Harnessing the power of IoT: Microsoft’s unique approach
“I could be wrong, but I’m fairly sure the phrase Internet of Things started life as the title of a presentation I made at Procter & Gamble in 1999." — Kevin Ashton, RFID Journal, 2009
Little could this now-famous British serial entrepreneur have known in 1999 that the name he chose to define his approach for using RFID in P&G’s supply chain would top Gartner’s 2015 Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies report. Hackneyed though the term IOT may be, the truth is that even though it took a long time to get started, it’s here, now, and will be one of the most disruptive technologies for people, businesses, and even cities to appear in decades. IoT will connect people, places, and processes throughout the world using some technologies that didn’t even exist in 1999. And although most people still don’t know exactly what IoT means, they’ll know it when they see it, as it positively affects their lifestyle, health, and productivity.
Today just over 1% of data produced by sensors on IOT devices is actually used for any meaningful purpose. The rest is either stored away or deleted, the obvious result of either the inability to effectively make use of it, lack of knowledge of its value, or both. That’s a shame. If managed and analyzed effectively, this data is a gold mine of opportunity, and one simple analysis of even small amounts of data is usually all it takes for CTOs and CEOs to realize what they’re missing. That includes data from sensors on connected devices, as well as data from transactions, ERP data, customer profiles, social media, and a lot more. After analysis, what precipitates out is a vivid picture of precisely how any organization, whether a city or municipality, small business, or large enterprise, is performing and how it could be more efficient and productive.
Taking the leap
When applied on any scale, putting the power of IoT into action can first appear fiendishly complex. In fact, when first attempting to grasp a term as broadly defined as IoT, it’s a lot like looking at a long to-do list where all items have equal priority. So the best approach is to choose a task, production line, or business sector in which IoT could most easily and quickly be deployed, even on a superficial level, in order to “beta test” IoT in action.
But first, it’s essential to have a strategy. This is a lot easier to create than it might first seem despite the fact that its core must be a single platform that integrates all the tools and technologies required to create next-generation hardware and software. It must also simultaneously integrate legacy solutions, and provide enterprise grade security and other essential ingredients. Until relatively recently, connectivity platforms like this had to be created in-house from scratch costing many millions of dollars. The invariable result was a solution that was not scalable, could not easily accept insertion of new technology, required continuous redevelopment, and became an increasing burden, draining way any benefits it was supposed to achieve. That’s simply not necessary today, thanks in large measure to Microsoft Windows 10 IoT.
Windows 10 IoT makes it possible to create universal applications and drivers that can be used on any Windows 10 device from IoT gateways to point-of-service devices, industrial automation systems, and hundreds of others. With a common device management stack, intelligent devices powered by Windows 10 can be managed with the same tools as an organization’s PC’s, phones, and tablets.
In order to accommodate virtually any scenario, Windows 10 IoT is available in three editions, each one dedicated to specific types of developers and end-users:
Windows 10 IoT Enterprise: Designed to address the needs of retail, manufacturing, health, finance and other industries, this version of Windows 10 IoT is dedicated to running business applications in a secure, reliable, and integrated manner. It supports both universal and classic Windows applications along with advanced security, broad deployment flexibility, and comprehensive infrastructure, device, and application management capabilities. Windows 10 IoT Enterprise is the edition most likely to be used by developers of ATMs, medical devices, information kiosks, and point of sale systems, to name a few.
Windows 10 IoT Mobile Enterprise: For line-of-business mobile devices that require simple yet comprehensive applications for users along with exceptional security, Windows 10 IoT Mobile Enterprise provides instantaneous application access, and native support for barcode scanning and other peripherals. It also offers multiple user profiles, advanced lockdown, and all other capabilities needed in the mobile environment.
