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Is data interoperability the key to unlocking IoT value?

Much of the hype around the internet of things focuses on smart devices, but the best IoT initiatives will be those led by business need and data

It may rarely be the subject of hype, but arguably the only reason for so much recent interest and innovation in connecting smart things, vehicles, buildings and cities is standardisation.

The universal connectivity of the internet protocol (IP), with managed and unmanaged transport using transmission control protocol (TCP) or user datagram protocol (UDP), has catalysed open systems revolutions in IT, telecoms, industrial systems and even audio-visual (AV) systems.

Anyone, anything, anytime, anywhere provides the “how?” and “what?” foundation from these core standards, but successful and highly scaled-up adoption requires a strong “why?” – defined by both purpose and impetus.

It has become increasingly clear that technology can play a major role in safely connecting the world when physical travel and social restrictions are in place. Right now, these are due to curtailing a serious pandemic, but in the future they may be as a result of limitations due to climate change, costs, resource shortages or other threats.

The risk-based impetus might be stronger currently than the traditional profit growth or cost-cutting motives, but all provide sufficient drive.

To convert impetus into delivering business value, there needs to be purpose. This is where technology-led projects can flounder, because the internal communications – between business and IT groups, or different silos of profit and loss focus – may lack vital understanding of the bigger picture.

The problem of misunderstandings between capabilities and requirements is common in many forms of endeavour, but the use of jargon and absence of common language always makes matters worse.

The concept of the internet of things (IoT) has promised to deliver significant benefits for some time, but many deployments struggle to scale beyond proof of concept. They are all too often technology, rather than business, led. Their purpose is to prove the concept, not improve a business process.

Business and functional standardisation

This is a difficult, but important area where standardisation can help. However, while basic communications and interoperability standards and protocols – Bluetooth, RFID, MQTT, LoRaWAN and so on – are necessary, they are not sufficient. A business overlay view is required, and a place to look for how to accomplish this might be oneM2M.org.

Its name hangs over from the early days of connecting things, but the oneM2M global standards initiative was set up to provide a framework specifically to support the applications and services that most players in the IoT community place on their slide decks.

It was formed in 2012 and pulls together several major worldwide standards organisations – ARIB (Japan), ATIS (US), CCSA (China), ETSI (Europe), TIA (US), TSDSI (India), TTA (Korea), and TTC (Japan) – plus various industry groups, consortia and members.

With so many agendas there is the risk of very slow processes, but the key to unlocking what is often low-margin value from large-scale IoT investments, is a shared understanding. Building this requires a consistent conceptual approach.

OneM2M’s functional architecture is based on a straightforward three-layered model: application layer, common services layer, network services layer. This is helpful as IoT is a convergence (or perhaps more accurately, a collision) of large, well established sectors – IT, industrial systems, and telecoms – which roughly align in turn with the three layers of the oneM2M architecture.

Each sector plays an important role in delivering the expected business value, highlighting the need for combining expertise in innovation, security, reliability and scalable connectivity. IoT projects are generally multifaceted and require interoperability that crosses vertical industry domains.

This raises the importance of combining different skill sets into a collaborative approach that would benefit from a common framework, which is why the collective endeavours of oneM2M might be so important.

Different this time?

This type of functional standardisation is not new, and the technology sector is littered with great standardisations intentions that have failed to fully deliver. So why should this initiative be different?

Ultimately, it may not be, but many IoT implementations are complex, comprised of multiple elements and have to scale to deliver significant success.

Without the commitments and collaboration of many elements, services and vendors, deployments often fail to scale and risk being simply expensive proofs of concepts, demonstrating technology, but little discernible value. The work of oneM2M outlines a common service layer and encourages data interoperability which supports the scaling demands of innovative business purposes.

Data, not devices, is key to unlocking IoT value. Like it or not, scaling requires interoperability and standardisation for the active and symbiotic participation of many on an equal footing. Organisations need to not only get used to that idea, but also get creative in how they build teams to exploit IoT and the digital transformations now being forced upon them by external circumstances.

This is not a technology issue, and the best teams will be small, self-organised and multi-disciplinary, but most importantly, driven by a business purpose and data, not a technical concept based on smart devices.

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