Unless you’ve already designed, built, and marketed a connected IoT product, it’s almost impossible to imagine the intricacies that will arise. That’s because IoT interconnectedness—and the multilayered implications of that interconnectedness—affect even the most mundane-seeming product decisions.

by Vinay Malekal, Ayla Networks

HVAC product design has become a game of balance to determine how many new features can be squeezed into an existing product design without breaking it.

That approach won’t work for the Internet of Things (IoT). While HVAC architectures have always been composites of multiple, distributed elements, the distributed elements of IoT products operate less and less independently from the system as a whole.

Think About Interoperability

For IoT products to reach their full potential, they must connect and interoperate with the broadest possible range of other connected products, from a variety of manufacturers, as well as with services such as energy management, weather forecasting and environmental conditions. Your IoT products will also need to reach customers worldwide and support cloud-to-cloud connectivity with various IoT platform, manufacturer, and retailer clouds.

Interoperability is something that has to be designed in from the outset; it can’t be added on later.

Plan how your connected HVAC products will interoperate with other connected products—both your own and those from other manufacturers—as well as with various cloud infrastructures and third-party services. Also consider how your connected HVAC products will interoperate with other technologies, devices, and services that might emerge in the future.

The best way to achieve interoperability is through using open, native libraries and other standards-based solutions. Choose a cloud architecture that is schema-less and agnostic to any particular data types. That way, your connected HVAC products can interoperate with existing clouds and connectivity methods as well as future cloud and connectivity approaches.

Approach Security Seriously

Security is as powerful as only the weakest link in the IoT ecosystem, and connectivity introduces serious security challenges. Security for IoT HVAC systems encompasses everything from access and authentication at the device level, to networking and cloud security measures, to mobile or web app security, to securing the IoT data wherever it flows.

Because security is invisible, it can be tempting to view it as a target for cost-cutting, or as something to add later when you see where the budget stands. That approach is not only foolhardy, it can also end up being extremely costly. Because every link in the IoT chain must be secure, going back later means that some security links may not exist and whole links may need to be re-created.

End-to-end security means securing every connection between your IoT product, IoT cloud, mobile or web control app, and any external feeds or third-party services your connected product uses. (See Figure 1.)

End-to-end IoT security means securing every link in the system, and any external feeds or third-party services your connected product uses.

Say you spend $1 million to build the first version of your connected air conditioner, but without end-to-end security. It could cost you another $1 million to build that same version of your air conditioner with IoT security, starting over to include security processes in every link of your connected product. In fact, costs are likely to be higher than $1 million, because some originally insecure aspects may not have the ability to be hardened after the fact. This can significantly lengthen your time to market as well as hinder your ability to scale.

You do not want to be “that company” in the headlines whose products provided the unwitting entry point for a distributed denial of service (DDoS) cyberattack, or a high-profile compromise to your customers’ IoT data.

Don’t assume that IoT security challenges fall only on smaller manufacturers. Internet security expert Brian Krebs recently wrote about security vulnerabilities identified by researchers at Cisco in the connected thermostats from a leading HVAC provider. The point is not to pick on this particular company, but simply to say that even the biggest and presumably best-staffed HVAC manufacturers can still struggle with the intricacies of IoT security.

Take Full Advantage of IoT Data

It’s important to understand that the promise of the IoT is not simply intercommunication among previously disparate products. The real potential of the IoT lies in the ability to take advantage of the huge amounts of data generated by connected products.

Extracting and managing IoT data leads to important information about real-world performance of your HVAC products, and to gain knowledge and insight that has never before been available. You can use this insight to learn from what you’ve already done, to build better products, add new value-added services, and establish new and stronger relationships with your customers and supply chain. (See Figure 2.)

IoT data generated by connected products presents new opportunities to iterate and improve product designs, and establish new and stronger relationships.

Using IoT data can transform your entire IoT product lifecycle, allowing you to feed back real-world usage data to learn what works about installed products and what does not work, then enhancing your products as needed.

Also plan for how to store your IoT data. You might not even envision now what to do with IoT data, but storing it means you can put it to use later. Longer term, IoT data might open new revenue opportunities through add-on services to customers, such as automatic filter replacements, system monitoring, or energy management services, or allow you to continually improve products, fix bugs, and add new capabilities through over-the-air (OTA) communications.

Taking full advantage of IoT data is neither simple nor straightforward, however. It requires specialized data analytics and perhaps data science expertise. As Craig Stedman’s recent TechTarget article on IoT data analytics reminded, “IoT data analytics is still the province of early adopters… Consulting and market research firm Gartner predicted that most IoT data analytics technologies and processes are still five to 10 years away from mainstream adoption. There’s a good reason for that. Gartner analysts wrote that IoT deployments pose ‘formidable’ challenges and typically require investments in a ‘daunting array’ of technologies, plus new data management and analytics skills.”

Plan for Future Updates and Scalability

Technology in general, and the IoT in particular, hurtles ahead at a break-neck pace. Outpacing obsolescence presents a constant challenge.

Your connected HVAC products must be built with flexibility and future-proofing in mind. No matter what features, protocols, or new technologies are required in the future, protect your connected products from getting stuck in technology dead ends.

If you’re using an IoT platform, make sure that it is built upon open standards and that its provider has a proven commitment to keeping pace with IoT technologies, protocols, and standards as they morph and evolve.

Also make sure that you design for secure over-the-air (OTA) updates. One of the biggest differences between connected and traditional products is that connected products are able to change and improve over time—even after installation.

Through OTA updates, you can update the firmware on your connected air conditioner, or add features based on analyzing real-world customer usage of specific IoT products. Your OTA system will need to have enterprise-level security to ensure data integrity and prevent hacking. The security itself can also be updated via OTA communication as needed.

But OTA technology is not magic, and it has certain basic requirements, such as sufficient memory. That means you’ll have to overcome the manufacturer’s deep-seated training and instincts of striving for the lowest possible costs and Bill of Materials. Instead, you’ll have to design in more memory than your shipping product requires—perhaps twice the memory—to create space for leveraging OTA capabilities in the future.

Implementing a handful of connected products is challenging enough. When the number of connected products scales to the many thousands or millions—headed toward industry predictions of tens of billions of IoT devices in the next five years or so—the situation gets far more complex.

Scalability in the IoT means the ability to scale not only in the number of devices, but at the cloud, software application, data, security, reliability, latency, user experience, and even the support levels.

Change Your Mindset from ‘Product’ to ‘Service’

The complexity of the IoT requires an entirely new approach to the creation of products. To succeed in the new IoT world, HVAC manufacturers must shift their mindsets to capitalize on the new opportunities available with the IoT. Start by rethinking how you define the boundaries between a “product” and a “service.”

The IoT is not business as usual. Being successful in the IoT entails leveraging your established strengths as a manufacturer, but approaching the process with fresh eyes. But for those HVAC manufacturers willing to embrace both the potential and the challenges of the IoT, the rewards could be significant.

Ayla Networks

Santa Clara, CA

(408) 830-9844