware, software, and architectures are used to build IoT products. Due to the variation in use cases and environments, you have many choices when it comes to adding networking and computing capabilities your IoT device. While some vendors focus more on hardware components, other vendors provide a system of integrated software and hardware. Sometimes, IoT software solutions spill into the third layer of the Thing Stack, which is referred to as the service platform.

Layer 3: Service platforms

The first two layers for the Thing Stack embed sensor and microcomputers in your IoT device, but your IoT product profits from the service platform layer. This layer delivers value to your customers by automating processes and delivering rich data analytics. Your cloud application combines data collected from numerous IoT sensors with your (or your customers) other business data to produce insights that generate business value.

It's important for your service platform to create a feedback loop between your IoT devices and you device management software, so you and your customers can upgrade, monitor, and maintain the firmware on each the device. In most cases, service platforms operate on cloud infrastructure and utilize a multi-tenant software architecture to deliver a seamless software-as-a-service (SaaS) experience.

The convergence between our digital and physical worlds stresses your IT operations by increasing demand for data management, storage, tagging and analysis. It's in your company's best interests to build your IoT service platform on robust cloud infrastructure, so you can scale infinitely as your business grows with your new IoT product.

While "software is eating the world" as Marc Andreessen said, consumers and companies still purchase a lot of physical things. If you build a robust IoT service platform, you obtain insights about how your customers use your IoT products and services. With a great IoT service platform you can manage post-transaction relationships in new and engaging ways.

Because service platforms store and make decisions based on data collected from all types of IoT devices, they are often considered the backbone of post-transactions relationships. What if you reached out to customers who never powered on your IoT device and proactively on-boarded them? What if you used anonymized data from customers getting the most value out of your product to help other customers unlock more business value?

Now is the time to build your IoT product because sensors keep getting smaller and network connectivity solutions keep getting better. Create a plan to engage with your customers and facilitate goal-oriented post-transaction relationships, leading to new opportunities to turn a single transaction into a strong relationship.

How to extract value from the Thing Stack?

The Thing Stack isn't just for emerging companies or technology companies. The Thing Stack will revolutionize your industry and create efficiencies and new products your customers love. With end-to-end IoT solutions, you can now redefine your relationship customers and create new data-driven goal oriented outcomes. When you can measure everything, you can identify problems your customers have early and intervene to create positive outcomes.

Now that you understand the IoT technology stack, it's up to you to create an IoT product that changes the way you interact with your customers.

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Ben Obear
San Francisco