I’ve said before that all Internet of Things (IoT) projects should start with a great use case that matters. In this post I want to discuss the next logical question: how to architect a system capable of handling the use case. I divide these use case centric IoT deployments into five architectural patterns, and I call them Anonymous, Direct, Buffered, Gateway and Cloudy. I’m going to first introduce a simple metaphor for how to think about IoT systems and then describe these core architectures, discuss their capabilities and limitations and review some interesting variations.
Note that I use Salesforce products here to represent key business systems, but each architecture could be adapted for use with other offerings (although you should really have Salesforce in the mix IMHO).
Also note that these architectures are more about generating actionable insights than they are about managing devices deployed in the field. Great Salesforce partners like Devicify and Cycle30 can help with these issues.
The Metaphor & Key Considerations
The easiest metaphor for a robust Internet of Things system is the nervous system. Signals come in from the extremities, they are processed in the brain, and muscles take action. In an IoT style solution, sensors send signals up the chain, those signals are aggregated and analyzed, and new signals are sent to actuators of some kind. Note that these actuators may be devices, other systems or people.
(You might enjoy reading about the nervous system over on Wikipedia, which is also where I found this great image.)
When you’re designing your system, you should consider:
- Device Sophistication: What is the minimum viable device I can use to gather the signals I’m interested in?
- Reporting Frequency: How often will that device need to report data in order for me to accurately analyze and understand the conditions I’m interested in?
- Next Action: Once the information is aggregated and analyzed, what happens next and is it driven by a person or an automated system?
- Distance: How many steps are there between understanding the need for action and the ability to take action?
A key difference between a standard animal nervous system and a robust IoT system is that the nervous system has private pathways for signals to flow. Most IoT systems will be running on the public Internet, and so will have significant concerns around signal encryption. That is the subject for a different article.
Anonymous implementations take advantage of APIs originally designed for use with basic websites. In the Salesforce world, these would be the Web2Case and Web2Lead APIs. These are incredibly easy to deploy by design, but, also by design, they lack many of the features considered standard in today’s business and IT climate, including authentication that clearly identifies the individual user or device reporting an issue. Device sophistication: high. Reporting frequency: very low. Next action: human intervention. Distance: Low.
The first step above Anonymous is Direct, where the device knows how to authenticate and is powerful enough to communicate securely using standard REST APIs. Direct integrations require standard credentials embedded in each device, and so is generally appropriate for higher order systems and higher value add situations. This architecture isn’t well suited to high volumes of data or transactions, but works great for systems that report, for example, once per day. Device sophistication: high. Reporting frequency: low. Next action: human intervention. Distance: low.
The Buffered architecture enables systems to communicate at higher transaction volumes without requiring the destination system to be aware of the originating devices in a detailed way. Buffered architectures simplify IoT systems by allowing you to create a custom API and to define your own interaction models. On the Salesforce1 Platform, you can easily create a buffered architecture by combining Heroku services with Force.com services. Heroku would be responsible for device interaction and information aggregation. The system would then sync summarized information to Force.com using Heroku Connect or standard REST APIs. Device sophistication: medium-high. Reporting frequency: medium. Next action: automatic or human response. Distance: medium.
Gateway architectures allow you to include much lower power devices in your IoT system. These low power devices communicate with a more sophisticated gateway device that is powerful enough to connect with either a custom API built on Heroku or a standard Force.com API. Although I’ve used Bluetooth to represent the low power device, it is not limited to bluetooth. Gateway architectures open your system to a much greater variety of participating devices since the gateway can serve as a broadly capable adapter class. Device sophistication: low for the device, high for the gateway. Reporting frequency: high. Next action: automatic or human response. Distance: high to medium.
Cloudy architectures are interesting because they essentially roll-up functionality starting with the device end of the typical IoT value stream. The core model is to combine a core piece of hardware with Internet connectivity. The connectivity ends in a cloud service, and the cloud service becomes the end point for talking to business systems. This pattern requires a higher level device in the field along with rich connectivity between that device and cloud system. The integration is then cloud to cloud. This is a great way to get started, but, like any tightly coupled design, your ability to change and modify the system is bound to the strengths and limitations of your supplier’s platform. Device sophistication: high. Reporting frequency: indeterminate. Next action: automatic or human response. Distance: low to medium.
Variation #1: Direct (Augmented)
Sometimes you’ll want to interact with Salesforce APIs directly, but you’ll want to augment that interaction with computing resources located on another system, e.g. an app running on Heroku. This is useful when you need processing not typically handled on the Force.com platform, such as image analysis. In that case, you can easily upload data to Force.com, trigger a Heroku process based on that data, and then complete the interaction by putting the actionable results back in Force.com. Device sophistication: high. Reporting frequency: low. Next action: human response. Distance: medium.
Variation #2: Buffered by Partners
The Salesforce ecosystem has a rich variety of partners, including several focused on building end-to-end solutions for our customers. One way of deploying a system is to use a partner solution as your aggregation layer, looking something like the picture below. Note that the device below could be replaced by a collection of lower powered devices connecting to a more powerful gateway. Device sophistication: medium-high. Reporting frequency: medium. Next action: automatic or human response. Distance: medium.
Variation #3: Double Buffered
It’s also possible to create a double buffered system that puts a partner solution in front of a custom API deployed to Heroku, which then connects to Force.com. This creates a more complicated system, but might be justified by your business case. Device sophistication: medium-high. Reporting frequency: medium. Next action: automatic or human response. Distance: far to medium.
I hope this discussion is useful for you. If you have comments, I’d love to hear them. If you’re working on an IoT deployment, I’d love to hear about that too.Follow @reidcarlberg