Why Jason Shepherd is Determined to Open and Expand the IoT Edge

By Arti Loftus August 14, 2020

We recently sat down with Jason Shepherd – VP of ecosystem at the IoT Edge orchestration startup ZEDEDA – to discuss his relentless mission to build an open foundation to help the industry scale IoT and Edge solutions that enable digital transformation. Read on for more, and meanwhile, don’t miss ZEDEDA’s free virtual Transform event on Wednesday, August 19, during which leading technology players will be discussing all things IoT and Edge, expanding on many of the concepts here.

Featured speakers at  ZEDEDA Transform 2020 include Stephanie Atkinson (Compass Intelligence), Ken Briodagh (IoT Evolution), Harry Forbes (ARC Advisory), Stacey Higginbotham (Stacey on IoT), Evan Kirstel (eVira), Leonard Lee (neXt Curve), Dave McCarthy (IDC), Daniel Newman (Futurum), Dilip Sarangan (Frost and Sullivan), Richard Soley (OMG), Rob Tiffany (Ericsson) and more. Companies participating in thought leadership panels and presentations of industry-specific solutions including Accenture, Advantech, Agora, Arrow, Cognizant, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Honeywell Connected Enterprise, Intel, Foghorn, Inductive Automation, Lanner, Microsoft, Relayr, Rockwell Automation, SAS, Schlumberger, Supermicro and more

When it comes to the future of edge computing and bridging real-time data from sensors and process control systems to analytics at the farthest edge of the Internet of Things, there are few people on the planet more obsessed with cracking the code than Jason Shepherd.

We’ve been following Jason’s career for years, starting with his time at Dell, where he was one of the main architects of Dell’s IoT offering, which continues to thrive today, in large part due to the active role Dell has taken in supporting open ecosystems, evidenced through their support of the Linux Foundation’s EdgeX Foundry, a vendor-neutral open source project building a common open framework for IoT edge computing that started in 2017.

EdgeX is an interoperability framework hosted within a full hardware- and OS-agnostic reference software platform and serves as an important enabler for interested parties to freely collaborate on open and interoperable IoT solutions built using existing connectivity standards, combined with their own proprietary innovations. He and his team from Dell influenced the direction of this growing ecosystem of “plug-and-play components that unifies the marketplace a accelerates the deployment of IoT solutions.”

While at Dell, Shepherd served as Chairman of EdgeX Foundry’s governing board, and was active across all committees, from technical to marketing, and in the process attracted hundreds of developers to the effort. He now sits on the board of LF Edge as is similarly active across the broader community, recently spearheading the LF Edge taxonomy white paper, which is a great read if you’re confused by all the edge lingo out there.

Shepherd pivoted from Dell to join ZEDEDA in November of last year to help the company build an ecosystem of value-add on top of its IoT edge orchestration platform.  ZEDEDA’s cloud based IoT Edge orchestration consoles make it easier for customers to securely deploy solutions at the IoT edge at scale with their choice of hardware, applications, and cloud.

Despite enjoying his time at Dell, Jason was drawn to ZEDEDA’s cause, given his passion for open and the company’s solution is also rooted in open source.  ZEDEDA’s cloud console utilizes Project EVE – which is building a bare-metal edge compute engine as a sister project to EdgeX Foundry within LF Edge. EVE sits at the layer between an application framework like EdgeX and the hardware, and together they provide a great foundation for interoperable IoT Edge solutions backed by completely open and vendor-neutral APIs for orchestration and data management.  Meanwhile, EVE can be used with any other data stack and in any market, as can EdgeX with any orchestration platform.  Valuable independently, but better together.

The mission of Project EVE is to do for the currently fragmented hardware landscape at IoT Edge what Android has done for mobile – become the one open foundation developers and end-users need to abstract hardware complexity and build solutions with their choice of apps and backend.  ZEDEDA contributed EVE as a founding member of LF Edge in early 2019 and offers a commercial cloud based. Orchestration console that leverages the open EVE APIs that also mitigate lock-in.  Meanwhile, anyone is free to build or buy their own using the open APIs.

