With IoT Plug and Play, developers can connect IoT devices to the cloud, without having to write a single line of embedded code.

Peggy and Olivier Bloch, principal program manager, Azure IoT developer ecosystem, Microsoft, talk about how developers can connect IoT devices to the cloud with IoT Plug and Play without having to write any code. With a $5 billion investment into the IoT, Bloch says IoT Plug and Play is an open modeling language that allows IoT devices to declare their capabilities and will give customers the ability to transform their business.

Below is an excerpt from the interview. To hear the entire interview on The Peggy Smedley Show, log onto www.peggysmedleyshow.com, and select 10/01/19 from the archives.

Peggy Smedley:
I know we’re going to talk about IoT Plug and Play, and for our listeners who might not know about that, I thought maybe before we get into that, you could give us an update on what Azure is and what’s happening in IoT, maybe you could give a brief update to those who might not even know what Azure is.

Olivier Bloch:
Definitely. Azure, or Microsoft Azure, is Microsoft’s offer in the cloud. It’s a set of services, all the way from infrastructure-as-a-service to platform-as-a-service, as well as services that you can use as some sort of turnkey solutions for business applications and so forth. The Azure Team is one of the bigger teams at Microsoft and we have a lot of various types of services and some of them are related to IoT. The aim in that space is to design services that are especially for the scale of IoT.

Tons of IoT devices that connect need to be secure, they need to be monitored and managed remotely. As well as a set of data analytics, specialize in data visualization services that we have. Things that go all the way from a gateway for devices in the cloud called Azure IoT Hub to data analytics with Azure Stream Analytics or from time series insights to full blown app solution platform called Azure IoT Central.

The overall goal is to implement what I like to call the “plumbing” for our customers. We deliver a set of services that are easy to use, easy to assemble, easy to integrate into existing applications and existing infrastructures, to rapidly go through that digital transformation that IoT is offering without having to bother with this “plumbing.” Just focus on the value add, which is on top and on making business rather than reinventing the wheel on the platform level.

So when we’re talking about IoT, Azure and the IoT Central, we really want people to think about that connecting, that monitoring, that managing IoT devices and products. We’re really talking about simplifying everything that’s out there today, right? And that’s what they have to think about because there’s so much complexity out there. That’s what you’re really getting them to think about things in an easier way. A safe, a more secure environment. Correct?

Exactly. Thank you. You nailed it. Our ambition here is really to simplify IoT for our customers. We really want them to not have to build skills in an area which is not their core expertise. Right? If you want to build an application, which is about selling a service to customers, about tracking their dogs or tracking a truck, you don’t want to have to learn what an embedded device is or how to implement a platform that will securely connect the devices to the cloud.

What you want is to add the value on top, which is the intelligence you can put on top of the data that has been extracted from these devices and so forth. But you don’t want to have what I call it, “blind spots.” There’s something you don’t really understand. You don’t have the skills. That actually is in your “blind spot” because you don’t know really what’s going on there and hear that there might be something bad for you there. Security is a good example of that. So simplifying IoT for us is really about making sure there’s no “blind spots” for our customers and that they are able to go on with their own business and adding value on top. Not having to play or have to grow in skills in these areas that are not their core value, their core business.

So, let’s talk about the challenges that you’re trying to address now with IoT Plug and Play, because I think that’s really exciting when we talk about what you’re bringing to the cloud, writing, code, and things like this.

Let me actually rewind four or five years ago when I joined the Azure IoT Team that was just starting. We looked at the actual market, we looked at how things were and we looked at what were the top challenges and we decided to tackle them one after the other. The first challenge that we tackled at that time was the connectivity of devices and the ability to establish a secure bi-directional communication. It was very basic. How do we extract telemetry from devices in a secure way and address those devices remotely?

Along the last few years, we’ve been adding on top of that, building based on the experience, based on the other big challenges that our customers have been facing. Device provisioning service is a good example of how we allow our customers to provision devices at an IoT scale with zero-touch, very simply and very securely allowing devices to provision themselves to connect to Azure IoT Hub.

And then we went onto building something that was at high level. A SAS approach to IoT, delivering IoT Central, and evolving IoT Central based on the customer’s feedback. Another of the big challenges that we’re seeing now, … is that today it’s so hard to not just connect the devices but to talk to the devices, understand what they’re saying.

