Cover Story

Make Your Platform Hold Up

Sept/Oct 2009

Jeff Smith has a keen interest in the exercise equipment industry, but not for reasons you may think. Indeed, he is an active individual; his recent 14-hour, 16-mile-high hike up a mountain in Colorado with his son is evidence of this fact. But for Smith, interest in the exercise equipment industry is more from a technological perspective.

Currently the vice president and chief technology officer with Numerex, www.numerex.com, Atlanta, Ga., Smith has been involved with three startups in the past 16 years—two within the M2M (machine-to-machine) space. He can talk for hours on business strategies for choosing a database for a particular product, the ins and outs of application software, and developing industry standards—which brings us back to his interest in exercise equipment.

In his opinion, this is a great example of how the process of getting something to become a standard—in this case, CSAFE protocol—is just so darn challenging.

“CSAFE was driven primarily by a single manufacturer,” says Smith, “a defacto standard like CSAFE had everything going for it—homogenous market and product, dominant manufacturer, and an established trade association—and it still failed. Unfortunately, the physical interface, network protocol, and the register set (are) not really ‘standard’ for all equipment (in the exercise equipment market) and therefore the interface never became ubiquitous.”

To Smith, the M2M market faces even greater challenges in a quest to form standards.

“Most standards are either defacto or driven by a standards body,” says Smith. “Unfortunately M2M crosses too many markets to allow for a standards body to assume ownership. In fact, many have and therefore many standards have emerged, each one optimized for its own market. Some of them just evolved from standards in the wireline markets that have wireless replacements and most of these are in the lower layers, i.e., protocol standards rather than gateway, database, or application.”

The M2M space is not alone when it comes to this struggle. In fact, the word ‘standard’ can be a dirty one within certain technology circles. As such, this certainly presents a set of challenges for companies building M2M solutions and, eventually, the corporate adopters that benefit from the data culled from such systems.

As of now, the closest thing this industry has to a standard comes in the form of platforms. A loose interpretation of a platform is an underlying foundation that is hardware and application agnostic, giving customers the freedom to configure different components of the technology without limitations. While it can be argued that some platforms don’t quite live up to this definition, there is no debating the fact that adopters of M2M technology need to understand the valuable role that a platform plays in the solution they are either building or adopting.

As such, you need to understand what is required—maybe not necessarily from a technical perspective, but rather from the standpoint of clearly establishing objectives for the role the technology will play within your organization. Is this a departmental solution to a small problem or is it a companywide initiative that will evolve throughout the years? Do you require connectivity in both wired and wireless settings? What type of data are you looking to obtain, and how often?

These are just a sampling of basic questions that eventually lead you to your evaluation of what is available. It is at this point you come across arguably the biggest challenge associated with platforms: What exactly can be defined as a platform? “If you look at some offerings out there, a lot of companies are touting what they call a platform, but in reality it is actually just a management portal,” says Smith. To define a platform Smith likes to take a layered approach and says it should encompass: hardware, gateway software, database, and application.

Another aspect to consider is the way in which the platform will be deployed. Many providers in the market are moving away from the more traditional licensed model and towards a hosted model—commonly referred to as a PaaS (platform-as-a-service) model, or in some cases, putting the platform “in the cloud.” This essentially allows the customer to deploy the platform without the need to manage the underlying hardware and software in-house—essentially meaning, the entire management of the platform is done on the Internet, or “in the cloud.”

John Canosa, founder and CEO, Palantiri Systems, www.palantirisystems.com, Rochester, N.Y., says one benefit to offering the PaaS model is the fact it changes the cost structure for the provider, while opening up opportunities for customers that may not have been able to deploy technology using the more traditional licensed model.

“This allows us to change the cost game for companies (helping them) get started,” says Canosa. “What this does is it opens up an under-served segment of the market, which is the market for small to medium-sized manufacturers.”

