photo by Michael Miller

In the World of LoRaWAN, Alliances Accelerate Experimentation

By Cynthia Artin

May 9, 2017 -- It is an understatement that the fast moving, still fragmented and steadily growing universe called the IoT and IIoT has thrown off more open source, open platform, ecosystem partner communities and developer enablement initiatives than any other technology shift in history.

While telecommunications, for example, has always demanded interconnection, and computing has always demanded interop, the pace at which IoT/IIoT is moving, and the relatively low barriers to entry for companies to build new sensors, devices, applications and solutions, has created a fertile environment for innovation and investment.

We’ve been observing the dynamics for years and begun to see a new “circle of influence” rising up and dominating what has traditionally been the realm of large enterprise movers and shakers, players in the capital markets and tech giants whose ubiquity and market power have protected them from disruption leading to destruction.

The new influencers and creators? The developers.

Whether they are mechanical engineers making physical things work, software developers making those things smart, network developers connecting those things, systems developers mapping how it all comes together or solution developers whose mission it is to solve business and social problems – developers are awesome, and they love to find and work with each other.

The largest enterprises in the world are building entire DevOps groups to support developers who are the lifeblood behind the “digital transformation” all businesses must make to remain relevant. Large enterprises are hiring more and more developers and outsourcing less, as digital solutions become the means to compete, and applications bundled with a company’s core products become the “value add” as nearly everything we create in the future can be enhanced with smart features.

When we learned that Senet, the largest and fastest growing LoRaWAN service provider in North America, established yet another web-based platform for IoT developers, we wanted to understand why they built it, how they are attracting developers to it and how it leads to commercialization for the developers who engage.

Steve Ball, who is the Senior Director of Product Management at Senet, explained “Our developer portal is the first entry point for a new developer wishing to test LoRa devices on the network. We pulled together a range of onboarding tools, making it easy to create a login, access documentation and register a device. It’s really that simple.”

Senet allows developers to register up to 10 non-production devices for free, and includes visibility into how the devices are working, the payloads being transacted, RF (radio frequency) performance and more. The developer can also set policy to stream that data to a destination URL of their choosing, into their own private platform or into third-party platform, some which have been pre-integrated.

When asked why so many platforms are sprouting up, including Senet’s , Ball said, “Most developers are starting with platforms – they make it easy to connect to the network and forward the data to the application where analytics reside – and the platform also provides tremendous insight to our company so we can constantly improve our network-as-a-service offering and related technology. Developers are finding us through networking and other platform relationships, and we’re finding that the direct link to sign up is being shared and driving a lot of organic uptake for us.”

Senet also provide a means to request access from their website, but have found that what really generates enthusiasm and engagement is doing workshops and small events. Ball was recently on the West Coast of the U.S., hosting gatherings in the “NFL” cities where Senet’s Points-of-Presence are located.

“We go out at least once a month with developers in the cities we serve, often with ecosystem partners like MultiTech, the radio module and device company. They’ll bring the hardware, we’ll bring the network and the pizza.”

Senet also co-hosts gatherings with myDevices, given that they have pre-integrated with that company’s access platform, Cayenne. “We don’t have to do a lot of whiteboarding or death by PowerPoint presentations in these developer meetings,” Ball said. “The developers bring their laptops and they dive right in, onboarding devices and connecting to the network, building apps in real time, while sharing a lot of ideas.”

Ball confirms that the community effect is of great importance in getting anything off the ground in the world of IoT/IIoT. “We have been active with the LoRa Alliance from the very beginning, and it has become what could be the most successful technology alliance in history based on attracting hundreds of members in a relatively short period of time.”

The LoRa Alliance is an open, non-profit association of members initiated by industry leaders to standardize Low-Power Wide-Area Networks (LPWANs) being deployed around the world to enable Internet of Things (IoT), machine-to-machine (M2M) and smart city and industrial applications.

Alliance members collaborate to drive the global adoption of the LoRa protocol (LoRaWAN) by “sharing knowledge and experience to guarantee interoperability between operators in one open, global standard.”

“No company can survive in technology today, particularly in IoT, without being an active member and contributor to the ecosystems,” Ball said. “We all have to try and make everything simpler – the complexity will not be solved if we don’t attract developers together and help them create business solutions that can be successfully commercialized.”

Ball went through a laundry list of what’s required in the world of LoRa. “For edge devices, you need the LoRaWAN interface – you need hardware design experience, radio frequency knowledge, a board that meets FCC regulatory requirements, application software development even after you get through the firmware, hardware and sensor combinations. Add to that the network skills? No single person, team and only the rare, massive company can pull it all off without collaborating deeply, and even those tech giants are highly aware that developers and start-ups can build with more agility and less cost when they are not burdened with enterprise overhead.”

Workshops have proven to be more than just a great networking opportunity for those who attend, and Ball himself. “It’s a product management director’s nirvana,” Ball said. “I get all kinds of visibility into go-to-market strategies, use cases, products and challenges I wouldn’t have been aware of without being so active with the community we’re building.”

Ball has also become something of a “matchmaker” in the community – “Inventors need referrals, and every day I am directing them to the LoRa Alliance membership, to cool companies and developers with similar interests, and to the other platform providers we work so well with.”

When asked about Open Source, Ball revealed that a lot of their solutions are built on Linux, and while the LoRa alliance is not exactly open source, they are non-profit and have collectively created the LoRaWAN protocol as an open specification, “built around the need to share this knowledge and cooperating in the evolution of the protocol,” Ball said. “Collaborators and competitors are joining up in our LoRa world and growing larger ecosystem that is leading to competitive solutions with choices that drive everybody’s costs down. The economics of ecosystems is compelling – another reason why those who work outside the standards will likely have a very hard time competing in our increasingly open world.”

Ball is bullish on IoT given the evolution he’s witnessed first-hand. “Opportunities abound – low-power wide-area networks make sense as they greatly extend battery life – there is low data throughput as a consequence but not every IoT deployment needs tons of analytics and bandwidth. End devices are creating the use cases in the future, because edge devices are getting very inexpensive – we’re starting to see really cool devices with a sensor, an antenna, and a microcontroller, that can run for ten years on the same battery and cost $20-30.”

After testing up to 10 devices, the developers on Senet’s “Foundry” move up from the shared development environment, where they manually register and configure the devices and data streams, to portioned instances for Proof of Concepts and betas. “POCs and high value betas are supporting by Senet spinning up a specific application instance, with all data automatically configured and forwarded to the appropriate destination.”

In production, the provisioning and activation moves to more automation and bulk processing through APIs. “One of the beauties of LoRaWAN,” Ball explained, “is that devices are credentialed at time of manufacture, unlike WiFi, for example, where routers have to be installed and credentialed. Pre-provisioned LoRa devices automatically find the network and register securely.” DDoS attacks, or “botnets” in the IoT world, are avoided as LoRa devices each have their own Device EUI, Application EUI, and Application Key which get programmed into the device. “These three pieces allow the device to be authenticated and authorized on the network it is provisioned for, with 100 percent unique keys created at the time of manufacture,” Ball said.

Asked about what’s next for LoRa, Ball said, “It’s going to be interesting to watch which ecosystems, platforms, open source initiatives and ecosystem partnerships drive real momentum this year. The LoRaWAN ecosystem has been the fastest growing alliance in history with more than 450 members – for a reason. We’ve learned that collaboration, integration and interop – is no longer a nice to have – it is a need to have.”