Embedded SBCs face uphill battle in IoT gateway market

Embedded single board computer (SBC) vendors have recently found a new market for their offerings: integrated hardware/software platforms for companies who want to move their existing embedded devices to the Internet of Things as quickly and easily as possible.

Most of the recent activity has been triggered by Intel's late 2015 introduction of its X86-based IoT Gateway built around a software framework developed by its Wind River software subsidiary. Among the SBC companies who have made use of the platform in recent months are ADLINK, Advantech, Kontron, Nexcom, and Portwell.

  • ADLINK’s Matrix MXE-200i makes use of Intel's IoT Gateway to meet the needs of a variety of specific industrial computing requirements. Matrix includes support for WiFi, Bluetooth, and 3G/4G Long Term Evolution (LTE) wireless connections.
  • Advantech is using Intel's Atom E3815 along with the Wind River Intelligent Device Driver Platform in a Moon Island-based IoT Gateway that incorporates a secure communications stack for connecting to the cloud over a number of different wireless protocols.
  • Kontron's KBox A-202 is based on the Intel E3800 Atom processor E3800. It uses Intel’s IoT Gateway to target data intensive IoT applications in industrial automation, transportation and communications. Kontron's embedded application programming interface (KEAPI) incorporates a wide range of industrial interfaces and connectivity options for wireless LTE (4G), GSM (2G/3G) or WiFi support.
  • Nexcom's IoT gateway uses Intel's platform to connect devices to the cloud for data analysis and data-driven decision making, particularly in critical industrial environments where sensor nodes or I/O devices are deployed. It can be configured with different protocol-ready modules for communication over wireless 3G/Wi-Fi, wired LAN networks, and Zigbee, as well as wired fieldbus protocols.
  • Portwell's PI-81A0 uses the X-86 based Quark SoC X1000 at the heart of its Intel IoT Gateway-based offering. The PI-81A0 incorporates a number of wireless protocols as well as dual 10/100 Fast Ethernet and USB.

These various IoT boards include one or more publish/subscribe protocols appropriate to the IoT interaction being targeted: device-device, device-cloud, cloud-cloud and device-human (Table 1).


Table 1: Comparison of common IoT publish/subscribe protocols and their target applications. (Source: Adlink/Prismtech)

Although all these offerings are impressive, each in its own way, these companies are coming a little late to the game. Eurotech, based in Italy, has a ten-year lead as a supplier of integrated hardware/software IoT platforms to companies who want to add machine-to-machine communications capabilities to their offerings.

And there is ADLINK, which is using its recent 2015 acquisition of PrismTech, a supplier of DDS tools since the early 1990s, as part of a strategy to aggressively go after the Industrial Internet of Things market.

Eurotech’s completive edge
According to a recent report from Venture Development Corp. (VDC), Eurotech has built on its extensive SBC capabilities to create a formidable set of IoT hardware and software platform building blocks – and partners – that potential competitors will be hard-pressed to match anytime soon.

According to VDC, Eurotech has also developed close relationships with a broad variety of industry leaders such as Cisco, IBM, Intel, Microsoft, Oracle, and Wind River to maximize its position as an IoT systems integration supplier. On the cloud side, Eurotech is partnered with Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure. More recently, Eurotech has teamed up with the likes of Red Hat and other ecosystem partners to develop off-the-shelf solutions to enable IoT applications on established platforms.

“Many of our competitors in the embedded computer business have only recently begun to adopt integrated hardware/software platforms targeted at the IoT needs of their business customers” said Robert Andres, Eurotech's chief marketing officer. By comparison, Eurotech has been in the software segment for more than 10 years, starting with its initial collaboration with IBM to develop remotely accessed control systems for oil and gas pipeline pump stations.

In partnership with IBM, Eurotech developed the Message Queuing Telemetry Transport (MQTT) protocol, which it has since extended into a variety of machine-to-machine IoT applications in transportation, building and industrial automation, as well as in manufacturing where collection of information about device activity on the factory floor is extremely important.

“At the time of the oil and gas platform efforts with IBM, MQTT was developed to answer a specific set of requirements that none of the existing alternatives seemed to satisfy,” said Andres. “At the gateway level, the system we were building did not need deterministic and real time as much as it needed a flexible light-weight protocol that was easily adaptable to a range of application and cost environments. “

MQTT targets large networks of small devices that need to be monitored or controlled from the cloud and is designed to minimize the loss of data. And because it works on top of the Internet's TCP/IP protocol, it provides a simple, reliable means of monitoring the many streams of data coming from devices installed in the field, one that can be incorporated into already existing company information management systems.

Andres emphasizes that when it comes to operational technology, IoT is not a one-size-fits-all market, especially from a hardware perspective. “A broad range of appropriately sized solutions – from a form-factor (SBC’s, CPU boards with carrier boards for specific requirements, fully certified box products), as well as vertical/environmental requirements and price/performance points – has to be able to leverage the same software elements and build on them.”

