Red Hat rides the IoT wave with open-source

Red Hat’s think tank has always sworn by open-source, and believes that it’s the key to unleashing next-gen technologies. With IoT storming the enterprise, the pitch remains the same. Here’s why Red Hatters believe open-source is where you ought to put your money.

In the past, only companies with the deepest pockets were able to benefit from gathering data from distributed devices to drive better decision making and realize additional revenue. Today, the economics of the IoT architecture--the hardware, the ubiquitous nature of connectivity, big data and analysis, and customer expectations are dramatically expanding the scope of IoT and making it possible for every enterprise--and not just consumers--to benefit.

So, why is the role of open-source in IoT gaining significance?

A conversation with Burr Sutter, Global Director of Product Management at Red Hat revealed what makes open-source the equalizer in a space that was previously dominated by the fat cats.

Also read: Why PayPal bets on open-source

If you look at what’s happening in the Internet of Things world, specifically at the edge level, we’re talking about sensors and actuators-relatively small devices with relatively lower power consumptions, and in some cases, very poor network connectivity. That’s the role of MCUs (micro-controller units), specifically.

Not too many years ago, if you were going to build a system with sensors and actuators, you would have to spend about $3000-$5000. Now, your hardware kit would cost you $29. This has proven to be a great disruptor in this space.

What Red Hat brings to the table

“For the organizations that are heavily interested in IoT, we offer a proven, powerful and secure operating platform that’s already in place in the vast majority of the Fortune 500,” says Sutter. One of Red Hat’s IoT offerings is Red Hat Enterprise Linux, the world’s leading enterprise Linux platform, which can easily scale to meet IoT needs and provide all of the functionality required for cloud-mobile.

Linux and open-source in general are effectively the foundational elements upon which IoT will be based. In short, you can’t have IoT without open source – the flexible, innovative, and transparent nature of open source code is what makes the vast opportunities within the Internet of Things possible.

Attempts to do this with proprietary code are typically cumbersome, expensive and, in mission-critical settings, incredibly risky; it’s akin to deploying a fleet of smart cars with their hoods welded shut. IoT needs open-source to be successful, which is why you’re seeing such a dominant presence from the various Linux distros in not only IoT at the enterprise level, but also the scaled-down maker movement and various commercial/consumer drone applications.

What they’ve made is this explosion in the ecosystem, and everyone is taking advantage of that initial design and improving upon it. And this happens over and over again. That’s exactly what open-source is all about.

“If you truly want to innovate, it’s best you do it in an open-source environment. You can do it in a closed, proprietary way that existed prior to this model, but then you’d have to spend $3000 on the developer kit,” explains Sutter.

How Red Hat’s IoT solution staves off train wrecks

When data is collected, it needs to be acted on immediately, or stored in a secure manner, to be acted upon at a later point in time. However, one needs to bear in mind that the more data there is, the harder it will be to analyze and act on it.

Positive Train Control (PTC) collects both, urgent data that needs to be acted upon immediately, and data that is to be stored for further analysis.

Sensors along the sides of the rails record data about the train’s route, speed, and load. This data then passes through the control tier. The control tier is pre-programmed, and that helps it determine what to do with the data.

Read more: Why enterprises embrace open source

When the train nears an intersection, commands to alter the train’s speed are relayed to the conductor's dashboard with highest priority. Information about speed, fuel efficiency, and weight are stored in the datacenter, and are analyzed at a later point.

If these high priority commands are ignored, the train’s onboard system automatically triggers actions to stop, slow down, or accelerate the train.

Concerns about privacy and security

“Open-source is going to innovate in all these specific categories. The amount of innovation coming out of Kickstarter (the world’s largest funding platform for creative projects) alone is absolutely amazing. So, what we’re going to see is a great deal of innovation across the entire spectrum–both at the hardware design level, which includes chips and tamper-proof devices, as well as in encryption algorithm technologies,” predicts Sutter.

A good example of this is the ESP8266, a low-cost Wi-Fi chip that has taken the world by storm in the last 12-14 months. They are also able to add encryption to this chip, all within the price point of a couple of dollars.

Red Hat, specifically, is investing heavily in two projects – RHIoT, a messaging platform for the IoT. The other being Eclipse Kura, an open-source framework for IoT.

Red Hat's solution is a multi-layered defense that maximizes the chances of preventing datacenter infection.

The aggregator shoots that data up to the cloud. So, the actual security implementation can happen at that level. They don’t have to encrypt the data over Bluetooth, when it’s communicating between the sensor and the device, but only at the cloud level.

The issue with standardization

“Again, I think open-source is going to win in this particular category. There’s standardization across the entire architecture–be it the edge tier; the middle tier or the gateway tier; the cloud tier; and the analytics tier,” says Sutter.

Well, MQTT (Message Queuing Telemetry Transport) is a known standard, and it has been proven over the course of a couple of decades. It’s lightweight, easy to implement, and is great for short-range communication. It’s effective for long-range communication too, but for any kind of small device, it works exceptionally well.

Sutter shared that Red Hat is also looking at Bluetooth, and 802.15.4 – which is actually a mesh network technology, more popularly known as ZigBee (a simpler, less expensive alternative to Bluetooth or Wi-Fi).

Your gateway becomes the ultimate translator. It receives 802.15.4 packets, Bluetooth, or MQTT packets. It has to transform those to near-field analytics and take decisions right there. What comes next is push-based updates, sent in the form of Docker container to the cloud.

So, the entire pipeline of the data transaction at the gateway tier can be updated independently.

Sounds swell, but can we expect business-class support with open-source?

“Red Hat is large enough to offer that level of support, 24x7, around the globe, where you need it to be, with our partners. This is critical when you need to solve problems, or offer support on a real-time basis. This, however, is not true for other open-source vendors–they may or may not be able to offer this level of support,” claims Sutter.

“We’re constantly looking at innovations in the open-source universe. A great example would be our partnership with Eclipse in the Eclipse-Kura project. Our objective is to help them have business-class, mission-critical support,” he added.

Red Hat’s IoT roadmap

Red Hat’s partnership with Eurotech is brand new. It’s a specific piece of hardware that’s hardened so it runs on the field–inside airplanes, train engines, or manufacturing plants.

Promising better security, manageability and application support for IoT, Red Hat and Eurotech will offer data, device and embedded application management services.

What makes the IoT space a completely different ball game is the fact that enterprise IoT needs edge-computing, so massive amounts of data do not have to be uploaded to the cloud for real-time processing. The data aggregation and analytics can take place near the operational device.

“In 2016, you’ll see more investments that we’re making in different projects to help engineer a better ecosystem around IoT,” beams Sutter.

“We’re going to be more focused specifically around the cloud tier and the gateway tier, and also the edge tier. We of course, want to ensure that we’ve communication protocols that work well with Texas Instruments, or ARM, or Freescale, and all those companies innovating in that space,” he adds.