In 2014 IBM launched its Internet of Things (IoT) Foundation, a cloud based service within its Platform as a Service (PaaS) offering Bluemix. The aim was to attract developers to IoT by making it easy to utilise the cloud as a platform for building applications based on data coming from devices (things). Of course for developers to make use of this service they needed things to connect to.

On 24 February at Embedded World, ARM officially launched its mbed IoT Starter Kit in partnership with IBM. This aims to address the thing component within IoT. Links to the announcements can be seen below:

mbed and the IBM partnership

The Starter Kit is essentially a two part device built by Freescale that comes loaded with an ARM Cortex M4 based processor and a collection of data capture components such as sensors and a joystick and then a couple of outputs: a speaker and small LCD screen. The main device can be connected to others and also to a PC via USB. The IBM element kicks in when the device is connected to a network via Ethernet. Once connected it automatically connects to IBM’s cloud and opening an HTML file located on the devices hard drive will take the user to a browser based dashboard showing data coming from the device’s sensors and other inputs. There is no login or configuration, it simply connects and you’re up and running.

From there a developer can start to build applications that use the incoming device data and takes an action based on that data. A demo that we saw showed how easy it was to have a text message sent in response to the joystick on the device being moved. Bluemix makes it easy to build applications based on a selection of popular programming technologies and to use IBM and third party services to deliver functionality. The sending of text messages provides an example of one such service (provided by Twilio). The kit is great for quickly experimenting with IoT and one could easily prototype basic solutions. IBM’s IoT foundation allows up to 10 devices to be connected to it free of charge and so a developer could create more complex solutions out of multiple kits.

The ARM differentiator

There is little new in the concept of this type of kit and cloud based service combo. Many other providers offer similar hardware and software matching experiences. Good examples of such combination services can be found in companies such as littleBits or Spark. Where the ARM kit offers something much more is that ARM’s history and experience is within the embedded systems space. The ecosystem that ARM has nurtured around embedded applications knows what it takes to create production quality hardware/software devices at scale. It has been doing this for many years. This experience is brought to the IoT Starter Kit through it being based on the mbed platform. This is something that ARM has been developing for a while and currently consists of an array of components and software. ARM has also released its own mbed operating system to make writing code that lives on the hardware far easier than it has been previously. The OS will be coming to the IoT Starter Kit at a later date.

What this means is that while other IoT component kits are great for prototyping solutions when it comes to production at scale there can be significant challenges. The ARM kit itself could not be used for a final marketable solution but the technology it is based on is the same as that which does go into production ready devices. This helps to smooth the transition from prototype to production device from a software perspective, both the software on the device and in the cloud. With IBM one gets an enterprise grade (think reliability, scalability, security etc.) cloud service at a price that is competitive with other cloud vendors (think Amazon Web Services or Microsoft Azure). In addition, IBM’s Visual Logic Composer Node-Red offers the productivity of model driven development through a codeless programming model using a drag and drop and connect paradigm. Combined, ARM’s mbed IoT Starter Kit and IBM’s IoT Foundation Cloud services, greatly reduces the time and cost in getting a solution to market; whether one is an individual Maker or an organisation.

When the IoT Starter Kit finally ships, we expect the powerful combination of a competitively priced enterprise grade cloud service, and production quality software enabled hardware device will make it attractive to a very broad audience group.

Bringing on the kids

The accessibility of the IoT Starter Kit is demonstrated by its easy assembly and quick connection to the Internet and the IBM Cloud. The process by which data transmitting from the various sensors on the Freedom Board from Freescale can be immediately collected and visualised, is certainly impressive.

In a demo showcasing the simplicity and speed of set up, the total time from unpacking the kit to reading data off any of the different sensor devices was less than 5 minutes. Node-Red, one of IBM Bluemix’s visual development services, provides a drag and drop flow charting programming model that offers a development experience that even a child of junior school age (8 to 10 years) could engage with. Of course additional setup support may be required, especially when looking to starting the application development process.

For junior age groups, understanding the data protocols of the different sensors might well be challenging and beyond their immediate knowledge base; but the concept of extracting data to apply further action, e.g. displaying a graph depicting data change over time, or executing a function (e.g. trigger lights to flash) if a certain sensor parameter is breeched, is not. From here it would not be too hard a leap for them to start thinking of various applications that could be developed with the data or types of analysis that it could serve. Anyone who has taught children from this age will know the no limit bar to their imagination, but also the speed at which they can grasp and pick things up. What limits them is ease of access and any barriers to implementation and learning.

With the expectation of a price bracket that is likely to be affordable to many educational establishments, the ARM mbed IoT Starter Kit along with the “freemium” access to IBM’s IoT Foundation Cloud service goes a long way to removing those limits. After all, this is the era of the (also ARM based) Raspberry Pi, a credit-card sized computer designed to teach children from an early age (as young as 7 in many cases) the rudiments and practicality of computer programming.

The ARM mbed IoT Starter Kit with its low powered microprocessor and 16 KB Random Access Memory (RAM) capability is not in the same programming league of the Raspberry Pi. However, IBM’s Bluemix platform does offer a compelling environment along with a variety of development services that younger developers can use to experiment and learn what can be programmatically achieved through instrumented products.

Graduate opportunities

One can even see further potential for the mbed starter kit and crucially IBM’s IoT Foundation services, as one scales the education ladder. Just as with the maker community, higher education students  on a range of engineering, computing and science based courses could find value in the Starter Kit and IBM cloud services especially for gaining practical insights into monitoring and controlling instrumented or software enabled products. Opening up students to the prototyping of software enabled product development using the mbed IoT Starter Kit as a base and giving them access to the programming facilities of the IoT Foundation services is likely to raise their scope of learning. The results could lead to students achieving a greater appreciation for the practicalities of programmatically monitoring and controlling instrumented products, and provide the industry and market with a larger pool of graduates more capable of smart product innovation and data analytics.

Of course there is clearly more to becoming, for example, an embedded software or control engineer than the learning capabilities offered by the ARM mbed IoT Starter Kit and the IBM IoT foundation services. However, the launch of the starter kit along with the intelligence and analytical opportunities offered by IBM’s IoT Foundation services could do a lot to shift the gears of learning and make way for better exploitation of instrumented and connected devices.

Shaping the tenets for IoT…early days still

As good as the ARM mbed IoT Starter Kit launch might be for the educational establishment, work is still required by both organisations to provide clear direction as to the actual outputs that can be gained from this partnership and the changes that can be expected. What many will want to understand is how such a kit might positively impact or influence existing processes and practices within organisations delivering smart enabled products or monitoring and controlling systems. Real use case scenarios and go to market strategies will determine the success this partnership offers in furthering the market for Internet connected products and sensors, and the services built on the back of more sophisticated analysis of the data being transmitted.

Independently, both IBM and ARM have strong established educational programs that reach as far down as the junior school level. What they both now offer in the mbed starter kit announcement is the means to see their partnership widen the net for all manner of IoT products and services from all age levels to be developed more effectively.

But one should be careful to think that IoT is going to be super easy. ARM and IBM make it easier but there are still challenges. Creating a product that is ready for mass production and meets the requirements of the real world such as regulation, certification and other important factors still requires a lot of work and specific skills.  However, many will be pleased to know that both ARM and IBM have professional service capabilities that can help with much of this.

They will also be equally pleased to know that the Starter Kit is based on standards that carry over to production components. Any code written can also be carried over and this is a major boost for those who wish to see IoT open up to a broader market. At least someone using the kit will know that when it comes to getting production ready much of their code both in the cloud and on the device will carry over.