Andres said that in addition to IoT hardware like the Eurotech's DynaGate (transportation) or ReliaGATE (industrial, manufacturing) product families, state of the art IoT solutions require well-designed software and communication services layered on top of that hardware (Figure 1 ). At Eurotech, this includes an application framework called the Everyware Software Framework (ESF), which is device software based on Java and OSGI designed to speed up the development of the specific vertical application or business logic. Another important Eurotech IoT building block that fits on top of the communication layer is an IoT/M2M platform called Everyware Cloud, which was designed to integrate easily into existing enterprise IT infrastructures with the aim of providing simple access through standard APIs to real-time and historical data from devices.


Figure 1: Eurotech's IoT gateway platform is an integrated framework of hardware and software building blocks aimed at providing connectivity at all levels of communications infrastructure. (Source: Eurotech)

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Eurotech's new challenger
The biggest threat to Eurotech's continuing dominance in the integrated IoT gateway market is Taiwan-based SBC supplier ADLINK Technology Inc., which recently acquired Prismtech, a provider of real-time publish/subscribe software tools based on the DDS protocol. At the heart of ADLINK's various IoT gateway platforms in the future will be PrismTech's DDS-based Vortex Intelligent Data Sharing Platform.

This platform is a set of light-weight easy to implement software services which includes Vortex OpenSplice, a fully featured DDS implementation for server-class platforms, as well as more specialized real-time embedded environments and operating systems; Vortex Lite (Figure 2 ) which offers real-time data sharing for severely resource-limited devices and sensors; Vortex Café, a Java-based DDS implementation specifically optimized for mobility and Cloud data sharing; and Vortex Web, a JavaScript Data Distribution Service (DDS) API that allows HTML5/Web browser apps to send and receive data to and from the Vortex DDS data backbone.


Figure 2: With a static memory overhead measured in a few hundred kilobytes (400 to 500 Kbytes), Vortex Lite is designed to address the constrained memory footprints of embedded IoT devices. (Source: Adlink/Prismtech)

MQTT vs. DDS. “The MQTT community, with backing of IBM, did a great job of positioning MQTT as the de facto IoT protocol for the Internet of Things quite a while before the DDS community realized that this was also a potential sweet spot for its real-time protocol,” said Andy Foster, PrismTech product marketing manager. “As a result MQTT captured mind share early on, regardless of what it was designed to do or any limitations.” However, as connected industrial systems have become more and more complex, he said that DDS is becoming more widely accepted as a core Industrial IoT (IIoT) protocol, with the Industrial Internet Consortium’s Industrial Internet Reference Architecture (IIRA) recommending the use of DDS as a core IIoT connectivity standard.

“MQTT is okay for pushing data from a device to the Cloud with basic QoS (quality-of-service) to support North-South data flows as is the case in traditional machine to machine (M2M) systems,” said Foster. “However, with an MQTT-based solution it is very much more difficult to support the next generation of IIoT systems that require both device-to-device (East-to-West data flows) for real-time processing and control at the edge of the network as well as device-to-cloud connectivity for big data analytics in the cloud.”

DDS has distinct advantages over the other technologies for applications that require device-to-device (common in the edge or Fog tier of the next generation of IIoT systems) and not just device to-cloud connectivity (typical in traditional M2M architectures or first generation IIoT systems), especially where there is a requirement for high performance, real-time, many-to-many managed connectivity.

“By default DDS communication between publishers and subscribers will be over UDP multicast and combined with a rich and flexible set of QoS polices enables exceptional 'fan-out' scalability,” said Foster. “DDS implementations can reliably scale to tens of 1000s of messages/sec per peer on networks consisting of thousands of devices. In a system where latency is measured in micro seconds and predictable data delivery is a key requirement, only DDS out of these communication technologies can provide the managed real-time data connectivity required.”

Foster said that even before the acquisition, ADLINK was heavily involved in this segment. In addition to implementing Intel’s IoT gateway architecture into its recently introduced Matrix MXE-200i SBC, ADLINK has developed device-to-cloud solutions such as SEMA-cloud and Edge-Pro. He said the first is an 80% working solution out of the box, which allows a developer to quickly create a board or box where all 'vital data' on the cloud can be accessed and acted on directly. Edge-Pro, on the other hand, is geared to be fitted into any existing software architecture, often where a customer has already some cloud or Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) software in place.

While PrismTech's Vortex software platform will continue to be offered to any vendors who want to integrate it into their offerings, Foster said that many of ADLINK's future IoT platforms will depend heavily of the Vortex DDS capabilities, with extra features and capabilities that will allow them to be differentiated from the competition or provide additional value-added.

Eurotech is taking notice of such recent efforts. Andres said that while much of Eurotech's current efforts are in support of its MQTT protocol, he emphasizes that the company is IoT-protocol agnostic. “Though our history so far is in MQTT and OSGI, we have looked at and will be developing solutions based on any number of alternative publish/subscribe approaches,” he said. “It all depends on what the customer base in any particular segment needs. We feel we have built a software framework that will accommodate any number of different IoT publish/subscribe protocol approaches and in any combination.”  

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