What Goes into IoT Platform Development?By ZM Peterson • Mar 9, 2021
The internet of things is everywhere, and millions of everyday products are quickly becoming part of full-fledged IoT platforms. Some of the fastest growing areas are in military IoT, industrial IoT, infrastructure, and automotive. If you want to add intelligence and interoperability to your new product, you’ll have to build an ecosystem around your new platform.
IoT platform development really involves three areas of development: hardware, firmware, and software. In today’s IoT environment, you can leverage existing products and services to build an IoT ecosystem, but you may sacrifice capabilities and you might lose extensibility. If you want to develop everything from scratch, you’ll have significant investment and development time, which creates risk that may be unacceptable. The best design firm and developers can help you mix-and-match hardware and software to create production-grade IoT platforms, along with firmware to tie these elements together into a complete system.
Starting IoT Platform Development
IoT platform development requires a comprehensive plan to work through the three areas I identified above. Full platform development usually begins along one of three routes:
- Off-the-shelf-hardware: This is one of the most common routes for IoT platform development as it’s the lowest cost option. There are off-the-shelf products that can be used to develop and test applications quickly. Raspberry Pi is probably the most popular single-board computer, although they do have a new MCU option that is a good choice for embedded products and IoT products.
- Custom hardware, off-the-shelf software: The custom hardware route should be approached when existing hardware platforms aren’t extensible, don’t have the right form factor, or they don’t have the required digital interfaces. Sometimes, an existing platform just has too many peripherals, making a custom hardware platform more attractive.
- Fully custom development: This is the highest cost option in terms of time and materials as everything is being built from scratch. However, you get the benefit of a totally custom form factor, and you can keep the power/footprint small as you can only include the features you need. This is the approach we take for military IoT platforms and for our aerospace & defense electronics clients.
In all three routes, there is one area that always needs to be customized: the application that ties it all together. If you’re developing something totally new, you’ll never be able to just stitch together a bunch of open-source code to create a working application. Instead, you’ll need to design an application that is tailored to your specific hardware platform, whether it’s a COTS solution, modular solution, or totally custom. Today’s advanced embedded design firms know how to work with these platforms as the hardware and firmware requirements have become more standardized and interoperable over time.
IoT Platform Architecture
The modern platform architecture for IoT products spans across hardware and software, which is then enabled by firmware or an embedded software application. We won’t go too deep into the hardware aspect as we’ve discussed that in many other articles on this blog. The larger ecosystem for IoT platform development stresses interoperability, where an autonomous device in the field can interface with an internal platform and client-facing platform via APIs. This IoT platform architecture leverages existing cloud services to serve applications to users and interface with multiple endpoint devices.
Power to peripherals can be managed by switching with a bus topology. Note that this might require digital/analog switch components.
Today’s embedded application developers have plenty of tools they can use to implement the architecture I’ve shown below. Every web platform these days includes an API with an access token that can be implemented on the device memory, so data can be easily sent back to a custom or off-the-shelf application or service. There has been so much development in integrating disparate platforms that is has never been easier to quickly build and deploy new IoT platforms and applications.
What Happens Next?
If you’ve gone the custom hardware route, you’ll need to get your design through a manufacturing review and into full-scale production. Generally, you should go for a low-volume prototyping run first and work through debugging all aspects of the firmware, software, and UI before going to full scale.
Even if you’ve started your IoT platform development by using vendor development boards to create your firmware and link hardware together, there will inevitably be firmware bugs that need to be fixed. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use development boards; anytime we have an IoT platform development project or an integrations project, we buy the development boards for critical components. It’s a lot cheaper to buy these dev products and use them for firmware development than it is to waste time and money on a prototyping run.
If you do opt to create your own hardware platform, make sure you work with a design firm that specializes in unique hardware platforms and that specializes in mixed-signal design and firmware development. It’s also important to work with a firm that has manufacturing partnerships to help you produce one-off prototypes and eventually help you scale. For ITAR-covered products, make sure to work with a fully-compliant JCP-certified design firm that has partnered with ITAR-compliant manufacturers.
Successful IoT platform development starts at the hardware and firmware level. NWES helps private companies, aerospace OEMs, and defense primes design modern PCBs and create cutting-edge embedded technology. We've also partnered directly with EDA companies and advanced ITAR-compliant PCB manufacturers, and we'll make sure your next high speed digital system is fully manufacturable at scale. We can also design platforms that integrate with your existing tech stack over standard protocols and APIs. Contact NWES for a consultation.