Windows 10 IoT core: A large portion of IoT devices are resource constrained and/or low-cost devices operating at the edge of the network connecting sensors to the cloud. Device OEMs need an operating system that offers secure connectivity to short-range networking and the cloud, seamless connections to other devices, and that is both manageable and serviceable in their customer’s environments. Windows 10 IoT Core is optimized for smaller footprint, lower cost devices – opening up new markets and offering the opportunity to create new device types and for factors. It supports both x86 and ARM processors, and is dedicated to running a single application while also running the Universal Windows app and using the same development, configuration, and management tools as the two other Windows 10 IoT editions. A royalty-free SKU is available for every device developer that enables automatic operating system updates via Windows Update when connected to the Internet. As it’s dedicated to IoT devices themselves, it incorporates APIs for GPIO, I2C, SPI, USB, HID, and custom buses, as well as system settings such as power, transceiver control, Bluetooth, and Wi-Fi.
Back to the basics
Getting back to those first steps, the most difficult one will be identifying that single process, product line, or application. In a manufacturing scenario, for example, this might mean connecting robots on the shop floor to back-end processing systems with the goal of increasing productivity, reducing downtime, and monitoring equipment performance. In a pharmacy or supermarket environment, adding expiration dates to the inventory data set can be a simple but effective way to reduce waste by making use of sensor-provided data.
Many other applications can dramatically benefit by the ability to alert administrators to potentially serious conditions, such as end-of-life conditions detected by connected sensors on machines or the components within them. Using apps developed within Windows 10 for use on any type of computer, laptop, or smartphone, actions to rectify these problems can be made well before failures cause revenue-reducing downtime.
Tasks like this pave the way for more complex systems that accomplish the same things but on a global basis using Microsoft’s Azure IoT Suite. Consider the real-world case of a major elevator manufacturer whose systems are in use in more than 150 countries. To enhance elevator reliability and minimize downtime, the company created an intelligent, cloud-based solution based on Microsoft Windows 10 IoT and its complementary components Microsoft Azure IoT and Office 365, in conjunction with application-specific software solutions from several Microsoft partners. In addition to automatically collecting data from the tens of thousands of sensors within the company’s 1.1 million installed systems, it’s now possible for the company to analyze data provided by the sensors in real time, and alert administrators and field technicians about abnormalities so that predictive maintenance can be performed.
Figure 1. Example of data available from Microsoft Azure IoT Suite (courtesy of Microsoft)
This was possible because Microsoft IoT solutions are designed to simplify implementation by working with legacy hardware while also allowing next-generation sensor, communications, and other technologies to be seamlessly incorporated. That’s because Windows 10 IoT integrates with existing infrastructure, rather than requiring wholesale changes to hardware and software that would otherwise present major barriers to enterprise-wide implementation.
The ability to link these diverse systems is possible thanks to Microsoft Azure’s cloud-based approach that can amplify the intelligence of devices anywhere in a network from the core to the edge so that administrators can make sense of the massive amounts of the data sensors produce. Azure tools range from device connectivity and management, to data processing and predictive analytics, as well as workflow automation and visualization that turn raw data into actionable insights.
Security: an essential ingredient
In keeping with its mission of providing a single universal platform, Microsoft Windows 10 IoT employs one proven security model to protect devices from unauthorized access or app downloads, and a unified development and management approach for developing next-generation components and devices. Technologies such as Secure Boot, BitLocker, Device Guard and Credential Guard are integrated with all three Windows 10 IoT editions to ensure all devices are always fully protected. Lockdown capabilities include filters for denying unacceptable key strokes, and layout control to prevent changes to applications and ensure the application interface will always appear the same. A variety of filters are also available to make sure that, for example, unauthorized USB flash drives cannot be used, as well as the ability to block pop-ups that could freeze an application.
These capabilities ensure that devices are only used for their intended purpose and only by those authorized to use them. Two-tier identification and data encryption ensure information security as well. Microsoft continuously updates its enterprise-grade security in order to keep pace with the growing problem of cyber security, which becomes increasingly important as a connected network expands and produces data from more sensors located in more places.
