In Stephens first blog post he outlined our mission, “Bringing IoT to the Refrigeration Industry”. As CTO, I have the very challenging and enjoyable task of defining the technologies that we use to achieve this mission.
The refrigeration industry has a number of key influencers, the End Users (a supermarket for example), Maintenance Engineers, Refrigeration Cabinet OEMs and Digital Controller OEMs. By enabling refrigeration equipment to be smarter and connected, we aim to make everyone’s life in this industry that little bit easier. Brian, our product manager, will discuss the specific platform features in-depth in a future post but today I would like to give a brief overview of the technologies we have chosen, why they make sense for us, and the technical challenges we have overcome along the way.
The digital controller is the “brains” of any piece of refrigeration equipment and allowing remote interactions with that brain enables many of the End User features our platform exposes. This requires a new physical piece of hardware to be installed into the unit of refrigeration equipment and it this hardware needs to be connected to the digital controller. When we started out we wanted three things from our hardware:
- Easy installation: After much discussion, we decided that to make installations as easy and as quick as possible we needed the hardware to be wireless.
- Vendor neutral controller integration: Getting in to the specific details of vendor neutrality is too technical for an introductory blog post I think but this was something we were able to achieve
- An independent temperature probe: An independent probe meant we could provide an independently verified temperature reading and monitor equipment without a controller if a customer required it.
Unfortunately, there was no off-the-shelf hardware solution available at the time so we ended up designing and building our own, the story of which is another blog post in itself!
Once we had the hardware part of the puzzle solved, we then needed to work out how to get the data from that device into the cloud. Again, we took a step back and asked ourselves “what is the easiest solution for our customers”. Customers are worried, and rightly so, about allowing third party vendors drop internet connected devices onto their networks, just ask Target! (http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2014-03-13/target-missed-warnings-in-epic-hack-of-credit-card-data ). Asking customers to open specific firewall ports etc. for us would have been a hassle for them at the very least and probably not even possible in most cases. Given these constraints we settled on using M2M SIMS to facilitate communications directly between our Gateway and the Zeto Platform. This allows us to walk into any building in the world, and securely connect devices back to our platform, without ever having to touch our customers IT systems and networks.
Finally, once we had successfully integrated with a unit of refrigeration equipment and were collecting data, we had to decide on the best place to store and process that data. Despite all the hype in the press, the IoT (internet of things) ecosystem is still quiet young and immature. We wanted to base our platform on a reliable and battle tested base but also something that would allow us to evolve and develop in line with our customers needs. For these reasons we decided to build our platform on Amazons cloud services (AWS). When we first made this decision Amazon did not have an IoT specific offering so we built many of the pieces ourselves. Since then Amazon have launched an IoT product of their own and we are currently working closely with Amazon to start moving our systems over to their new solution. This is a great choice for us going forward as it allows us to focus on the higher level features our customers want whilst harnessing the might of Amazon to manage the underlying infrastructure. Working so closely with Amazon ensures that the platform has the ability to scale in line with our and our customers growing needs.
On the face of it “Bringing IoT to the Refrigeration Industry” sounds like a relatively straight forward task but as we have found over the last 4 years to do it at the scale at which Zeto is operating is a significant technical challenge. At the beginning it was simply a case of connecting a controller to a Gateway and connecting the Gateway to the Internet. Due to the fact that we have scaled the size and capacity of the Zeto platform so rapidly over the last 2 years and have integrated so many different vendors onto the platform the technical challenges have scaled in parallel. Thankfully though we are working with some fantastic IoT partners such as Amazon and Vodafone and they are helping the Zeto development team make the vision of connecting the world’s refrigeration equipment to the cloud into a reality.