When an IoT developer is searching for a platform to connect and secure their product, they will typically run into a plethora of options which at first glance may look the same. In reality, the term “platform” is very vague, as different platforms provide different options, capabilities and varying degrees of flexibility. One of the platforms I find most intriguing is Zentri, which focuses on its mission to connect, secure, and manage its customers’ devices through its device management tool; while also offering product lines in various stages of the IoT prototype to scale spectrum, from hardware development to connectivity to cloud storage and analytics. I had the opportunity to chat with Nick Dutton, Head of Business Development, and Julie Mullins, Marketing Manager at Zentri. It was a great experience not only learning about their platform and their company goals, but also learning about how they view the entire IoT ecosystem, and the current challenges it faces.
A Flexible Way to Get Customers Connected
The first thing that stood out to me in our conversation was how lightweight and flexible the Zentri platform is. The tone of the entire conversation revolved around providing their customers with low cost and flexible solutions, and a path to scale seamlessly and integrate with other hardware and cloud vendors.
The (Low) Power of Wi-Fi
If you look at the entire product line of Zentri’s hardware offerings, you would notice that a majority of their development boards connect via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. I posed the question regarding the absence of cellular or LoRa connectivity, and Dutton explained in detail why Zentri sees Wi-Fi as the best choice for IoT connectivity at this point in time, while simultaneously exploring the benefits of cellular.
Dutton sees the most benefit for their customers to utilize Wi-Fi and Bluetooth network connectivity because of the relatively low operating costs. Proprietary solutions such as cellular and LoRa would require networking contracts and a cost associated with all data sent and received. Dutton expanded by saying: “The industry today is definitely trying to embrace a lower operating cost because they’re trying to get the infrastructure out there. So when you look at all the sensors, the rich user experience that is required immediately lends itself to Bluetooth and Wi-Fi because Bluetooth costs nothing to run; Wi-Fi is becoming very prevalent and nearly every home has it. The likes of Comcast Xfinity makes hot spots everywhere.” He also adds: “Wi-Fi offers more bandwidth. Wi-Fi can scale up.”
Though Zentri has maintained a focus on Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity thus far due to the low cost of connectivity options, Dutton however did admit he has an increasing interest in cellular connectivity due to its ability to support particular industrial verticals that house sensors in remote locations, where there may be no Wi-Fi availability. His increasing interest stems from the fact that some of the big vertical markets, such as fleet management, prefer to use cellular connectivity. Dutton drew the following picture to explain further: “So I’m looking out the window right now. We’re in the Bay Area, we can both see mountains around us. Well you know what? There’s probably no Wi-Fi on top of that mountain, but there could be a GPS connected to an earthquake sensor. That kind of product would be great to get data down over cellular. So one of the things that we are doing beyond the Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and Ethernet support, is we are expanding into the cellular space for those niche vertical markets.”
Zentri is also looking very closely at the developments with LoRa and next generation cellular connectivity. Since these are lesser-known quantities, Zentri, like many others in the space, is closely monitoring markets shift as a result of how these new technologies develop.
Embracing the IoT Ecosystem
Zentri has a number of product lines that run the gamut as far as IoT development, connectivity, cloud services and analytics. While Zentri has several in-house development boards, as well as ZentriOS enabled boards manufactured by NXP, Broadcom, Cypress, and other partners, their operating system can be used on technologically compatible boards from nearly any manufacturer. Zentri also offers robust cloud services, that also integrate seamlessly with other providers such as Amazon AWS, Microsoft Azure, IBM Bluemix, or any other cloud analytics platform.
What I like the most about Zentri’s platform, and what I think will enable them to be a leading platform in the space, is that they respect others’ place in the IoT ecosystem. Because Zentri’s platform is actually an operating system, it enables any compatible “apps” or “programs”, which in this case can be 3rd party cloud service solutions, to function as part of an integrated IoT solution for its customers. Though Zentri can certainly package all its offerings together and create a solid proprietary solution, what I believe separates Zentri from many other platform providers is they are not forcing customers to come to them as a one stop shop. They embrace other providers as partners, not competitors. Many who read my blog know I firmly believe that more companies need to think this way in order for the creatives to provide cost-effective and easily integrated connected products to their customers. Take a look at my post, Zentri’s Platform Recognizes the Value of Partnerships in the IoT Ecosystem, for more about Zentri’s partner centric approach to building an IoT solution.
Another important aspect of connecting with partners, is being able to scale quickly. Because of lack of barriers due to their partner approach, Zentri is enabling their customers to experience a fast implementation to scale model, just as they did with their own company. Dutton explains the benefit to their approach, when he says: “The other thing that we address by embracing partners is that we move through the long door quicker. If we were a company that wanted to do it all, we would be years behind where we are today. There are guys out there that want to do storage, there are guys out there that want to do analytics. We emphasize the use of their solution rather than spending time and resources of developing our own.” This approach allows Zentri to lead the way as the device management solution, and serve as the glue to move the customer forward.
A Focus on Device Management and Security
With the primary goal of enabling customers to connect and scale quickly with a variety of vendor integration options, Zentri’s operating system brings most value to its customers with its device management solution. Mullins emphasized that though analytics tools get much of the attention in the IoT platform world, these tools do not provide value if the data being sent to the analytics platform is not accurate or complete. Zentri provides the maintenance components to allow this data to be captured and transmitted correctly and securely. Their device management service allows developers to update their firmware, upgrade to new feature sets, monitor location and status of each device; and if there is something wrong, it also allows the developer to remotely fix the bug.
Dutton doubled down on their focus on security. He asserted that the pitfall in security with current open source operating systems such as Linux is “people don’t know what they don’t know. And when you don’t know what you don’t know, you don’t know what to fix”. He clarifies that the problem with using an open source operating system such as Linux is if the Engineer implementing security for a given IoT product has not experienced the learning curves of detecting and fixing a particular security issue, they may never be aware that this gap ever existed. With a closed security solution, you gain security by allowing a dedicated team to experience and resolve the many security gaps that can arise throughout the network.
Full disclosure, I have not had the opportunity to work with a ZentriOS powered device. However everything I have learned about the company’s knowledge of all aspects of IoT connectivity, along with their eagerness to partner with like-minded competitors to create the most cost-effective and powerful IoT system, leads me to believe Zentri will be a key player in the many IoT Ecosystems that will develop over the next few decades.
There’s no better way to test what companies say their platform does than to use it. Developers, product managers, or anyone involved in an IoT platform selection process is encouraged to attend a one-day, hands-on workshop of the combined IoT solution by Avnet, Zentri, and IBM. Workshops are only $99 and include everything needed to get started, manage devices, and take advantage of IBM Watson’s analytics. I will be attending the San Jose workshop to give the Zentri platform a shot! Workshops are as follows:
- Oct. 28, 2016 – San Jose, CA
- Nov. 1, 2016 – Austin, TX
- Nov. 3, 2016 – Boston, MA
A big thanks to Julie and Nick for taking the time to share with me what Zentri is working on, and how their platform brings value to its customers. Zentri is certainly working on some exciting stuff!