Democratizing IoT design with open source development boards and communities

The () is at the heart of what the World Economic Forum has identified as the Fourth Industrial Revolution, an economic, technical, and cultural transformation that combines the physical, digital, and biological worlds. It is driven by such technologies as ubiquitous connectivity, big data, analytics and .

The “democratization of computing” may sound like a nerdy rallying cry, but it’s a revolution that’s been brewing for a while. By breaching the walls that have traditionally divided and software disciplines, the democratization movement has picked up pace recently with the advent of new technologies and forging of fresh communities around one of the most buzzed about technical trends in recent years – the IoT.

However, if the IoT is poised to bring greater opportunity to technology audiences, then its workflows will need to be simplified and make better use of modularized components to address very real technical challenges that IoT designs entail, from software design and sensor networking to on-boarding. , single-board computers (SBCs), and prototyping platforms such as Raspberry Pi and Arduino are part of a new generation of open source, low-cost, and easy-to-use hardware components that are opening up IoT solution development to a much larger group of developers and serving as a for IoT innovation.

Just as important, the maker and hacker online communities that have grown up in support of , SBCs, and open source in general provide a supportive network of expertise to help everyone from beginners to “developers-by-day, makers-by-night” find success with IoT design.

The opportunity and challenge of the IoT

In the very near future, the IoT’s networks of sensors and smart devices will connect virtually every aspect of our environment: our homes, physical objects, industrial workflows, transportation and communication systems, clothing, and the human body, enabling them to connect and exchange data. Research firm IDC predicts 50 billion IoT sensors will be in place by 2020, with more than 200 billion networked devices by 2030.

The IoT also has the potential to democratize hardware and software engineering, bringing a new generation of developers and innovators into the tech industry. Gartner has predicted that by the end of this year, 50 percent of IoT solutions will originate in startups that are less than three years old. Gartner also foresees that makers and startups, not major consumer goods companies or enterprises, will drive acceptance, use, and growth of IoT technologies through the creation of niche applications that find greater recognition in the market.

However, if the IoT is going to propel the democratization of engineering, it needs to be much simpler to design for. IoT solutions are notoriously complex and challenging to build, as developing a complete end-to-end IoT platform requires knowledge of multiple technical domains, including skills for integrating and managing sensors, power management, processors, network connectivity, security, embedded software, data analytics, and cloud platforms. Few makers or small startups have the in-house expertise required to bring such complex products to market.

Therefore, building IoT platforms from scratch is typically not the best approach for most innovators. Integrating hardware, software, and wireless technology with cloud access is complex and can be a lengthy process, with much higher costs and delayed time-to-market. This is where open source development boards come into play.

Supplier networks speed development, provide support

Startups, entrepreneurs, and makers are able to leverage low-cost, open source electronics platforms and SBCs from suppliers such as Newark element14 to put powerful design tools in the hands of more designers faster, making IoT technologies more available and accessible to innovators of all types.

These dev platforms also help bridge the technical gap between engineers and coders. Engineers have traditionally been used to developing the hardware for system development, working in basic bare metal environments with (at most) C-based programming. On the other hand, software engineers are almost exclusively focused on writing code for operating systems (OSs), but as soon as they see a hardware platform with a wire attached, many are concerned with the possibility of shorting or damaging the board. Platforms such as Raspberry Pi and BeagleBoard bring these two camps together, with hardware engineers exposed to higher level programming on a platform with an integrated OS, while software coders now have a low-cost vehicle for better understanding physical computing.

Supplier networks also provide a community for tech advice and support — no question is too trivial — with the chance to learn from both peers and professionals. Community forums plus features like webinars and “road tests” of new electronics, provide a space for engineers and makers to meet and learn more about implementing both new and legacy technologies through open source hardware and software offerings.

Also available are specialized IoT development kits, which provide the hardware, software, firmware, and integration tools to speed design time. Importantly, these IoT kits usually also include sensor deployment components and cloud access solutions to ease the burden of incorporating these technologies into functional designs. Development kits are quickly becoming the equivalent of reference designs for IoT infrastructure, as suppliers begin evolving the out-of-box-experience to include not just the base platform, but essential sensor and cloud access capabilities as well.

For designers ready to industrialize their designs and take them into production, top suppliers also offer design-for-manufacturability and fabrication services to help even the smallest company make the leap from maker to original equipment manufacturer (OEM).

Smaller can be better: Faster, more agile, and quicker to market

The democratization of IoT development is quickly becoming a reality. Open source development kits and other prototyping platforms are proving fundamental for the leveling of the IoT supply chain, accelerating innovation and empowering anyone with great ideas and ambition to design and build successful IoT solutions.

These platforms help get IoT solutions to market faster than ever before. They also provide a disruptive force to the incumbent technology titans thanks to open source technologies and supplier networks that provide access to components, kits, and supportive online communities.

The rise of development kits, shared open source expertise, small batch manufacturing, and the IoT go hand in hand, facilitating quick development and prototyping for a large, dynamic, and fast-growing market.

Cliff Ortmeyer is Global Head of Solutions Development at Newark element14.

Newark element14

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