In addition to decades of experience in the worlds of IT and OT, Shepherd also holds 14 granted and 25 pending US patents, is a singer-songwriter, and performs (mainly online today!) with his band, Belldiver. A graduate of UT Austin, Shepherd still works within the Austin City Limits when he is not traveling globally (and will do so again someday!)

We caught up with Shepherd as he was in the midst of preparing for ZEDEDA’s first industry conference – ZEDEDA Transform - being held virtually given the pandemic, and featuring some of the top technology providers, analysts and influencers working in the Edge and IoT market, to capture a glimpse of how he’s envisioning the future of Edge and IoT ecosystems in our increasingly connected and automated world.

Why are ecosystems so intriguing to you?
There’s an African proverb that says, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” The IT and telecom industries traditionally have required layers of interoperability, interconnection, interworking, and overall cooperation.  Meanwhile, since the dawn of the OT (Operations Technology) world, the space has been mired with a complex landscape of proprietary systems that require complex, expensive integrations. The rise of IoT as a complement to existing control systems and edge computing to offload the cloud to both capitalize on and cope with the data deluge has made it more important than ever to build solutions on consistent, open tools for orchestrating and securing the myriad choices out there spanning hardware, software, and domain-focused services.

Using an orchestra as an example - without a score and a conductor for all the musicians playing different instruments, we will only reach cacophony, not harmony. Ecosystems take time to build, but they are essential to success for companies large and small. The fastest path to scale an ecosystem through a network effect is around a common, open foundation.  The conductor if you will.

At Dell, you were CTO for IoT and Edge Computing and led a team driving-related market and technology strategy, standards, solution planning, and strategic ecosystem development. How has that amazing experience prepared you for 2020 and beyond?
I built the Dell IoT Solutions Partner Program from scratch with the teams at Dell, and we received the 2017 and 2018 IoT Breakthrough Award for Partner Ecosystem of the Year, which I’m quite proud of. Part of the rapid growth of our ecosystem stemmed from  Dell’s leadership in launching the EdgeX Foundry project within the Linux Foundation, which was seeded by Dell’s “Project FUSE” effort that we had been incubating internally since 2015.  In a somewhat ironic twist, the FUSE effort started with an epiphany I had while driving to meet one of the aforementioned siloed OT technology providers. I called my CTO colleagues at Dell from the road and asked – “what if we try this…?”- and the rest is history.

In April 2017 and with backing from 50 founding member organizations, we collectively stood up the largest new project in the then 15-year history of the Linux Foundation, another accomplishment that deepened my belief that as tightly-knit open communities, we can accomplish so much more and create greater value for developers and enterprise buyers. To get an idea of the growth rate of EdgeX as the IoT market began to get a grasp on the importance of an open foundation than reinventing countless platforms in silos – between the 2017 launch and this time last year, the roughly twelve containers that make up the EdgeX framework had been downloaded from GitHub 300,000 times.  In the past year?  Five million.  Now that’s a hockey stick!

Enterprise is an important term for ZEDEDA, which was started by other “big box” tech giants executives from Sun Microsystems, Cisco Systems, and other cloud and open source companies. You have written about creating “Z Harmony” through a standard, open-source, cloud-native Edge – is that a veiled reference to E Harmony, and a play on the “dating game” we often see in the tech world?
Well, yes! Good question, happy you got the joke. In all seriousness, creating a testbed for building Edge and IoT solutions with multiple contributors is kind of like group dating. We can see where the natural attractions lead, and who’s willing to do the work, and play well with others, to solve really hard problems. It takes a certain mindset to understand the benefits of open vs. closed philosophies and to learn how to balance risk and reward. The winners, in the end, are going to be those that are part of something bigger than themselves, have domain knowledge, are offering great services, and/or are building necessarily unique hardware and software that works with an open, consistent foundation.  Meanwhile, people that are burning resources to reinvent the middle will lose ground.