Palantiri Systems offers a platform that allows OEMs (original-equipment manufacturers) to build M2M technologies specific to their niche in the market. One of the unique aspects of this platform is the fact it leverages social networking technologies. This opens up a new layer of device collaboration, allowing communities of people to work together to solve specific problems.

Canosa describes the “platform-as-a-service” model as one that is low cost to get started; therefore it can help open up what he calls a huge market for adopting platforms. He says this can potentially create a model where integration is easy, so there is not a lot of upfront professional service fees for enterprise integration or application or device integration.

This brings us to perhaps the biggest challenge associated with platforms, which is one of abundance. More companies continue coming to market with their version of a platform, laying stake to the claim of being agnostic when it comes to mixing and matching different parts of the machine-to-machine value chain.

Given the fact that multiple options exist, the question of how to choose the right platform is more an internal debate than anything else. An examination of both your business and your customers could bring some clarity to the conversation.

Time Tested
Laurie Lamberth has been interested in platforms since her days leading the M2M business development team at Sprint Nextel. Today, as a wireless strategy, business development, and marketing consultant, with a specialty in M2M, the topic comes to the forefront in nearly every client discussion. She suggests a primary piece of advice, along with a small word of caution.

“Like with anything, from buying cars to buying ERP (enterprise resource planning) software, you should come up with a requirements definition and then examine what is available on the market,” says Lamberth. “It’s challenging though, because you are prone to limiting your capabilities to what you put into a requirements definition and you automatically end up coloring your set of needs to what is available rather than saying, I really want to do this and then go do the best you can.

“In picking a platform it is important to think as broadly as you can about the service you want to provide and consult with a large number of different (types) of experts; essentially having meetings and reviewing requirements with as many different parties as you can. Because ultimately they will ask questions to try and understand what you want to do, and by those very questions you will rethink (your strategy even more.)”

The platform, says Lamberth, becomes increasingly important any time you are dealing with a mass market play—like one burgeoning area of M2M: consumer.

A good example in the consumer space comes from Zoombak LLC, www.zoombak.com, New York, N.Y. The company develops and markets consumer GPS (global positioning system) products and technologies. According to Patrice McAree, chief development officer, Zoombak, when the company was initially planning its solution for consumer personal locators, it evaluated several of what he calls “enterprise-grade platforms” before deciding on an alternative.

“To speed up market entry, we designed and contracted (the building of our platform) to a sister company who built a consumer-tailored solution,” says McAree. “Zoombak also managed device client firmware build to integrate into the platform, (and) built our own proprietary mobile operator SIM (subscriber identity module) activation platform to integrate directly into our mobile network partner.

“It is very important that we have a platform that is flexible to accommodate needs of realtime consumer activation and usage. We continue to consider alternative third-party solutions for next-gen services and devices, especially for fully integrated solutions that bring both billing and mobile operator platform connectivity.”

Multiple factors weighed into this decision, including price, customization capability, scalability, integration, ease of use by administrators and consumers, and mobile operator requirements. All are critical factors to consider in the world of M2M, but particularly in the case of consumer M2M, according to some in the industry.

“In our experience, consumer user interfaces, applications, and usage patterns for a time-sensitive service like personal location are much more variable than typical M2M solutions for enterprise,” he says. “Consumers prefer simplicity, flexibility, availability, and usability, which in fact, creates complexity on our platform, our device firmware, and in integrating to various third-party platforms like billing and customer care.”

He points to the fact an M2M solution that, for example, allows several million utility meters to report data once a month at a fixed time, is far different than a location tracking solution, which could have tens of thousands of simultaneous sessions, each doing something slightly different.

“In our world there is no such thing as ‘off-the-shelf’ solutions,” says McAree, “but we are pleased to see several vendors stepping up to add functions and features into their platforms.”

