Understanding M2M solutions - From Planning To Deployment

Ashish Gulati

M2M is a hot topic and the industry has realized considerable success. In addition M2M addresses the needs and concerns of many sectors of our economy, therefore we are seeing more and more companies looking to create innovative solutions in order to get a piece of the action.  However, creating end-to-end solutions is a complex task and there are several time-consuming steps between idea and certification.  Therefore if the device fails, if it is not certified, then the project and maybe the company could fail as well.  So, what do new entrants need to know? And what is the optimum way to realize a successful project in a short timeframe?

Let’s keep things simple but not too simple.  Solutions involve (1) monitoring and managing raw parameter and event data; (2) transmitting the data to a central facility, normally over a wireless network; and (3), processing the data in order to realize real-time information on which decisions can be made. And there is an increasing requirement for information to be integrated into enterprise environments.  This indicates that M2M’s value chain involves a somewhat complex mix of technologies coming from different suppliers.  You need to be aware of the mix but it is clearly impossible to take a deep dive into the technologies. 

Modules: the solution’s beating heart

Modules are the 24/7 beating heart of M2M solutions, many of which operate for several years. Therefore choosing your M2M partner is crucial: this decision will determine a solution’s success or failure.  Clearly the module you select must have the requisite performance and price. It is relatively easy to determine these parameters, but how do you differentiate one product from another when they appear to be similar on paper?  There are five key factors that need to be considered:

1)      Are the modules manufactured to stringent quality standards?  For example, ISO/TS16949 which is pre-requisite for the automotive industry. It covers design, development, production and the entire supply chain.

2)      Is your chosen partner a market leader?  Do they have a robust track record? Are they financially stable, able to stay the course in a highly competitive industry?

3)      How much do they invest in R&D?  M2M is a very innovative industry: is the company a technology leader or a follower?  Do they have a strategy for future-proofing your solution?

4)      Support services are essential. Are they available in your geographic market and in you national language?

5)      Can your chosen partner provide advice and services that will speed up certification, which is different in different markets: very demanding in the U.S. and Japan, less so in Europe.

In addition try to assess your partner’s reputation.With what other companies in the value chain do they partner? And if you are going to deploy a large solution then visiting your M2M module supplier is a good idea, particularly if it involves the manufacturing facilities and R&D labs.

Devices

Considerable care needs to be exercised in the design of the device.  It is important to verify the performance of the RF portion when the antenna is integrated on the board. This should involve RF/EMC pre-certification tests that are compliant with European and US norms.  Without testing, there is a risk that the device would not be certified.  Other tests that can and should be performed include radiated spurious emissions and antenna performance.  These and other tests are included in Telit’s support services portfolio.

Service providers

Service provider’s networks transmit data from the devices to a central facility and they will also carry signals in the other direction, e.g. tomanage devices once they have been physically deployed.  A national or international carrier can provide this service: when global coverage is required or envisaged in future then it might be advisable to consider multi-carrier global network infrastructure of a managed services provider. The characteristics of M2M traffic are intrinsically different to voice and various mobile network operators have created networks that are dedicated to M2M in order to provide a more efficient, cost-effective service.  Operating costs are obviously an important consideration as are a choice of business plans. 

Deploying and managing the devices

Mobile network operators aggregate the traffic coming from devices in the field: there may be tens of thousands or even millions, e.g. smart energy meters in homes.  The data stream will then be transferred to a central computing resource, which could be on the company’s own network or, as is increasingly the case, in the cloud.  This resource is used to process the data according to the instructions given by the application.  The end result is valuable real-time information on which decisions can be taken, either automatically or manually.

The management platform of service providers is used to provision the devices and enable end user control of the solutions.  Functionality will typically include reporting, device and network management, provisioning, billing, and real-time usage alerts and normally it will be provided by a Web-based application. 

Provisioning can be complex, expensive and time-consuming. However tools that activate and deactivate devices can be provided, thereby eliminating charges being incurred for inactive devices. This feature also provides flexibility when scheduling deployments. In addition some service providers are enabling “out of the box” connectivity.

Business process integration

Solutions have traditionally been developed to meet the specific needs of vertical sectors, e.g.automotive / telematics; fleet & remote asset monitoring, smart utilities, mHealth & wellness; and smart cities. However, the industry is moving towards a horizontal architecture that is similar to that of corporate computing and communications infrastructures, a development that facilitates business process integration.  This is the high-margin slice of the M2M cake.

Integration is relatively easy when data is transmitted over an enterprise LAN: communication over a wide area cellular network is radically different.  There is a long, multi-vendor value chain, which includes the mobile network operator, and there are operational issues, e.g. the SIM cards have to be deployed, activated and managed.On the other side of the equation there is an equally complex set of integration challenges, e.g. whether to use SOA (service oriented architecture) stacks or a lightweight standalone ESB (Enterprise Service Bus).

Systems integration therefore requires specialist knowhow and experience in both environments.  The big SI players tend to see M2M as an industry that operates on the dark side of the moon and regular M2M vendors are way out of their comfort zone when it comes to the enterprise back office systems.  That’s the main reason why we’re at the early adopter stage, but this is a fast-moving industry.