In your “2020 predictions for Edge Computing” article published earlier this year, you highlighted an increase in collaboration on interoperability between different IT and OT stakeholders and building trust in data. How is that panning out?
For starters, that was a nod to the rapid rise of interoperability efforts like EdgeX and Project EVE, not to mention all the great work happening in LF Edge in general. Taking it a step further - companies are increasingly finding that open ecosystems are more important than ever to enable digital transformation, whether they’re on the vendor side or enterprise side. What we’re learning is that in addition to accelerating software, platform, and solution development, is that done right, ecosystem partners can create a “network effect” for maximizing value, both for customers and the bottom line. Maybe that little thing we call the internet wouldn’t have produced such a network effect if it wasn’t open!

Not all ecosystems are equal. Some are a collection of products and services that are curated to be complementary to a central provider’s offering. Some are partners working toward solving a common challenge, often in a common vertical industry or category – smart city ecosystems are a great example of this. Some ecosystems are built around an operations-centric supply chain or a group of partners targeting common customers with a joint go-to-market strategy. An ecosystem in the technology world is a complex equation that’s comprised of both the underlying technology and the people developing and consuming it.  The winners will be those that get creative while recognizing the need to balance reward vs. risk.  In the end, it’s all about driving value!

Can open and closed ecosystem approaches live in harmony?
Absolutely – it’s all about balancing the need for differentiation and “stickiness” with customers while capitalizing on the network effect.  It’s a spectrum – first, there’s completely open on terms of open source, but when it comes to commercial differentiation, it’s not about an open-source free-for-all, rather leveraging the power of open source collaboration to drive a network effect for the commercial aspects of your business. Then there are “closed-open” approaches which provide users with APIs and tools that you can openly program to if you pay access fees or are otherwise advancing the sponsoring company’s base offer. The IoT cloud services are good examples of this. They enable innovation and distribution and make money on the consumption of services, without necessarily competing with their users.

Apple iOS has nowhere near the footprint of the open Android mobile operating system. Is this another example of the trade-offs of open vs. closed?
Apple provides a curated experience, and it is clearly great, but the open-source Android OS provides more choice and, as a result, has over 80 percent of the global mobile OS market share. Android device makers may not be able to collect as much of a premium as Apple because there is a lot of competition, but the upside element is the sheer volume factor. And by no means is this to say that differentiation isn’t possible with an open foundation - Samsung has built a strong ecosystem approach through their Galaxy brand and has recently branched out even further by announcing partnerships with leading content providers to offer a better-together story with their products.

Many ecosystems have failed – what have they done wrong?
The biggest reason ecosystems fail is because the central organizer tried to pull off too much, often thinking they must own everything to differentiate and have stickiness with customers. A completely closed approach takes an immense amount of money to develop and build a groundswell around a central offer. What I referred to as a “closed-open” approach is somewhere in the middle in terms of lift. Meanwhile, an ecosystem architected properly around an open foundation provides the most flexibility and scalability over time, like the internet has done for countless innovators of the past several decades.

That choice of open vs. closed is just one element, however. Highly complex networks in the natural world thrive when they find an equilibrium based on ongoing interactions. The same holds true for IoT solutions at the Edge due to the inherent relationship of actions taken based on data and the need to bridge the physical and digital world in increasingly dynamic ways. It takes partnership, at the Edge, through communications networks, and in the cloud to solve big problems and create sustainable value.

Ecosystems fail when they are not dynamic, and there is not enthusiastic and steady progress. Like anything, they wither and die.

Thanks for your time today, Jason – how can people learn more? 
A lot of what we talked about today is outlined in much more detail in my recent 3-part blog series on building an open ecosystem for scale.  Also, register for free for ZEDEDA Transform happening Wednesday, August 19!  I’ll be on a panel about “matchmaking in the ecosystem: moderated by the one and only Stacey Higginbotham and throughout the five-hour virtual event we have something for everybody – spanning thought leadership sessions on all the hottest tech trends related to Edge and IoT to solutions presented by our growing ecosystem of partners unified by our open IoT edge orchestration solution.  It will be a super informative event, and true to form – it’s open!

Arti Loftus is an experienced Information Technology specialist with a demonstrated history of working in the research, writing, and editing industry with many published articles under her belt.

Edited by Ken Briodagh
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