Streamlining IoT device provisioning


At this point, we’ve heard over and over about how big the Internet of Things (IoT) will be – estimates range up to 200 billion devices by 2020 (Source: Intel). That’s a lot of things we need to connect. Many of these devices will be in an enterprise setting with McKinsey estimating 70 percent of value to be captured by business-to-business applications like monitoring a gas pipeline, tracking building energy use, or measuring soil moisture on a farm – not the cool smart home gadgets like thermostats and refrigerators.

To reach these heady forecasts, there are a variety of challenges to overcome – one of which is how to provision and bring online all these new devices. The process of provisioning involves getting each device configured to send data to the right place and authenticate it on the network. This establishes a trusted identity for each device, be it a laptop, database, tiny sensor, or any other data producing or receiving node.

Provisioning is difficult and time consuming at large scale. We can all agree that typing in security tokens, configuring connectivity and installing firmware for tens of thousands of sensors on farms owned by a commercial grower will cost a lot and take a long time! Let’s look at how devices are configured and brought online now, and how we might be able to simplify and speed up this process in the future.

Embedded hardware for makers

For the makers community that works with raw embedded hardware like Raspberry Pis, Arduinos and BeagleBones, there’s a bit of manual work involved in getting data from a sensor to the cloud using an IoT platform. At a high level, the process includes:

  • Install an OS
  • Install firmware
  • Define the data format and who should receive the data
  • Create a virtual device in the platform device management dashboard
  • Apply a security key to the device for authentication
  • Configure network connectivity

Of course, this list is very simplified and inevitable troubleshooting will be required as each step has myriad possibilities – choose from many platforms, OSs, network protocols, etc. It’s easy to see why these do-it-yourself projects take a lot of tinkering, but this process isn’t meant to be scalable.

Consumer products

Most of us are more familiar with the process of getting a consumer product up and running. This generally involves downloading an app and going through a setup wizard. Setting up an Amazon Echo, for example, requires this process and is fairly painless as long as you’re only doing it once. Consumer products have actually done a really good job simplifying this process and making it as easy and fail-proof as possible, but a single uniform product connecting over WiFi only and not interacting with devices from other vendors is a bit simpler than what most IoT implementations will be looking for.

Enterprise implementations

Most IoT projects for companies are in early stages, so the number of devices hasn’t yet ballooned. Current processes aren’t too far from the process the maker community goes through except that hardware and software is customized for each implementation. For a sensor that tells you if a parking spot is full or not, the maker process is followed to work out any kinks and is then repeated many times over using configurations that have been vetted and tested.  While the initial vetting and testing will always be required for any new hardware and software combination, the scaling of a known good configuration is where the greatest impact can be made as projects grow and a greater diversity of things are connected.

The future of provisioning

Once hardware, software, configuration, network and other decisions have been made, there are several parts of the provisioning process that can be streamlined and automated for large scale, enterprise implementations. These techniques require significant planning up front to execute, which is why most project don’t implement them initially as most IoT projects begin small but eventually grow large. As enterprise becomes more comfortable with IoT and project size and scope increase, these are some of the steps that will streamline device provisioning and overall project execution:

  • Flash firmware with a generic configuration onto hardware at the factory
  • Pre-authenticate certain networks that are trusted and secure - the device can then connect and automatically update configuration files from a server based on device info like serial number or another identifier
  • Pre-configure a gateway to connect and configure devices with specific certificates
  • Include a cloning feature and ability to import device IDs in the IoT platform device manager

These changes along with further advances in software and hardware can make scaling IoT implementations feasible when numbers reach tens of thousands and even millions of devices. For example, take the commercial grower we mentioned before with hundreds of farms across the country who wants to install soil moisture sensors and smart irrigation systems. If that grower could simply do the physical installation, power up the devices and have it show up on the IoT platform device manager for a final check, the time and cost savings would be immense. This automation of the provisioning process will be vital as projects increase in size and we already have the tools available to us today.

In the end, scale and profitability of projects often end up hinging, to some degree, on mundane details like device provisioning. To make a more seamless provisioning process a reality, lots of parties need to work together from hardware manufacturers to software developers to network providers and more. With elegant solutions, we expect to overcome challenges to scalability posed by device provisioning that will enable us to get those billions of devices into the field.

Edited by Ken Briodagh

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