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Q&A with Noah Harlan on Challenges in the Internet of Things in 2016

By March 29, 2016Article

Editor’s note: Noah Harlan is president of the AllSeen Alliance, a leading cross-industry consortium to advance the Internet of Things (IoT) through AllJoyn, a unified open source development framework. He is also a co-founder of Two Bulls, which developed an IoT platform used by Qualcomm, called Higgns. Two Bulls was selected for the launch of AWS’ IoT service as a designated systems integrator. Two Bulls is a boutique digital product solutions company specializing in mobile and IoT and the infrastructure that supports them; Higgns is an interoperable configuration platform for IoT products and services. I spoke with Noah about the IoT’s progress and where he thinks the IoT is headed in 2016.  

What do you think are the biggest challenges that businesses have as far as moving forward in the IoT? Is it interoperability? 

Noah HarlanNoah Harlan: Interoperability is really all going to come down to the adoption of frameworks. Right now, there is actually a big fight that’s starting to occur among different formats and people are staking out different perspectives on it. 

You have high lock-in systems, either fully propriety ecosystems that are made by a manufacturer such as Apple (as in the case of Apple HomeKit, which is mostly a home-use scenario). Or you have some semi-open things that are on the horizon with Google’s Brillo and Weave, which I presume will involve Android integration. Brillo is the operating system and Weave is the framework. 

And you have some open source alternatives. Currently AllJoyn is the only one that’s actually shipping production code and has a certification system. 

Full disclosure: I’m the president of the AllSeen Alliance, which is an open source consortium that manages the Open Source AllJoyn project, which is one of the available frameworks. It’s the only fully open, free and unencumbered IoT framework. Close to 250 companies are members of the alliance including Microsoft, Qualcomm, Electrolux, Sharp, Phillips, Panasonic, Sony, Technicolor, etc. 

Where does Higgns fit in? That’s a framework, right? 

Noah Harlan: Higgns is not a framework. It’s software that runs on top of frameworks. Higgns provides configuration. The way to think about it is you need devices that speak the same language, and then you need to add logic and grammar. Higgns brings the logic and grammar; but if you don’t speak the same language, then you have another problem. What AllJoyn, HomeKit and Weave do is they define the language. 

Right now, people are trying to put forward different languages that favor their IoT ecosystems in different ways. A good analogy is what happened in the early days of the Web, where people tried to wall off sections of the Web (such as with AOL). Instead, everyone eventually agreed that HTML was what would be used, and then anyone could build their product on top of HTML. HTML ultimately won, and then everyone from Salesforce to Amazon to Yahoo to Google has been able to build their products on top of HTML. AllJoyn is like HTML but for the IoT. 

Companies that are trying to push their business models are trying to promote their own systems for the IoT. The downside of that is that it’s like going back to the days where you have an AOL Internet and a CompuServe Internet and walled gardens. Those didn’t work then, and they’re not going to work again for the IoT. It’s just a question of how long people are going to go through the pain of it not working before they come around to the idea that open languages will make the difference. 

I have heard that companies are having challenges in moving from IoT pilots to scalable, implementable projects. Do you think that’s an issue affecting how the IoT is now growing? 

Noah Harlan: Absolutely. 

What’s your remedy for that? 

Noah Harlan: Unfortunately, what has happened is people go with what they know. In the last decade, we saw the move to the cloud. That created a paradigm for how to build a large, scalable system. You build up a centralized set of resources (a data center), you provide extremely high availability at high scalability, and then you don’t worry about what’s happening out at the edge – you let all those people dial in, and you push as much as you can into the data center. So much of the processing happens server-side. You’re able to Hoover up all this data. 

Think about the scalability of that. If the number of people who exist is N, then the number of Internet connections for each person N is like N+1,  +2, or +3 (each person has maybe a desktop computer, a phone and a tablet) – it’s a relatively small number. But in the IoT, where even a light bulb has its own WiFi connection and can directly connect to the cloud, you’re now talking about orders of magnitude more connections. So the scalability of the cloud needs to go up by orders of magnitude. But, also, the structure of our local networks isn’t built to support that quantity of connectivity. Even if you have the bandwidth, you might not have the available ports and addresses. 

Are there other aspects of cloud technologies that are a challenge today for progress in the IoT? 

Noah Harlan: There is a misunderstanding of where the future of processing lies. In the IoT, you have a lot of devices that have a lot of capability at the edge, and in many cases, those devices are largely idle and available for compute and interop with extremely low latency. So you really want to be out at the edge. 

For instance, Higgns was built to run entirely within a local network, and it doesn’t need to go back to the cloud to execute logic, to have failover or to have high availability. All of the capabilities that you see normally in a cloud data center, Higgns is able to replicate down into a local network so that you can pull any node of that network out and the system continues to function normally. This provides several benefits. 

There’s a latency problem with the cloud. The typical latency when you go up to the cloud is in the 200 milliseconds-plus range. When we run all of that logic locally with something like Higgns, we’re able to bring that down by an order of magnitude; so we’re operating under 20 milliseconds in terms of latency. And this matters for things like lighting, unlocking a door, security, media streaming and a whole host of things you want to be super-responsive. 

And anytime you go up to the cloud, the failure rates go up. You want to have 10 nines of reliability. When you flip a light switch today, it basically always works. When you click a link in a browser, we’ve all experienced on a daily basis sometimes having to click a link twice or having to reload a website. When that happens in things that are life dependent, that type of failure rate is intolerable. 

When you look at the horizon, what do you think will be the biggest change that will help move the IoT forward this year? 

Noah Harlan: I think we’re going to see better interfaces. I think we’re seeing that now with Amazon Echo, which is an exciting interface that is really usable. My four-year-old uses it; she likes to have it tell her jokes. And she likes to use it to turn on the lights in our house. I think that level of usability changes things. 

But in a larger sense, there’s a misconception that there’s going to be a moment when the IoT arrives. It doesn’t work like that because white goods and other “things” get replaced over decades. People will slowly replace devices that are less connected with devices that are more connected. 

IoT is more like a whisper than a boom; it’s not that one day it is here and the previous day it was not. It’s not like it was with smartphones. Instead, we’re going to see more and more devices incrementally. 

I think that we’re going to see more consolidation around certain platforms, which will allow more devices to interoperate. And that’s going to happen over 2016 and 2017. 

And I think we’re going to see a lot more devices flooding the market this year. Users are going to become a lot savvier about what to look for when they’re buying IoT-connected things, whether it’s for commercial or home use. And their expectations of the products that they buy are going to go up a lot. So companies that are not thinking about this and working on it today, will be left behind because they won’t have really effective products out there for two, three or four years. And at that point, some of the games may already be won. 

Noah Harlan is an accomplished entrepreneur and current co-founder of Two Bulls. He currently serves as president of the AllSeen Alliance, working toward shaping the future of IoT. Prior to co-founding Two Bulls, Noah co-founded and served as a board member for Breadcrumb POS, the first mobile Point of Sale system created and established as an industry standard; it was purchased by Groupon in 2012 and is still used by them today. 











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