Monitoring engine performance in a fleet of commercial vehicles, controlling the energy efficiency of a wind farm in the North Sea and controlling security for remote locations are but a few of the powerful applications that businesses have come to demand from their technology investments. During the last several years, we’ve witnessed an explosion in machine-to-machine (M2M) communications and an increased demand for the development and management of M2M applications from industries such as healthcare, automotive, aeronautics, energy, and transportation & logistics. These industries are deploying a wide range of devices and applications to automate, monitor, control and analyze business processes to deliver seamless communication and collaboration to efficiently manage their businesses.
A new generation of M2M technology is creating revolutionary changes in how people communicate with machines and how machines communicate with each other. A variety of factors have aligned to bring it to the next level. Declining costs for M2M devices and the growth of IP networks as well as new regulations are driving demand. Additionally, more robust and interconnected wireless technology infrastructure and increased adoption of cloud computing are enabling a new generation of M2M applications to take hold.
We are at a point in time when people, businesses and communities are beginning to understand the profound impact that collaboration and intelligence can bring about, not only through communication and collaboration between people, but also between things. By most estimates, the number of connected things will reach tens of billions. All of the tier-one wireless operators have established dedicated business units to simplify and accelerate connecting things to their networks. This has become the era of "Internet of Things."
However this innovation in communication and automation also ushers in enormous complexity and challenges, even for the most sophisticated organization. Some of the issues these organizations must address include:
Adding to the Complexity - Advancement in Technology to Connect Devices
Bluetooth, WiFi, GPRS, GPS, Zigbee are but a few of the mobile technologies that enable M2M and machine-to-human communication. These technologies are proving to be a catalyst for interconnectivity, management devices and data collected from these devices. However, we are also experiencing an explosion in the number of technologies and options available to drive this interconnectivity – based on cost, performance, type of devices, etc.
At the same time, device diversity introduces enormous complexity for CIOs and IT managers responsible for delivering M2M applications. In this age of connected devices across domains and applications, the number of protocols is mindboggling. It is not just the protocols listed above - but a plethora are designed for this era of "low power communication such as ANT+, Blue Tooth LE and a new variation of WiFi being designed for low power consumption. Moreover, each application space has their own application level communication protocols including popular ones like the MODBUS, PROFIBUS, IEEE 11073, CAN, LIN and many more.
It is not realistic to create an application for just one device. Our enterprise IT and mobile environments are not homogenous. Field service representatives may need ruggedized devices, business and sales executives want to stay connected via smartphones, iPhones and iPads. Sensors on equipment in remote locations require very different device formats and support.
Antenna, hardware and software for the growing universe of these devices all vary and cannot be hosted on one platform, creating tremendous complexity as organizations work to develop and deploy M2M applications. Enterprises need an end-to-end solution to solve their business problems and not get mired by the complexities of the M2M application development and deployment. They need reliable partners who can understand their business problem and are able to develop, choose and deploy diverse technologies as well as applications to deliver end-to-end solutions in the M2M space.
Building for the Unique Enterprise Environment
As stated earlier, the business value of M2M applications cuts a wide swath through industry and government alike. Increasingly, businesses, federal, state and local agencies are realizing the tremendous efficiencies gained by accessing information from the field and providing real-time communication and interconnectivity.
However, the domains of these M2M applications and associated technologies very much dictate the application design, sensors and technologies needed. For example, the device form factor, security protocols and communication access needed for a healthcare professional offering in-home care to patients are vastly different from those required by a fleet manager tracking the energy efficiency and travel plans of his delivery drivers.
As part of initial M2M planning and design, CIOs and IT managers must consider and then prioritize the business use case for each application. Understanding the unique needs of your industry and environment will dictate important hardware, software and device decisions that must be made early in the application build process.
The Data Dilemma
Business use and environment should also drive initial considerations, planning and purchasing decisions for sensors, controllers, displays and M2M applications. Will the application or controller be hosted on a laptop, a corporate network, in a data center or in the cloud? Will the information be used only for internal purposes or will the information be analyzed, hosted and shared by your customers?
The number of technologies, devices and the diversity of data add another dimension to the complexity of M2M application development and management. M2M application providers need to be expert in multiple technologies, devices and industries to meet the unique and growing needs of customers. To accomplish this, many are tapping expert third parties who have the knowledge, skill set and talented R&D staff to build, deploy and manage M2M solutions against the myriad configurations these technology, device and application choices can create.
The Future of M2M
This is an exciting time for M2M application development and adoption. With the proliferation of new interconnected devices, we are beginning to see enormous innovation and development in this direction. Moving beyond the challenge of simply connecting to a single device, multiple devices and the data exchanged between them are forming new complex systems — better energy management systems, smarter homes, smarter cities. New cloud-based technology and service platforms are providing companies with the tools and services to build these next-frontier applications – more quickly and cost-effectively than ever before.
Because of those possibilities and the complexities that such innovation brings, we are starting to see interesting developments in the service provider space. For example, for industries that require close monitoring, such as high voltage equipment, nuclear facilities and wind farms, M2M sensors and applications are feeding the information to service providers to be processed and analyzed in the cloud, allowing the end customer to be freed from the financial and management burden of infrastructure technology needed to support this workflow. Service providers stand to gain enormously from this growth and they are helping to empower a new generation of M2M technology. We are already seeing innovators, such as Google, make investments in this space.
With the ingenuity and innovation taking place in M2M technology, the futuristic applications that have been only the talk of sci-fi novels are capable of being developed now. Yet managing the complexity always inherent in new frontiers of growth requires technology innovators and service providers to work together to bring it to the next level.
Service providers can now transcend their traditional role of deployment and management of IT and cloud infrastructure and move to providing value-added analytics services to the business user. This brings about new opportunities for service providers as well as significant benefits in terms of improved business efficiencies to the business user.