The Internet of Things Isn’t Driven by Devices as Much as by the Internet Itself

B. Shimmin
B. Shimmin

Summary Bullets:

  • Internet of Things (IoT) adoption is certainly being driven by the promise of real-time analytics and AI at scale, but its ultimate feasibility still depends on something much more mundane, namely how efficiently it can move data between connected devices and backend systems.
  • And yet, according to a recent GlobalData study, IoT practitioners haven’t yet learned that lesson, relying not on fit-for-purpose protocols like MQTT, but instead on the ubiquitous, now aging web standard, HTTP.

At Mobile World Congress this week, networking giant Cisco rolled out a new networking and device management platform for IoT practitioners that promises to enable the creation of extremely large-scale deployments without breaking the bank. IoT at scale is a no-brainer. More devices equal more data. More data equals deeper business insights. But, IoT at scale can be expensive in terms of delivering basic device interconnectivity and management costs.

This is especially true for companies seeking to optimize operations and explore data-driven business opportunities across an existing, sizable base of customer products – be those toasters, refrigerators, or mobile phones. Bandwidth is not cheap; nor is the backend processing power required to support a huge number of devices.

In response such problems of scale, Cisco has rolled out a new platform (Cisco Jasper Control Center for NB-IoT) that optimizes device communications over low-power wide area networks. Cisco’s Control Center software has already garnered the interest of some sizable telecom operators with more than 15,000 end customers. One operator in particular, China Unicom, intends to use the Cisco’s new platform to eventually scale to support over 100 million new IoT devices over the next 24 months.

That sort of scale will be crucial for market opportunities like smart cities and agriculture, where transformational business insights depend upon a real-time, holistic view of all instrumented devices. The trouble is that solutions like Jasper Control Center for NB-IoT are only looking at one side of the performance/cost equation, namely network bandwidth and device power resource requirements.

IoT practitioners need to consider not only the medium (the network), but also the message… that is, the efficiency of the IoT protocol in use and how effectively developers can make use of that protocol at scale.

Right now, IoT practitioners can pick and choose from among a plethora of protocols, some built to purpose like MQTT, others repurposed from more generic communication requirements as with HTTP — the very bedrock of the Internet itself. Most IoT platform players prefer one protocol over another, but they typically won’t penalize users for picking one over the other.

However, not all IoT protocols are created equal. Regardless of network efficiency, some IoT protocols will simply cost more to operate than others, especially at scale. This is most evident in how public cloud platform providers like Amazon, Google, Microsoft, and SAP approach IoT from a financial standpoint.

For most cloud IoT providers, for instance, a protocol like MQTT affords a more refined approach to communications, which in turn allows a more refined approach to billing. On Google Cloud Platform, for example, customers are billed for the entire HTTP payload within both device requests and responses. Customers using MQTT, however, are only billed for messages specific to actionable requests — not for messages used to simply maintain state or make or break a connection.

Even though not yet a full standard, this billing transparency coupled with a lightweight footprint and bidirectional communications has quickly made MQTT the protocol of choice among these public cloud IoT providers. And yet according to a recent GlobalData survey, HTTP is by far the most widely deployed IoT protocol (see Figure 1). Why is that?

Is HTTP the better protocol? No. This finding does not undermine the value of MQTT. On the contrary, it simply underscores value of ubiquity. HTTP is nearing its thirtieth birthday, and even though it is not the most efficient or most capable of protocols, it’s global omnipresence and universal flexibility are unquestionable. And it is gaining more IoT-friendly capabilities, thanks to the ongoing development of the HTTP/2 protocol.

But, this evolution will take some time to play out. And there are many IoT protocols available today. IT buyers, therefore, especially those seeking to build an IoT solution at scale, should take the road less traveled and choose an IoT protocol not based on its popularity, but instead according its ability to tackle the task at hand in the most efficient manner possible.

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