Balancing Network Control and Cost in IoT Systems

By Doug Brune, COO, Mesh Systems

Doug Brune, COO, Mesh Systems

Millions of always on, always sensing and always connected devices generate massive amounts of data. This data must be quickly and safely transmitted through a network before it can create business value through action and insight. An IoT system architect must weigh different options when designing a network that protects the security of the entire organization, users and each device while also being easy to install and use. Another aspect which must be taken into account is how the IoT system will transmit data in a cost effective manner.

"An IoT system architect must weigh different options when designing a network"

Innovation teams must balance four key factors when designing and developing any IoT system.

1. Speed—How frequently and fast does the system need to transmit data between the device to the cloud?
2. Cost—What are the cost implications for speed, multiplied by the number of devices of that fully scaled IoT system?
3. Convenience—Do you need highly technical resources to install and maintain the system or can it be effectively installed and managed by a non-technical resource?
4. Security—What level of data security and firewall protection is needed for the system?

Teams must make tradeoffs between tightly related items of speed/cost versus convenience/security. To make an IoT system convenient, a lower level of security might be needed in some cases; and increasing the system’s amount of data or speed of the data transfer requires higher costs.

So how should an enterprise designing its commercial IoT system balance speed, cost, convenience and security factors?

Evaluating Communication Framework Options

Integration with Existing Network (IEN)

All business organizations—from a convenience store to an enterprise with numerous manufacturing and business facilities worldwide—have network infrastructure in place to facilitate business applications and communications. These networks have rigorous security measures to protect everyone and everything that comes in contact with them. They can also quickly and cost-effectively transmit high volumes of data between endpoints. For these reasons many Innovation Teams believe integrating their new IoT product with existing, dedicated networks can be a good option. Relative to data, IEN scores very high on speed and security.

The downside of IEN is that these IoT systems require expensive technicians and network administrators to grant the devices access to the wide area network. Once field deployed, the ongoing management and updates of the connected devices can be even more difficult. There is a risk that devices may interfere with each other or applications that run on the same network. The high level of centralized control makes the system inconvenient to deploy and very difficult to maintain because working with third party network administrators for thousands and even millions of connected devices can prove to be very challenging. This alone can make it very inefficient to quickly and broadly scale an IoT deployment in a cost effective manner. The bottom line is that any change needed across all the connected devices must be multiplied by the number of sites/devices in the system because centralized control and administration of the entire network is not available. This may make the IoT system cost prohibitive from a commercial perspective—and adoption will be slow or non-existent due to a higher price point.

Bring Our Own Network (BOON)

Another option is for each IoT device to connect utilizing its own network through either a centralized, cellular gateway or build the cellular connectivity right into the IoT device —what we call ‘bring our own network’. This option scores extremely well in the convenience factor because devices are manufactured with self-contained networks and can be installed into the field with minimal technical expertise. An example would be a gateway device that could be powered-on in a location and connect to the cloud with very simple provisioning steps to join it directly to the cloud. This allows the IoT system to be quickly and broadly scaled while also being managed in a cost-effective manner—where installation time counts and has broad reaching impact on the commercial value of the system.

Another benefit of BOON is connectivity issues being contained to individual devices rather than across the entire community of devices. Patches can be handled on a device-by-device basis if needed, or system changes can be pushed out from a centralized management interface. This further improves the commercial value and maintainability of the systems, thereby making them economically more viable.

The tradeoff of BOON is the cost per byte over a cellular network can be higher than an IEN approach. This will increase the recurring cost of a device that needs to be connected every second of the day 24x7. However, there are ways to mitigate these costs such as transmitting data intermittently rather than constantly and optimizing the amount of data across the network. Additionally, the prices of telemetry equipment, modules and chips that enable cellular connectivity continue to decline, which positively impacts the cost of the IoT Smart product.

The Price Customers Are Willing to Pay— Commercialization of Your Smart IoT Solution

Innovation teams must factor in connectivity decisions at the very inception of an IoT system design process. Security, speed and convenience factors will determine whether to connect remote devices by integrating them with a customer’s existing network or by enabling the device to bring its own network. This decision directly impacts costs and the price your customers will pay. Though the cost per byte may be higher in a BOON system, the overall price of the IoT smart product is often times lower. Because BOON devices can be installed in minutes rather than hours without costly technicians, customers have lower installation and maintenance costs per device. As a result, customers can scale a system faster and more broadly—and at the right price point for the given market.

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