Very often, the code that you have in the backend needs to be adapted to the code that is on the device itself. What’s the format of the telemetry data? What kind of commands does a device support? What is the format you need to send a command into? What we are developing, and it’s now in preview, is called IoT Plug and Play. Basically, it allows to have a device description published. So that’s a backend application that is able to understand a device based on that device description, and the device itself just has “to comply with the description that is attached to its capabilities.”

So we’ll talk a bit more about exactly what Plug and Play is. At a very high level, I want people to understand it is kind of the equivalent of what happened in the world of the peripherals and devices for the PCs, when people started connecting things to their PCs like mice, keyboards, and other things like that. At the very beginning, it was a big mess because every single hardware manufacturer was actually deciding what the interface would be, what the communication format would be, and then you had to adapt the application. It evolved towards having the notion of drivers, having a notion of a definition on top of these drivers that was called Plug and Play.

Everyone knows USB Plug and Play. No one realizes what happens when you plug a USB keyboard into your laptop and then everything just works magically, it’s because the device was recognized as a keyboard and can now be using any application that requires a keyboard without any change to any application or the system. IoT Plug and Play is the exact same principle for the world of IoT devices, making it super simple for both the device and hardware manufacturers to publish a description of the capabilities of their devices as well as for the solutions developer, the ones who are building the IoT apps in the cloud, to be able to integrate these devices seamlessly into their solutions.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but it sounds like these IoT Plug and Play certified devices can be quickly built to customize IoT solutions from end to end. As a solution provider, it sounds like a device can be cataloged in a simple way and that you can actually build and edit it quickly. That’s what comes to mind to me. Is that what you’re saying?

That’s exactly the idea. So, when you think about the way you want to build an application, the device itself is a source of information, right? Or is something you’re going to send a command to in order to trigger an action. The IoT device doesn’t need to be complicated at the end of the day. What’s going on and the image that you need to have, which actually is already available in preview today in IoT Central, is exactly what you described.

Someone wants to build an application, like a remote-monitoring application where he wants to remotely monitor the trucks that are actually in the streets. And what he will have to do is create the backend with the idea of, “Hey, what do I want to present to my user? I want to have a map where the trucks are. I want to see what kind of temperature that that refrigerator in the back of the truck is at.” Things like that.

And by building the application, what he will be able to do is to say is “Now, let me connect the devices.” The first action could be in and would be to say, “I’m going to check if there’s an existing device in the catalog of the Azure Certified for IoT devices,” and he will see the list of devices. He will be able to navigate that catalog and select the devices he wants. And the IoT Central application will be able to adapt to the device model description that will be made available through the catalog. The other situation could be that you want to work with a specific set of hardware or device and you’ll be able to export a model from the device and the device manufacturer will be doing that if you’re not the one building the device. That model can be imported into your application.

So, the catalog is the ideal place where people will find certified devices, but then they will also be able to import their own custom device model, description, and definition into their solution. Very easy and you will not have to know how to code for a device or start decoding a stream of data coming from an actual device to understand what it’s saying and how it’s saying things and so forth. It’s really that ultimate vision of click, click, click, boom. Now I have my device integrated into my IoT solution.

Are we then talking about you having an Azure IoT SDK that we’re using to build your own library? It sounds like what you’re describing is that you’re streamlining device certification submissions through everything that you’re doing and the way everybody’s building and the process. Whether it’s a fleet, a refrigerator, all the things you just described, no matter what that might be, it can be simplified.

Yeah. The interesting thing is IoT Plug and Play is based on a technology called the Digital Twin Definition Language or DTDL. And that is an open source programming language, if you will, that we put on GitHub. And the idea of DTDL is to allow to describe a model with interfaces providing capabilities such as telemetry types, which have commands such as properties. And so we have a syntax that is proposed as something, which is very generic. It really goes down to the level of what would be things and then you can compose the things together. So several interfaces will compose a device, the finishing model. And you would then be able to export that collection of interfaces in that catalog. The catalog definitely offers an easy way for the hardware manufacturers and the solution developers to collaborate and work together.

So for hardware manufacturers, it exposes their devices and their business to opportunities because customers are looking for devices and they might now be able to find them through the catalog. The Solutions Provider is something that makes their life easier. Not having to search forever for the right device for their solution, they craft and design their solution based on the services they want to deliver to their customers or the solution they need for their own business. And then they will identify the devices that they will need for making that happen. It’s really about that interface.

