Will open source save the Internet of things?

Middleware standards based on open source could be the glue that pulls IoT solutions together

To some degree, open source is already present throughout the Internet of things value chain. Cloud apps that collect and analyze data are heavily dependent on open source software and standards, for example.

And many of the individual IoT devices and gateways run on some version of Linux. "Device manufacturers have taken up open source software at the operating system level at a 40 to 50 percent share, but there's also a lot of proprietary and legacy software embedded in devices and that will continue," says Bill Weinberg, senior director at Black Duck Software.

"And applications will probably be proprietary because they represent an opportunity, at least in the mind of device manufacturers, to provide exclusive differentiation," he adds.

But it's not so much the technology inside the IoT devices, or end user control applications where open source will make the biggest difference. It’s where the need is the greatest -- the middleware, the messaging standards and the behind-the-scenes management applications.

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Without that, customers and enterprises considering investing in IoT technology are having a hard time putting all the pieces together, and many are putting off purchases altogether to avoid betting on dead-end platforms.

The biggest standards are proprietary and, moreover, specific to niche industry verticals, says Ian Skerrett, vice president of marketing at the Ottawa-based Eclipse Foundation, one of the groups looking to create common open source standards for IoT.

On the consumer side, there are many proprietary silos as well, such as Google's Thread platform, and Apple's HomeKit. ZigBee, an older proprietary communication standard has multiple profiles within the standard, so different ZigBee devices don't necessarily speak the same language.

Wider adoption of open source will help Internet of things ecosystems grow and develop by making it easier for products from different vendors to communicate with one another, as well as by lowering barriers to entry for new companies, and lowering costs.

However, with several different open source frameworks competing, and several entrenched proprietary platforms, it will take time to see who the winners are.

Can you hear me now?

Fragmentation is the biggest challenge right now not only for retail and enterprise customers, but also for any vendor looking to participate in the IoT.

"There are a lot of different options for how to build the software, what protocols are used to communicate," Weinberg says. "We're very early and we're not going to see a huge amount of standardization anytime soon."

For example, one manufacturer might make lights, switches, video cameras and temperature controls that interact with one another, and talk to the cloud, and can be managed via an app on a smartphone.

Another manufacturer might offer a similar setup -- but be completely incompatible with the first.

That's a great situation to be in for any manufacturer that happens to have beaten everyone else to the starting gate and becomes the dominant player. It's bad news for all the potential competitors and for any customers trying to connect devices from different manufacturers.

The workaround is middleware that can talk to devices from more than one manufacturer.

"If you're building an app, you're going to have to accommodate a wide range of devices types and a wide range of otherwise incompatible protocols," says Weinberg. "And you'll have to make some tough decisions about which devices you'll accommodate at all."

But the Open Interconnect Consortium's IoTivity project hopes to become the open source glue that pulls everything together, no workarounds necessary.

"It allows devices to discover each other, understand each other's capabilities, and have secure control functionality," says Mark Skarpness, director of embedded software at Intel’s Open Source Technology Center and chair of the IoTivity Steering Group.

"It will also support industrial automation, health care, and automotive," he adds. "It's got a very broad scope. It spans all the different domains of the Internet of things."

Skarpness said that he doesn't expect everyone to join up all at once. "Of course Apple will do their thing, and Microsoft will do their thing," he says. "But for the broad world of IoT devices, the open source platform, embedded Linux and IoTivitiy are a perfect building block to build these products."

It's a strong foundation, he said, and will speed time to market for new devices and apps.

"Also, the collaborative benefit that you get out of working together on a common level that everyone is going to use, that's pretty powerful," he says.

The Open Interconnect Consortium was created in October with backing from Intel. There are more than 50 members, including Cisco, Acer, Dell, GE, Samsung, Honeywell, HP, Siemens, Lenovo and McAfee. A preview of its IoTivity framework was released in January. (Also read: "7 communities driving open source development".)

Its main competitor is the AllJoyn framework, from the AllSeen Alliance. As of mid-February, the Allseen Alliance, a project of the Linux Foundation, had more than 120 members, including Qualcomm, Microsoft, Haier, Panasonic, Sharp, TP-Link, Sony, LG, Cisco, D-Link, ADT, Honeywell, HTC, Lenovo, Netgear, Symantec, and Verisign.

"AllJoyn has a gateway which allows remote access to devices and fine-grained management control of those devices," says Philip DesAutels, senior director of IoT at the AllSeen Alliance.

In addition to allowing devices to talk to gateways, and, through those gateways to the cloud, it also allows for devices and apps to talk directly with one another without the need for a gateway.

There are more than 100 compatible products already on the market, DesAutels says.

"I think what we all want is things to just work," he said. "We don't want to be technologists with all the things in our lives, with TVs and our stereos and our heating systems. We want things to just work, and to work together."

Taking off the brakes

Open source does more than help products from different manufacturers work together.

By providing ready-to-go software, an open source community can help a vendor jump-start its development process.

"They get access to an exponentially greater pool of technical skills that they don't have to acquire and pay for directly," says Jeffrey Kaplan, managing director at IoT consulting firm THINKstrategies. "And if you know this industry, the hardest things to find and to acquire are software development skills."

Open source IoT software can help companies avoid having to re-invent the wheel, significantly reducing the time to market for new products.

Plus, by plugging into an existing ecosystem, a vendor can focus on their particular product, without having to worry about building the surrounding infrastructure.

With open source projects, vendors also don't have to worry about getting admitted into the club. A proprietary platform, however, may dictate design and other factors to its members.

Apple, for example, will probably be very selective in the choice of devices it supports.

"If you want to do home automation with an Apple solution, you have to buy everything from the Apple ecosystem, and that's why I think it will fail," says Eclipse Foundation's Skerrett. "Your garage door opener isn't going to be built for Apple. And your heartbeat monitor -- that's for sure not going to based on Apple."

Plus, proprietary platforms may require royalty payments, he says, which is yet another hurdle for companies to overcome. "Vendors don't want to pay royalties to their competitors.”

The Eclipse Foundation grew out of IBM's Eclipse Project and currently has 228 members, including IBM, Google, Oracle, SAP, Siemens, Texas Instruments, Research in Motion, BMW, Cisco, Dell, Ericksson, HP, Intel, Nokia, and Bosch.

Who's ahead?

According to Black Duck's Weinberg, AllJoyn from the AllSeen Alliance is the best-known of the competing open source IoT frameworks. But it's too early to place any bets, he says.

And while the AllSeen Alliance has been around for a while, the newly formed Open Interconnect Consortium has some big names in its member list as well.

"We have relationships with companies in both those organizations, as well as companies behind the organizations," he says. "And we're well aware that there are other parties out there -- and China might be doing their own thing with their own standards."

AMD, one of the companies making processors for IoT devices, is keeping a close eye on the open source IoT projects.

"What looks interesting is the AllSeen Alliance," says Dilip Ramachandran, director of marketing for the embedded business at Advanced Micro Devices. "We're not partners yet, but are looking at it."

He too, agreed that it's still too early to see which open source stack will eventually win out.

"As the solutions come in, it will take a couple of years to know whether one is going to dominate over the other," he says.

Korolov is a freelance writer. She can be reached at maria@tromblyinternational.com.

This story, "Will open source save the Internet of things?" was originally published by Network World.

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