Dell gateways look to move IoT from concept to reality

Just as news of Dell’s EMC acquisition crossed the wire, Andy Rhodes, Executive Director of IoT Solutions at Dell sat down to discuss the company’s parallel move into the IoT space with the first in a series of gateway platforms designed to improve data management and analytics at the IoT edge.

What’s Dell’s take on the Internet of Things?

RHODES: This is a big space for us and we’re investing a lot here. It’s obviously very exciting, but IoT is a huge word.

IoT is all about collecting data from these end point devices, which can be anything from smart meters and smart light bulbs to bigger things like trains and trucks and tanks and mining equipment. So this whole notion of the edge and what “things” are is radically different depending on your vertical, your use case, and what you’re collecting data from.

We’ve heard all of the big industry analysis of 30 billion things by 2020, 50 billion, hundreds of billions, but we don’t spend a lot of time worrying about how many billions – it’s billions and we know they’re there. We know that this is coming, and in many cases they’re already there. There’s machine-to-machine in factories and buildings are starting to get smarter.

When we looked at the space, we knew it was about data and data analytics, and we’ve got a lot of great assets already in Dell. We understand how to do servers and storage and networking from our datacenter products; we’ve bought companies like StatSoft, Inc., so we do big data analytics. But what we found when we analyzed it, if you have 30 billion things at the edge creating exabytes of net new data and you have to backhaul all of that to the cloud or datacenter, that’s a really, really tough task; even with the continued reduction in cost of transporting data around networks there’s still so much data there that backhauling it would be commercially unviable for many of these IoT projects. That coupled with everything that’s connected out there that has wireless technology or could be legacy or in places in the world where backhauling doesn’t make sense. Plus, when you really analyze a ton of the data coming off these things, a lot of it in its raw form is somewhat useless – if it’s a light bulb telling you every second it’s on, that’s a lot of data if you’ve got 10,000 light bulbs in your building. It’s the changes of state of the data that’s really interesting.

So, we’ve embraced this whole concept of the IoT gateway, which sits and aggregates and analyzes data way closer to the sources of that data. It’s a building block in a new architecture that brings together all of the sensors at points where that intersection of data needs to happen. The gateway does the first part of aggregation and analytics of that data, and then can send data back to the thing itself to control it or back into the data center, if there are many of these gateways, for the next tier of insights and data processing that needs to happen. It’s almost like the spam filter for the cloud or the data center in an IoT environment, especially in the commercial world.

How is Dell tackling the challenges of IoT gateway development?

RHODES: As we get into the gateway world, we see three really clear vectors of what creates a great gateway. The first is how much analytics and processing power do you want on that machine, and that’s dependent on the use case, the customer, and how many sensors they want to connect up. Unfortunately, that’s one of those “it depends” answers. We’ve had customers doing building management that don’t need a lot of analytics power, we’ve had others that really want to collect data from all of these different sensors from many different areas.

The second is I/O. So, what are you connecting it up to? If you’re in the building world you need legacy connectors like RS-485 or CAN bus because they use BACnet protocols.

And then the third is what I would call environmentals. So, where is this thing actually going to live, what’s the operating temperature environment that it will live in? That’s the third element of a good gateway design – understanding your target market for the environment it’s going to stay in and how long it will stay there. We know that PCs refresh every 12-15 months, customers tend to have a three-year lifecycle. But in the industrial world, in the commercial world, if customers are building these in to aggregate the data from their things, that’s a five-year lifecycle and they’re probably going to sit in their environments for around seven years, and that’s exactly what we’ve done in our first gateway (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Dell’s IoT Gateway 5000 Series is the company’s first purpose-built gateway for the industrial and building automation markets. Based on the Intel Bay Trail processor and with the ability to operate across -30 ºC to 70 ºC temperature ranges, the IoT Gateway 5000 Series includes physical interfaces for CAN Bus, serial, RS inputs, and ZigBee/802.15.4, among others, and supports OSs such as Ubuntu, Wind River Linux, and Windows 10 IoT Enterprise.
(Click graphic to zoom by 1.9x)

As far as the connectivity path, are you providing forward migration for wireless?

