Editor’s note: A McKinsey study found that interoperability challenges are the cause of failing to unlock 40-60 percent of the potential value across IoT apps. Are there any solutions in the market yet that adequately address these challenges? How long will companies be dealing with these hindrances to value realization? I spoke with Rabih Nassar, CEO of scriptr.io, a cloud platform that reduces the time and resources required to develop, deploy and support IoT solutions. In this interview, he shares insights about the interoperability challenges and where the market is headed with solutions.
Weren’t challenges of interoperability already a major problem even with big data? Is greater participation in the IoT driving greater interoperability challenges, or is it just making people more aware of the challenges that already existed?
Rabih Nassar: The interoperability problem has existed for decades in enterprise IT, even prior to big data. I think the sheer amount of participating platforms in today’s IoT solutions is making it more important to solve that problem. With each of our customers, even though they come with specific use cases, the need to be able to get systems to talk to each other in a flexible way to adapt data from one system into another system is much higher than what I’ve seen in all my years of working on enterprise software.
From your own knowledge and experience as well as the findings in the McKinsey study about interoperability challenges, where is the biggest impact on the ability to unlock potential value? Is it in brainstorming ideas, developing products, deploying them or supporting them?
Rabih Nassar: The simple answer to this is if you cable the world, and you’re sensing everything and recording all the information that you can, but the end-user systems for that information cannot get access to it, then you automatically have a lot of unlocked value. McKinsey gave the number of 40 percent; whatever the number is, it’s high. I cannot characterize which vertical or which particular functional area is more hit than others. Based on the use cases our customers have, we see it across the board. They are all struggling with trying to solve the same problem.
What is your background that led you to think of developing this platform and launching your company?
Rabih Nassar: Scriptr is a spinoff from an earlier company that I founded 12 years ago. Most of our customers at the beginning were telecom carriers. We built a lot of Internet and intranet software for automating business processes, e-commerce and customer self-service – a lot of stuff that is related to telecom. From that experience, we created an API back-end software platform that we decided to take to the cloud around the time when the cloud became more accepted (2008-2009).
So you did a pivot.
Yes. We pivoted our enterprise platform into the IoT because we saw that the stack that we built addressed IoT orchestration, interoperability and solutions creation extremely elegantly. Building enterprise software for so long gave us exposure to the fact that something in the industry was changing over the past 15 years – the need for greater flexibility in how business logic is implemented and how systems talk to each other and being able to launch and configure multiple systems on demand to solve what an enterprise is trying to achieve instead of just getting a vendor’s one-fits-all solution.
When an enterprise bought a solution such as CRM or ERP 15 years ago, the need for opening that up to other systems was low. You bought into a silo and you occasionally bought a connector to an enterprise directory or something. Today, there is not one IoT solution that has everything contained in it, except maybe the consumer devices. But even there, you get much more value if you, for instance, connect your Nest controller to the location on your mobile phone so the heat turns on at home when you’re close. And that applies to your door lock, garage door, security cameras and other IoT systems at your house. At the enterprise level, that’s all it is now.
We went from getting a particular solution for a customer, then taking a lot of that know-how and building blocks and factoring them into our IoT platform.
Does your platform have competitors in the market today and, if so, how do you differentiate your product?
Rabih Nassar: It differentiates in simplicity. We provide a Zen approach to solving these problems compared to some of our competitors. They have taken a more rigid approach to try to solve the same problems. They force customers into a particular model that is extremely useful for a lot of use cases. However, when you make a platform that is rigid, it becomes heavy as use cases evolve, new systems are introduced and people discover new ways to build applications or new concerns that they want to address. The customer’s developers end up spending a lot of time trying to short-circuit pre-set functionality to find alternative pathways to force the system to do what they need, and that becomes highly unproductive.
There is also a learning curve around the steps and methodology of a rigid model. But at the core of our product is inherent flexibility. From the moment that somebody gets an instance of scriptr, whether it’s through the public cloud or by acquiring it on premises, they can immediately get productive, write business logic and within minutes develop a microservice. It’s very flexible and easy to learn.
To add value and make it very cost-efficient and give people power to develop more complex stuff, we added layers on top of and underneath the scripting layer. Underneath, we added 80 APIs that allow people to address the typical application concerns: identity management, device management, persistent data, messaging, etc.
Above the core scripting layer, we added visual abstractions that make it easy for non-technical people to change parameters, change a certain piece of logic or do simple modifications. And for people trying to create automations, it allows them to express information in a much more elegant way than if they had to write lengthy code to cover that.
Our approach makes it extremely simple to learn and makes the platform powerful and evolvable.
Do you have an opinion as to when these interoperability problems won’t be such big challenges for the IoT participants? You have a platform already. In two years, will this be as big of a problem as it is now?
Rabih Nassar: Yes. The problem will continue as long as you have new systems, new use cases and new solutions to problems that are discovered. I think interoperability challenges are going to be around forever. Granted that, with time, there will be a lot of pre-canned remedies in place for using certain systems together; but that will hold people and businesses like refugees when new systems and sensors and devices enter the market and create new challenges.
Interoperability has always been a problem for enterprises. But the need to connect so many systems was not there as much before the IoT; then, all you needed were two or three connectors. But the IoT interoperability challenge is going to grow because there will be new things added to it. You can standardize the network and transport layers to talk to each other. But it’s impossible to standardize the application layer.
Impossible is quite a statement. Are you saying it will remain impossible?
Rabih Nassar: Yes, because you can’t figure out all integrations between the apps. We don’t know what systems will come up next year or the year after. It’s very hard to plan for standard interfaces on that level beyond the network and transport layers to integrate Application A and Application B. There are very particular use cases, and each enterprise is trying to solve the problem in its way even though some use cases are quite similar. But in each enterprise there are specifics, and you have to create adaptors for them.
Please share a client example of how your platform resolved a client’s interoperability challenges.
Rabih Nassar: One of our customers is a major global construction company with huge multibillion-dollar projects involving five or seven-year engagements and bringing 10,000 to 20,000 workers and a lot of heavy equipment to the construction site.
On one project, we were brought in to provide a solution for tracking a billion dollars’ worth of heavy machinery (bulldozers, giant trucks, tunnel diggers, etc.). They wanted to track usage, equipment misuse as well as gathering data to enable pre-emptive maintenance. What was once a science fiction dream for them 10 years ago is now possible in the IoT.
They attached devices to each machine’s diagnostic port and data was sent from the machine to a cloud platform. That became the problem. They had all that data in the cloud but weren’t able to take it to where they wanted to analyze it, such as an asset-management system, GIS and other platforms. In addition, there was a flood of data that had to be filtered out because it wasn’t useful. All the data had to be transformed, normalized and filtered and then adapted and conditioned to make it compatible with what each system needed.
Now scriptr sits in the middle between the data in the cloud and the enterprise systems, and our platform enables all the systems to talk to each other.
What is your most important advice for businesses looking for solutions to address their IoT interoperability problems?
Rabih Nassar: When people are trying to solve these challenges, they should look for a platform or a method that will give them ultimate flexibility. Systems and interfaces evolve, and the solution also needs to adapt and evolve. Selecting a rigid platform or framework will quickly create mid-term and long-term problems.