Amazon enters battle for the developer with AWS IoT platform, partnerships

Amazon entered an increasingly crowded space with the launch of its AWS IoT platform, but through acquisitions, industry partnerships, and its inherent size and scale, the company is well positioned to become the cloud backend of choice for Internet of Things developers and enterprises.

Take a close look at the activities of big tech companies over the past 18 months and you begin to see strategic positioning across the Internet of Things (IoT) value chain. Organizations like Apple and Google continue work on smart home interoperability frameworks like HomeKit and Thread, while Microsoft, IBM, and Facebook revamp their OS (Windows 10), analytics (Watson), and SDK (Parse) offerings, respectively. Many of them control an entry point into our daily lives with their own smartphone, tablet, or mobile app, and almost all of them have an undeniable presence in the cloud. A little connecting of the dots, and it’s becoming clearer by the day who’s fighting for what, and where.

However, one notable omission from the list has been Amazon, whose Web Services (AWS) platform is widely considered the 800-pound gorilla in the cloud computing space. AWS is comprised of a suite of compute, networking, storage, management, analytics, and other tools delivered to users via an infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS) model that boosts scalability while dramatically reducing costs. Given the already widespread integration of AWS products like Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) and Simple Storage Service (S3) with business systems across the world, packaging these capabilities in an IoT developer offering that eases device-to-cloud connectivity would seem like a no-brainer, right? Apparently. This October Amazon announced a beta release of its new managed cloud platform – AWS IoT (http://aws.amazon.com/iot).

AWS IoT: The architecture

One of the foundations of the AWS IoT architecture is MQTT, a lightweight publish-subscribe protocol that Amazon acquired expertise in through the purchase of 2lemetry last May. Within the context of AWS IoT, MQTT communicates with an AWS IoT message broker (also referred to as the AWS IoT Device Gateway) that sends messages related to a specific topic to all clients subscribed to that topic, including the AWS IoT cloud platform. Based on the data within a particular message, the AWS IoT Rules Engine can then be used to facilitate interactions between “things” and various backend AWS services, which can be integrated on an à la carte basis (Figure 1). For example, developers can create rules that route messages to a DynamoDB table; push notifications can be issued with Amazon Simple Notification Service (SNS); real-time data processing can be performed using Amazon Kinesis; functions can be invoked from AWS Lambda.

Figure 1 | AWS IoT relies on the MQTT protocol for communication with the AWS IoT Device Gateway. A rules engine is then used to invoke actions based on the transported data from AWS services such as DynamoDB, Kinesis, Lambda, Simple Storage Service (S3), Simple Notification Services (SNS), and Simple Queue Service (SQS).

Another powerful feature of the AWS IoT platform is “Thing Shadows” through which virtual copies of devices registered to AWS IoT are stored in a JSON document. This enables persistent states to be maintained across systems, for instance during periods of intermittent device connectivity.

All communications over AWS IoT are protected by enterprise-grade mutual authentication, meaning that a dual SSL connection must be established between servers and clients before messages can be transmitted.

Partnership: The value prop for “thing” developers

So what does this mean for IoT developers? The obvious benefits are the size and global presence of AWS, which can support IoT rollouts at massive scale (billions of devices and trillions of messages, according to the company) and across geographies (AWS servers are located throughout North America, Europe, and Asia, as well as in Brazil and Australia). AWS IoT pricing also helps reduce barriers to entry for makers while remaining affordable for growing IoT businesses with an entry-level tier that provides 250,000 free 512-byte messages per month for one year, and enterprise plans starting at $5 per 1 million messages (depending on region).

But beyond cloud connectivity and services, Amazon offers little support for IoT devices or tailored platforms for specific vertical markets. To fill these gaps, Amazon partnered with several vendors in the embedded engineering space leading up to the AWS IoT announcement, including microcontroller vendor Renesas (http://am.renesas.com) and real-time operating system (RTOS) supplier Micrium (www.micrium.com). Both companies’ relationships with Amazon are a result of the 2lemetry acquisition, but according to Christian Légaré, Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer at Micrium, today’s partnership is about showing “customers a complete path from the end device up to whatever backend services, and then back to the end device.”

“When Amazon launched AWS IoT they wanted to have compatible products available so that makers or hobbyists or developers that wanted to connect something to AWS IoT could do that,” says Légaré. “This is why Micrium worked with one of our silicon partners, in this case Renesas, to develop a kit available on amazon.com that comes preloaded with Micrium software and allows you to connect to AWS IoT in an evaluation system.

“There’s a lot of work we’re doing to improve or add enhancements to this service offering,” he continues. “Right now we’re working with the Amazon SDK that was designed for large platforms, so we had to massage it so it works well with an embedded device. This is normal because the IT guys view the world as if it were a Wintel world, meaning Windows and Intel, or a Lintel world, meaning Linux and Intel. In the embedded space there’s no such thing as Wintel or Lintel. There are all kinds of hardware from the silicon vendors, and there are all kinds of peripherals and tools and compilers and real-time operating systems, so it’s not the same thing. Now, we’re really helping Amazon get their offerings in a format that’s helpful for the people designing and developing embedded devices that will become “things” in the IoT. Besides adapting the SDK, we’re going to be working on adding firmware over the air capabilities, adding device lifecycle management provisioning, registering, and all that to show how you can simplify the embedded device, connect it to AWS, pick the services you want in AWS, and then build your end-to-end system, including mobile apps.”

