THE INTERNET OF THINGS appears to collect as many definitions as it does headlines these days. That interest and confusion have some IT companies wondering if IoT has a place in their service portfolios and, if so, how they should proceed.
Relax. Between vendors, distributors, and the ever-growing do-it-yourself maker community, kits that help you get started in a rapidly expanding list of new business opportunities are close at hand.
Michael Lamp, director of IoT solutions for Phoenix-based Avnet Inc., highlights the many options available to the distributor’s partners. “Some come directly from our suppliers, while we assemble others using components sourced from a number of manufacturers,” he says. Each of these IoT kits plays off that vendor’s strengths, Lamp adds. AT&T’s version, for example, relies on cellular signals for communication.
“Starter kits have many variations, but the important building blocks include some level of processing, like an Arduino-type board with some built-in sensors and connectivity for others,” says Bob O’Donnell, chief analyst at Foster City, Calif.-based TECHnalysis Research LLC. (Arduino AG is an open source hardware maker with headquarters in Somerville, Mass.)
For example, the Texas Instruments EKK-LM4F232 evaluation kit contains a single 6.0- x 2.25- x .84-inch board with a USB micro B plug, USB flash drive, coin cell battery, temperature sensor, precision 3.0V reference for accurate analog-to-digital conversion, StellarisWare development kit and drive library with example source code, and a 96x64 color OLED display. Prices for kits like that run from $10 for a no-frills offering to more than $300 for versions with maximum processing power and greater input options.
IoT devices must connect to something, and major cloud vendors are responding to the opportunity by developing their own links. Lamp suggests combining some sensors and local processing, connecting it to an online application, and programming the system to take some action based on the input data. IBM, Amazon Web Services, Microsoft, and Alibaba are among the many companies supporting IoT with their cloud offerings.
Seek Guidance, Knowledge
For those seeking guidance, Lamp suggests Hackster.io. A water leak detector posted on the site, which provides a great trial project for novices, incorporates a microcontroller board, Wi-Fi sub-board, bare conductive electric paint, jumper wires, integrated development environment software, and an IO service. When water contacts the paint, the system sends a text alert to a specified list of people.
Industry knowledge is a crucial component of providers’ success in this space as well. “IoT is great for those deeply entrenched in a vertical market,” says O’Donnell. “But it’s one thing to put a temperature probe on a process, and another to know that lowering it two degrees will increase the output.”
Lamp notes that many companies are leveraging IoT technologies to monitor physical systems. “Building and factory automation are gaining traction, and smart health devices and general medical applications are huge opportunities,” he says.
O’Donnell got to see what these technologies can do firsthand on a recent tour of the Wild Turkey bourbon distillery in Kentucky. “They just installed a big new IoT industrial system to increase production, with deployment completed by a local integrator. IoT offers great opportunities for SI businesses. We’re looking at five to 10 years of growth.”
Indeed, the market is far from mature, and while that’s a perfect situation for the channel, Lamp suggests IT services firms and their customers still need to be educated on the options available to them. “People are just learning about IoT solutions, often at meetups and Hackster live events,” he observes.
The market is primed for solutions that have valid business applications, Lamp continues, and plenty of resources are available for IT firms interested in building them. Starter kits are just one of the many tools to help them gain practical experience with the technologies.
“Customers are just looking for how to use these things in their own situation,” says Lamp. “For resellers, there are plenty of user groups and other types of support available to help you get started.”