RHODES: There’s a lot of wireless technology in the gateway natively. We know that you’ve got to have a bunch of wireless technology natively, so whether it’s wireless LAN or Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, that’s native in the design, but we know that as soon as you put I/O down a customer is going to come and tell you you’re wrong.

What we feel much of the value proposition from Dell is having standardized lead times, a minimum order quantity of one, and pricing that’s more akin to non-customized projects. That’s why, because we don’t want to do lots and lots of custom gateways, we’ve designed this to have an expander module, which will be available in a couple of months. The expander module gives you some PCIe expander options and some general I/O expander options so customers can add that plus the ability to add more accessories around ZigBee and Z-Wave and other wireless protocols.

What types of chips are being used as the core of these gateways?

RHODES: There will be a roadmap of gateways over time. The 5000 Series gateway we’re announcing is based on an Intel Bay Trail processor, and that’s another interesting topic because what we’ve found as we went out and sized some these applications is customers are still trying to figure out how much is enough edge processing, and what they’ve asked us to do is provide head room in the processor stack because once they’ve deployed the gateway it costs three times more to redeploy the gateway than it does to buy headroom in the analytics power. Customers told us that because every time they run into a bunch of data and sensors, they think they have the business model well defined and then great ideas pop up all the time that require more analytics at the edge. Given that these things are going to sit in the industrial environment for 5-7 years, they don’t want to have to go roll trucks and redeploy these things in a year’s time as they come up with new and exciting ideas of how to use the gateway.

That’s why we went with the Bay Trail to begin with, plus Intel is doing some really exciting stuff in this space and is a very good partner of ours. They really understand the need to have security and manageability built in at many levels of the gateway.

Given your emphasis on manageability, what is the Dell approach to the integration challenges that lie ahead?

RHODES: If you back up a level, the operations technology people, the people that are running the factories, the people that are doing the deployment solutions, this is where they meet IT head on. For many years they’ve worked on the fringes of IT, but not in the core of IT. As we’ve come across this, this is really a convergence of IT and OT. IT cares about things like data security, manageability of the data and the devices, they care about governance of the IT solution and the lifecycle of the IT project. The operations technology people speak in different language. They speak in languages of increasing the yield in my factory, or saving energy in my building. It’s much more business-based metrics.

So our philosophy is around making these gateways look like an operations technology box on the outside, i.e., if someone walked up to the gateway, you’ll see it’s a very industrial machine, and the customers who have worked with those interfaces will know where to plug the right stuff in. So in that notion, the inside of it needs to look very much like what IT is used to. So they have to be able to update headless machines over the airwaves, they need to be able to secure it and manage it very similar to the way they secure and manage a lot of their other devices. So we’ll have our own cloud client manager interface that allows for updates of BIOS firmware that allows you to patch the system and drive software updates, and then we’ll also allow them to hook into their existing management tools. We know that a large percentage of our customers use Microsoft System Center as an enterprise-wide systems management toolkit, so they’ll be able to plug into those existing IT legacy tools that they’ve already got.

So OT on the outside and IT on the inside in our early evaluation programs has resonated incredibly well with our customers because the familiarity of how to use the gateway in its real environment where there are no moving parts and it sits on a DIN rail and the temperature ranges are -30 ºC to 70 ºC, that’s all operations technology-type language and use cases. And then make it look like IT on the inside so the IT guys aren’t scared to put it on the network because they know it comes from Dell, it is manageable, and it’s highly secure. And by security it’s everything from a trusted platform module (TPM) down on the chip all the way down to chassis intrusion, and then using assets from SecureWorks and SonicWALL that we’ve bought over the past couple of years to better secure the gateway.

This is the first optimized, purpose-built gateway of a series in our roadmap. The verticals and the use cases will require different sizes and different shapes of these gateways, and as I said, the three vectors that we think about are analytics power, I/O, and how hardened it needs to be for that environment.

The big thing that we see is that customers don’t know where to start on a lot of these projects, so the more use cases we can bring to them, the better. IoT is very conceptual until you make it real.

Andy Rhodes is Executive Director of Internet of Things Solutions at Dell.

Dell IoT Solutions