Amazon’s leap into industrial IoT at #Reinvent17

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Amazon made a slew of announcements at Amazon Web Services’ Re:invent conference in Las Vegas relating to new and expanded cloud offerings. You can see a Reinvent roundup here. I can’t go through them all, but will highlight those that have relevance for PPR readers in industrial tech. (Note: PPR parent i30 Media derives a large proportion of its revenue from Amazon).

One-click IoT?

AWS IoT One-Click is a service that can trigger basic AWS Lambda functions such as opening a door or reordering an item. It’s the same idea that makes Amazon’s “Dash” buttons so popular for instantly reordering food and sundries from the retailer without having to log in to the website or app.

But we’re not talking about ordering dog food and trash bags. We’re talking about industry, where the stakes are much higher. For many industrial firms, it’s not possible to leverage such tools, no matter how easy they are to set up and run.

The main issue, of course, is any process that depends on the public cloud has to accept that latency and availability may suffer. What if an AWS IoT One-Click function to reorder a critical part can’t be launched, because AWS is down? It happens, sometimes for hours at a time.

A secondary issue: IoT cloud security. Some firms will never accept data or applications launched from a public cloud, no matter how secure the service provider claims it is.

But there are industrial use cases for the new Amazon services. If a firm depends on data outside of its own facilities, it very may well have to fetch it from an application connected to the cloud. An automated irrigation system that uses weather data to determine water or fertilizer coverage on a plot of land will naturally have to pull the data off of a feed somewhere … and that somewhere is very likely hosted on an Amazon, Google, or Microsoft cloud service.

There are other situations in which it’s just not practical to connect to central IT or have edge processing, either because there is no local power available or there’s no space to put the box. The German railway giant Deutsche Bahn is rolling out an IIoT-driven monitoring and predictive maintenance system built by KONUX. Low-power sensors are placed between or near the tracks to monitor the weight, speed, and other metrics of rolling stock and 70,000 switches. The sensors are small, and for most of them, there’s no place to put dedicated edge processing or storage. Instead, the data has to be uploaded to a cloud service (either public or privately managed away from the edge) to generate analytics, alerts, and other machine language-driven services.

There is also an argument to use public cloud services when they are not time-sensitive or a point of failure for a critical system. Certain types of backups or archives, after-the-fact analysis, and specialized applications can use cloud data or compute resources without impacting operations.

Amazon moves into embedded operating systems

Of the other Amazon announcements last week, the one that caught my attention was the  Amazon FreeRTOS, an embedded OS for sensors and other small IoT devices. FreeRTOS has been around since 2003 as a quasi-open-source project; Amazon last year hired the lead engineer Richard Barry and makes the code available via an MIT license.   

According to the announcement, devices running FreeRTOS can now be more easily integrated with Amazon cloud services, or be used at the edge via Amazon Greengrass, which also includes some ML platform capabilities.  

Endpoint

The slew of cloud and IoT-related announcements at Reinvent are classic Amazon. Jeff Bezos’ flywheel strategy involves linking powerful platforms in ways that lead to positive network effects for both (think Amazon’s online retail store and the Amazon Kindle). Encouraging vendors to use FreeRTOS over another emerging embedded OS (LiteOS, TinyOS, VxWorks, etc.) is not just about grabbing a piece of the embedded OS pie, it’s about expanding demand for various AWS services and laying the foundation for long-term control over the enterprise cloud market.

If anyone from Microsoft Azure, IBM, Oracle, Google, or other players in this space is reading this: If you’re not looking over your shoulder already, you need to start doing so right now. Spin up your anti-Amazon countermeasures, partnerships, and customer bonding strategies ASAP. If you don’t, you may very well see Amazon eating your lunch, faster than you can say “Barnes & Noble.”   

As for OT and IT teams, the new easier-to-manage Amazon cloud services such as AWS Fargate and Amazon ECS for Kubernetes (EKS) will be a boon to groups managing back-end processes and applications that can live with cloud latency or the potential for service outages. They promise to make applications easier to write and manage, and potentially bring down costs if they compete favorably with offerings from other providers. But other types of applications that manage industrial automation or mission-critical services cannot be placed on public clouds–the risk to operations or conflict with security need are too great.

Amazon Greengrass may provide some comfort if Lambda instances can be hosted at the edge, but the one thing that I don’t see happening (yet) are the vendor, application, and hardware partnerships needed to make that happen in a plug-and-play way. But you can bet that startups in this space–and maybe some established vendors–will be taking a hard look at the new goodies announced at #Reinvent17.

Stay tuned for #Reinvent18 to see what Amazon does next …

This is an excerpt from a previous edition of the Priority Payload Report (PPR) newsletter. To get exclusive news, analysis, and interviews from PPR every other week, sign up for the PPR newsletter now! The first 30 days are free and you can cancel at any time for a pro-rated refund.