Uncovering the proper business value of a platform is a discussion that crosses multiple segments of M2M. It is just as valuable a decision in the realm of monitoring personal location as it is in monitoring wastewater. SJE-Rhombus, www.sjerhombus.com, Detroit Lakes, Minn., manufactures liquid-level controls for the water, wastewater, and sewage industries. Realizing the value of providing remote monitoring services to clients, the company developed a system designed specifically for use in monitoring pump lift stations and other pumping applications. One component of the system is the I-Link LSN 200 hardware interface and customized data access through a data portal. According to the company, this data portal provides access to status of the monitored equipment, administrative services, report generation, and alarm notifications.

In this case, SJE Rhombus started with an existing platform—from Mesh Systems, www.mesh-systems.com, Appleton, Wis.—and worked to customize it and develop its own hardware devices to feed information into the system.

According to Jeff Thon, business development manager, SJE Rhombus, Mesh Systems provided a secure database, database applications, and a customizable Web interface. It is a platform that is both hardware and communications standard agnostic. “The hardware that monitors the remote equipment and the gateway application that communicates the data to the database, while important, is not the core of the system,” say Thon. “In other words, we really don’t care how the data is transported to the database. In this case, we prototyped using an off-the-shelf gateway device, but we soon jointly built our own hardware that includes (a GSM modem module). In other applications we will use a satellite modem, a local RF module, or some other means to transport the data.”

For SJE Rhombus, time to market and capabilities were the driving factors in its platform decision. “We realized that building the database structure was a very long and challenging process and we simply did not have the time and internal expertise to pull it off,” says Thon. “We chose to spend our effort to build the hardware pieces as the place we could really reduce costs and partnerup on the data handling portion.”

Thon concurs with McAree’s opinion that an off-the-shelf solution simply does not suffice when it comes to building a solution that has very particular needs for a certain vertical market. SJE Rhombus believed it needed to develop the whole technology platform specific for its market so that the products are easy-to-use, well tested, and can be tracked and managed on a large scale. He admits working to develop the platform and the first product took a long time and required a hefty investment, but believes the effort was worth it on both fronts. Having such a platform allows the company to identify new applications and customize very few pieces of the overall system to accommodate the new application in a quick and efficient manner.

When it comes to SJE-Rhombus’ customers, Thon says the value of the platform is evident to some.

“Some of our customers don’t care—they buy a hardware module and they see the Website that they will use to view their data and they are happy with it. They have no interest in how it all works together,” says Thon. “Others realize that the structure that we’ve created is the real value and they like our interface and see that it is built on standards so that it can easily embrace new standards and new Web applications as they become available. Mostly, the platform is of value to SJE-Rhombus as it is the underlying structure that allows us to develop useful, robust applications that our customers want.”

These are good examples of what Palantiri Systems’ Canosa says are the true test of a solid platform. “The value is that a true platform gives (customers) the ability to take their domain knowledge and expertise and codify that into applications that add value either internally or externally to customers. So they are not forced to take a one size fits all and shoe horn it or rip the guts out to make it fit. A platform is designed to make it very simple for them to create their own applications.”

In his opinion, platforms have come a long way. The technology is maturing such that companies can now take what was designed as a horizontal application and apply their domain expertise to create vertical applications.

“It is a lot to ask for an application to work as well in medical device monitoring as it does in tank level monitoring. This goes right to the heart of platforms, and in fact that is the approach we took. You will never hear us say we develop any type of application. Our belief is that OEMs have vertical domain expertise of their equipment, they are the ones that should be creating these value added-applications for themselves and for their customers.”

Most of what is available today can be considered a solid foundation on which to build your M2M strategy. The real value is up to you—more specifically, the ability to clearly define the role machine-to-machine plays for your company and to establish objectives for your solution. It is with this strategy that your platform decision will have a strong and lasting foundation.

As for that quest of standards, it is one that is ongoing in the machine-to-machine space.

Jeff Smith says, “I think for the reasons (stated earlier) it will be even more challenging in this space (to create standards), but I am not a defeatist. At Sensorlogic (one of the companies Smith founded prior to coming aboard Numerex) I put into the public domain the M2MXML protocol and I will continue to drive various standards in whatever way that I can.”

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By |2014-10-15T19:14:25+00:008/31/2009|

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