However, I want to bring back the conversation to this DTDL thing to really stress the fact that it goes low enough so that it’s generic and can be used in other places as well. And it’s open source. So that’s the one thing we want to collaborate with the industry partners on, that DTDL format, which as you notice is called Digital Twin Definition Language. And so that’s something that is what IoT Plug and Play is based on and we want to work on with our customers and partners.

Let’s talk about the partners then with that, because the digital twin is changing everything. It’s the way we can visualize things and we even think like when we look at HoloLens and the development in there and digital twin does so many things for that. And who are going to be those solution partners that are going to do things and see things differently that you talk about this? I think that’s where partners will take all of these creative ideas to the next level that we haven’t even imagined. Right? I mean that’s the most exciting thing is when we think about the development side of this and we think about the creative minds that are going to take this to places, we say it’s only just the beginning with the IoT and AI and so much more, right?

Exactly, and I think you’re spot on. And the partners that we’re working on. As you know, Microsoft is a partners’ company. We build platforms and we work with partners in order to deliver these platforms to the final customers. We have partners that are in the device manufacturing world, but we also have these partners in the solution developments, like PTC, Accenture, Avnet, Cognizant, Wepro, Mesh Systems, and much more.

And very interestingly, these partners, these solution providers are specialized in areas such as healthcare or retail, and they know these worlds, these vertical industries really well. With digital twins, IoT Plug and Play, and the offer we have on Azure, our goal is to allow them to build these solutions even faster and to bring their value into these applications.

Think when you want to do retail, for example. If you want to do a retail solution that would be about monitoring how your cash register occupations, what lines are looking at, or at the same time monitor the HVAC systems in that part of the store. Well, you need to have a way to model all these things, all these places, and the people that are actually in the places or interacting with the things. You need to have this model that comes with a graph to interact with the data all of these things are producing.

And so digital twin is really about that modeling of these things, places, and people and correlating all of these things together. Digital twin is really something that’s going to revolutionize how we’re doing these IoT solutions and applications but also how we’re doing business, because once you have simplified the way you can interact with these things, places, and people, you can focus on adding the value. Once again, you add AI on top of the data has been extracted from these things that you can extract that insights and take action based on that AI intelligence that you’re developing in the cloud. And you benefit from infinite resources virtually in the cloud to implement very smart algorithms and all of that gravitates around this notion of a model of the things, spaces, and people.

When we look at that spaces and people and things, are there going to be new industries that might pop up that we haven’t imagined yet? Or are we typically talking about the traditional industries like we talk retail, manufacturing, and the things that you just described? Or will we see even new emerging ones come up? Because when we talk about bringing things to the cloud and processing things differently, are we just beginning? Because I know we’re talking about building smarter IoT devices in the cloud, but are we seeing new things will emerge from this because we’re solving greater challenges that exist today?

I’m convinced we will see new businesses, new industries popping up. I think we are at the stage where we’re just beginning. We’re just starting to see things evolving. That digital transformation that we’ve been talking about in the last few years is happening. You see the traditional industries migrating to a connected type of industry, like initial automation. This is an area that’s been slow at evolving and has been using technology forever, but we’re seeing it’s evolving toward being more connected, leveraging more of what’s happening in the cloud, what’s happening in AI, leveraging IoT as a tool, and leveraging the notion of connected devices as their plumbing for enabling that digital transformation.

So, the transformation that we’ve been talking about happening in the various traditional industries and then what I think will happen, that’s my personal perspective. We’re going to see some of these industries overlap, merge, and collaborate better. Like the way today you can interact with a line of business applications from an IoT solution and merge these OT and IT worlds seamlessly and very easily and very securely, is something that’s going to transform how people are doing business and how the various industries are working. So, I’m convinced we’ll see not just the digital transformation of the traditional industries, but we’ll see some new ones emerge.

Talking about just in IoT when the Plug and Play in the process of certification, will we see new partners emerge? Because when I hear you say that, it comes to mind that partners might be able to do things greater together because the certification process will be enhanced. So now it seems that we’ll be able to hear a new emergence of partners doing things together because the streamlining and validation process is enhanced and the security might even be better because they can do things faster, quicker, and better than ever before.

I agree. I think we will. I don’t know if we’re going to see new partners appearing, but we definitely will grow with the existing ones for sure. In the hardware manufacturing world, one of the things that IoT Plug and Play will bring, the certification itself is going to be a great way to create that contract that everyone will be able to rely on. So, the contract will be that device definition where you describe a model for that device. As the device manufacturer, you say, “My device will do that. Here’s my contract to you solution developer.”