The AWS IoT-enabled kit from Renesas and Micrium is the Renesas Demonstration Kit (RDK) for the RX63N microcontroller, which includes multiple communications and I/O interfaces, a MEMS accelerometer, onboard LCD, and smart home gateway demo running on Micrium Spectrum software, says Semir Haddad, Marketing Director, MCU and MPU Products and Solutions, Renesas Electronics America (Figure 2). The combination of AWS IoT with a platform that provides low power, connectivity, data processing, security, and software “makes for a kit that is relevant to the IoT,” he adds.

Figure 2 | The RDK for RX63N development kit from Renesas and Micrium offers a range of expansion capabilities, supports the Micrium Spectrum software stack, and is connectivity to the AWS IoT cloud.

“The takeaway from the AWS announcement is that the business model seems attractive and all the tools are available from Amazon at a very limited cost,” Haddad says. “They provide a platform the same way Renesas and Micrium provide a platform with our products and the Micrium Spectrum software. It makes it easier and lower cost to develop IoT applications, and this is going to spark the development of new IoT solutions.”

Enabling the enterprise IoT

Outside of makers and entry-level developers, AWS IoT yields substantial gains for professionals and the enterprise as well. In addition to the Amazon cloud investment that saves organizations from building and managing their own server infrastructure, AWS IoT also enables businesses to focus on core competencies that add value for their customers. For example, Ayla Networks (www.aylanetworks.com) is an AWS technology partner that leverages Amazon’s backend in its IoT Cloud Fabric, an agile application enablement solution designed for OEMs building connected systems (Figure 3). Using AWS and, now AWS IoT, as a baseline, Ayla combines proficiency in embedded resources, mobile development, and DevOps with knowledge of Amazon services in commercial-grade IoT platforms for manufacturers who may not be well versed in cloud development or edge connectivity protocols like MQTT, Bluetooth, or Wi-Fi.

Figure 3 | Ayla Networks’ IoT Cloud Fabric is a configurable IoT application enablement platform designed for OEMs that provides connectivity to any type of product. IoT Cloud Fabric is based on the AWS cloud infrastructure.

“When we started Ayla, the recognition we had was that if you leave each part separate for the Internet of Things, the market won’t take off,” says Dave Friedman, Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Ayla Networks. “The view was an embedded developer doesn’t do cloud, they don’t do big data and certifications, and they typically don’t understand Berkeley sockets and networking.

“Say you’re building a connected ‘fill-in-the-blank,’” he continues. “The typical team at a company might have very similar capabilities in working on microcontrollers and adding in sensors and LCDs and so on, but not a lot of these other parts. As Amazon has always done, AWS started as a set of basic capabilities that they keep building out, and they’re providing more of those parts now that can be woven together to create a finished product. Microsoft Azure is doing a lot of the same things as AWS, but Amazon is putting more parts together so each developer doesn’t have to start from scratch.”

It’s the Amazon focus on infrastructure and cloud services that permits Ayla to create differentiated products and services. The result is a mutually beneficial partnership that also advances the IoT industry.

“If Amazon didn’t exist, Ayla would have been spending $5-10 million a year more,” Friedman explains. “The investment from the IaaS guys allows us to focus on the high-value-add capabilities for our end customers. When you get into the real complexity of how to make multiple different radios talk, like a ZigBee and a Z-Wave and a Bluetooth and a Wi-Fi, there are additional networking challenges that companies like Ayla will solve long, long before the infrastructure-as-a-service guys do.

“It’s a good, solid partnership for us, but also for them as they aim to get into IoT. Since 100 percent of the transactions on Ayla’s platform are AWS transactions, it creates a great partnership because we’re not competing. We have a similar and singular goal to get every manufacturer in the world running on Amazon,” he adds.

The battle for the developer

With the release of AWS IoT, the new Amazon Echo smart home gateway, and the possibility of Kindles running as mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) platforms, Amazon’s intentions are becoming apparent, and the crowded IoT space looks to be getting that much fuller. But for developers, the more alternatives the better, especially with so much room to grow for “things” in the IoT.

“A lot of people are asking themselves, ‘How should I do IoT?’ Now you can test your idea with this at zero cost for the cloud services,” Légaré says. “Amazon is able to abstract complexity and they have a nice user interface on each of their products. If you just want the MQTT broker from AWS IoT you can do that and put rules in the engine and it’s fairly easy to do. So Mr. and Mrs. Developer at home can do a proof of concept, and large corporations that want to deploy a large-scale commercial service can do similar things with the exact same tools. It’s a nice way to get into IoT.”

Additional resources:

Hands-on cloud connectivity, debug, and management. www.embedded-computing.com/25956-hands-on-cloud-connectivity-debug-monitoring-and-management.

Amazon launches IoT platform, embedded responds with off-the-shelf dev kits. http://iotdesign.embedded-computing.com/2445-amazon-launches-iot-platform-embedded-responds-with-off-the-shelf-dev-kits.