Enterprise IoT, despite being in the early stages, carries enormous potential. Those that embrace it will redefine the next century of business relationships with their customers. But the skills to successfully design enterprise IoT systems and release them to production are in short supply: IoT-specific knowledge of system architecture, integration, development, deployment, operations, maintenance, and support. Many of the companies making the IoT journey have traditionally not built and delivered these types of complex enterprise software systems before. At Bright Wolf, we are often brought into an ongoing project, and have seen some patterns emerge over the last few years. One particular pattern is so common, we’ve been calling it the “App Trap.”
Enterprise IoT Systems are Living Systems
Enterprise IoT systems are different from internal IT systems in several critical ways. They comprise both a new integration point with your customers’ business processes, and a substantial change to your product offerings. For many of our customers, this change in the business strategy also marks the first time that software systems have been integrated into the product offerings. All this carries with it tremendous opportunity as well as tremendous responsibility. It can be internally disruptive if your internal CRM or ERP system has a hiccup and is down for a few hours unexpectedly, but it is completely different if your IoT system is down and prevents your customers from operating their businesses. IoT systems are dynamic living systems and need to be supported and maintained as such. IoT systems require ongoing updates for normal maintenance, to stay secure in the face of evolving threats, to scale as demand increases, and to evolve with your business model and customer demands.
It’s a Trap!
The App Trap emerges at a relatively early stage of many enterprise IoT projects. Typically, the team has successfully connected a prototype sensor to the target product, and is starting to see data coming in. It’s exciting. The next step seems to be to build an app to display the data, and perhaps enable some basic management functions. So an app developer is engaged, and the team becomes enamored of the beautiful screen shots and the myriad potential ways the app will be used by end customers.
The challenge with this approach is that while user design work is important, focusing on an app distracts from or avoids entirely the much more critical system design work necessary for true enterprise IoT to succeed. Living systems require careful architecture in the early stages to ensure that the foundations are solid. Critical system characteristics such as data modeling, trust and security, identity, and access permissions and policies are difficult if not impossible to retrofit later in a project that started top down.
At the same time, a careful balance needs striking between the needs of the project, and the needs of the system. In order to meet milestones and show progress, successful projects must show progress on the user interfaces that enable both internal and external discussions, demos, and customer trials. But not at the expense of architecting and developing a lasting system infrastructure that recognizes the central role of trusted data as the primary goal for the solution.
In the final stages of the project, it is comparably trivial to adjust an app user interface, as compared to realizing that trusted device identity, secure enterprise back-end connections, or the data model itself need re-thinking.
We’ve seen too many well-intentioned teams fall into the trap where the system interfaces look fantastic, but the architecture won’t support the business case and the project essentially needs to be torn down to the foundation and rebuilt.
Getting to Production
As companies begin their IoT partner selection processes, they often find themselves looking outside their established vendor network for IoT-specific system design skills. They look for IoT-focused system integrators with references and credibility for getting similar scale and scope projects to production. Based on our experience with enterprise IoT, we recommend focusing on system architecture and design from the beginning. If you find yourself already in an App Trap, give us a call and let’s talk about options. We’ve helped several of our clients get out of the trap and into a world of scalable, secure, maintainable IoT systems. We’d be happy to chat about how we could help you too.