The solution developer will actually take that contract and say, “Okay, my application will interface with your device using that contract.” And the platform itself will ensure that everyone respects the contract by implementing what’s needed for that contract to be realized. That’s something that the technology itself, the principles of IoT Plug and Play, will have.

The certification process that comes on top is another layer that we warranty as Microsoft with our experience in security, in implementation of platforms, in IT, and so on. We will warranty base on the IoT Plug and Play technology and on the certification process that the device manufacturers and devices create what they say they do and that the solution providers interact with these devices the way that they should be interacted with. So, I think this is definitely the goal here is to work as an enabler and power our various types of partners and customers in building solutions together.

Does that mean that’s the bridge then that you see? Because as I hear you talk, I also see it expediting a lot more technologies. Let’s say in healthcare and things like that or autonomous vehicles, the way things are communicating with lights and street signs and things like this. The ability to do things faster and quicker as well, going to market types of solutions.

I think it will. So, one of the fantastic things with IoT Plug and Play is that it puts everyone at the same level. Today we have fantastic examples of walled gardens for various areas like home automation or building automation or what not. Where manufacturers are developing end-to-end solutions and delivering them with services on top, but they’re not allowing the customers to leverage other common equipments from other manufacturers, at least not easily.

And that perfect example of home automation is that if you take a dimmer from one manufacturer and a dimmer from another one, they might not have the same definition of what properties and what commands they can support. That makes the solution development on top hard. Having a way for manufacturers to declare the interface of the devices in a generic way, with a common base that actually everyone agrees on or that their customers are asking them to respect and support, then it will make it easier to aggregate these various devices.

We’re talking about digital twins. Like digital twins in the Azure Digital Twins platform that is in preview, we’re definitely having in mind this notion of aggregating solutions are coming from different solution providers or hardware manufacturers into a single app, into a single solution that eventually serves several tenants behind. It’s really about having a common language, having a way to work on the same grounds and to deliver that as a platform that is solid based on that experience that we have at Microsoft in developing platforms and providing secure platforms for our customers.

So, Olivier, are there still a lot of challenges the industries are facing … It just seems to be that’s the next extension is IoT Plug and Play. But it seems like we’re still slow to adapt. Why do we still have all these challenges we’re facing?

I think we will still have challenges because technologies are evolving. We are full of ideas to simplify our lives as humans. I do think that we will always find a new big challenge to go tackle, but, to your second part of the question, which is “why are we slow at evolving in that area?” I think it’s not that much that we’re slow, but that the way technologies are evolving is by waves. And basically, I think we are at the beginning of a big huge wave that will transform lots of the industries.

But some industries are slower to take on that change and to adapt and to modify the way they’re doing business. One of the things that we realize, and that’s one of the reasons we came up with IoT Plug and Play, is that connecting existing infrastructure, existing equipment in a secure way is something that most of the industries today want because they have invested in the past in research and development. They have an existing infrastructure, a set of devices, a set of machines, and a set of equipment that they need to get the return on their investments. And they cannot just switch everything overnight because there’s a new technology that brings that or that.

And so something that is really important for us is to keep these technologies is that we’re developing open so that they can be adapted for existing infrastructure. It’s super easy to create a bridge or a connector that would go on top of an existing infrastructure or network. Think BACnet for building automation, for example. You know you can very easily create a little connector that will make these BACnet devices compatible with IoT Plug and Play. There’s no reason not to. You can build that on a gateway that will connect to the BACnet network and would offer these devices as Plug and Play devices to the rest of the world. And by having these technologies being open and working with the industry on them, we hope that it will accelerate that digital transformation that we are starting to see these days.

Olivier, it sounds to me like if Microsoft’s helping IoT to accelerate adoption, at least at the enterprise level, it seems like more companies are going to look for this full-scale deployment. It’s going to happen much faster.

It will. It will. I mean, you recently heard about the announcements we did in the Dynamics 365 world for retail. So retail solutions, they were like turnkey solutions. This is what are our business partners and customers are looking into. How can they focus on their business and improving it with simplifying the business application with Dynamics, but all of that is backed up by a simplified IoT platform. So connecting these cash registers, these store sensors, HVAC systems and so on into Dynamics 365 for retail is done through the IoT platform.

So yes, I think we’re going to see more and more customers, more and more businesses coming on board and the partnership and the relationship we have with our customers with Microsoft will definitely accelerate them.