Devices can also be locked down in keeping with specific industry scenarios. These could include customizing line-of-business apps, limiting input device access on a kiosk, or blocking pop-ups on a digital sign. In short, Windows 10 IoT allows organizations to lockdown devices using applications that are unique to the concerns of a specific type of business.
At the core: connectivity
IoT may be the Internet of Things, but it might better be called the Wireless Internet of Things, as without wireless communications there simply would be no IoT. Unsurprisingly, Microsoft is a premier member of the AllSeen Alliance, the world’s largest collaborative open source project developing code for the Internet of Things. Microsoft joins 200 plus member companies committed to developing interoperability standards for devices, applications, and services, with 750,000 lines of member-written code that powers millions of devices today. Windows 10 is the only major operating system to natively support it.
The AllJoyn framework defines a common way for devices and apps to communicate with one another regardless of brands, categories, transports, and OSes. Developers write applications that discover nearby devices, and communicate with each other directly and through the cloud, unleashing new possibilities in the Internet of Things. AllJoyn is an open-source software framework and services set that allows interoperability among connected devices regardless of their operating system or communications protocol. It essentially allows devices and apps to detect and communicate with each other to solve the problem of incompatibility that has inhibited the growth of IoT, making the process basically plug-and-play.
Microsoft contributed open-source software to the alliance called the AllJoyn DSB (Device System Bridge) that allows any AllJoyn-enabled device to appear native regardless of its platform or architecture. AllJoyn DSB can “talk” to a device in its native protocol through a plug-in and create a virtual version of the device that acts as a proxy. So as long as the device is AllJoyn-enabled, an application need not know anything else to connect with it.
The power of azure
Like connectivity, computing and storage in the cloud is a crucial element without which the full power of IoT could never be realized, so Microsoft has created a cloud computing platform and more than 50 accompanying services called the Azure IoT Suite. It complements Windows 10 IoT for developing, deploying, and managing applications, devices, and services through a global network of Microsoft-managed data centers deployed throughout the world. The Azure IoT Suite allows users to monitor assets to improve efficiency and performance, while analyzing data from sources that can be located anywhere. Armed with these tools, an organization of any size can use the power of data analytics to increase its productivity, performance, and customer knowledge through analytics to ensure that it remains competitive regardless of how technology evolves over time.
For example, by performing a trend analysis on data that has been acquired over various periods of time, patterns can be discovered about how specific systems are performing. And as it seamlessly integrates with all existing processes, devices, and systems, it makes it possible to automate workflows using both existing and next-generation sources of data. It supports Platform as a Service (PaaS), System as a Service (SaaS) as well as Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) for creating scalable applications and services and supports not only Microsoft products but those of third-party organizations as well, such as OS X, iOS, and Android.
Azure combines exceptionally high performance computing and data storage in the cloud as well as data management analytics, real-time report generation, increased visibility, improved efficiency, shared data and insights, many levels of messaging, global content delivery of any type of data, networking (including VPNs), domain hosting and express routing and load-balancing, along with many other features. Together, Windows 10 IoT and the Microsoft Azure IoT Suite deliver all of the capabilities promised by IoT possible within the single platform.
… And in the future
IoT has certainly gotten its share of attention over the years, but without all the tools in tech knowledge is required to implement it, progress has been slower than was hoped. However, the situation is very different today than it was only just a short time ago as industry, government, and technology providers have gained enormous insight into how this potentially immensely useful “disruptor” can be.
The ability to deploy a connected network of devices on any scale requires the use of a single platform upon which it can be built, and Microsoft has spent years developing Windows 10 IoT and the Azure IoT Suite to provide not just some but all of the capabilities required of such a platform. Armed with these tools, an organization of any size can use the power of data analytics to increase its productivity, performance, and customer knowledge to ensure that it remains competitive regardless of how technology evolves over time.