Why IoT success rests with the right API strategy

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The internet of things (IoT) is big business. According to one estimate, there will be 75.4 billion connected devices in use by 2025, while reports suggest that more than half of IT leaders are already investing in the IoT, or at least planning to. This is largely due to the wide range of potential IoT use cases, from smart telecom network sensors that predict when maintenance is needed to connected health devices that can monitor and track the wearer’s vitals.

With such a mix of use cases, keeping track of the IoT’s potential isn’t always easy. While the IoT has been a buzzword for some time already, we’re still only just beginning to realise what the technology can do for us and how it will impact our lives. The implications are particularly exciting for businesses. The IoT opens up entirely new possibilities for transmitting useful data that makes businesses more efficient and helps them to understand their customers better. Despite this, there are a number of challenges standing in the way, especially when it comes to getting the most out of IoT data.

Breaking down barriers

The IoT wouldn’t exist without its connections to backend systems. Before organisations can even start thinking about the IoT’s potential benefits, they must find a way to connect their devices and sensors with the right systems at the backend. According to Gartner’s estimates, integration spend will make up half the cost of implementing IoT, so there’s a real need to think about how this challenge can be overcome.

Firstly, it’s important to ensure that IoT data can be transmitted and read in a way that doesn’t impact the devices themselves, such as through open interfaces. Organisations also need to address the way that their IoT devices consume and analyse the data they get from legacy systems. Modern IoT devices need to connect a range of monolithic legacy systems. However, at present, these systems communicate in a myriad of ways, making it difficult for organisations to consume the data they create in a standardised fashion. Ultimately, this will lead to limited adoption of the IoT and consumption of its data if it isn’t dealt with.

On top of these integration challenges, organisations must also prioritise scalable deployment. It stands to reason that the more devices businesses can connect to the IoT, the greater its potential to transmit useful and actionable information. Yet if organisations can’t scale their deployments effectively, the potential of the IoT will be held back, as the costs and practicalities of connecting so many devices in a meaningful way will simply become insurmountable. There’s also security implications to consider. As companies connect an increasing number of physical assets to the internet, they must also consider how they will manage access to prevent breaches, or even devices being overwhelmed by legitimate users.

Connecting the dots with APIs

To get around these issues, IoT deployment should follow a modular pattern, consisting of a flexible integration layer between devices, data and the overall IT ecosystem. This is where APIs - the ‘digital glue’ that connects these assets, come into play, allowing the organisation to organically build an application network one API at a time. Underpinned by APIs, application networks allow applications, data and devices to be plugged in and out seamlessly, without any negative impacts on other devices or data transmissions. When a change needs to be made - an inevitability in fast-moving IoT environments - there won’t be any rigid dependencies that hinder those changes, or create integration challenges. Just as HTML provided the standardisation that allowed the internet to flourish, APIs are becoming the standard interface allowing organisations to build application networks. This paves the way for the rise of the IoT.

Take fast-growing US restaurant chain Buffalo Wild Wings, for example. It implemented an API strategy to underpin an IoT initiative aimed at predicting beer consumption preferences. This approach consisted of equipping its beer taps with smart sensors that collect data on the volume of beer being poured. By connecting these sensors with point-of-sale systems via APIs, the chain is able to compare beer pouring volumes with its transaction data, helping to predict preferences and optimise its beer inventory to cope with peaks in demand. The upshot is that the chain is able to improve the customer’s experience while improving its own efficiency, all thanks to API-led connectivity.

Setting a standard

Alongside efficiency improvements, organisations can also tap into new revenue streams by monetising their network of connected devices. For example, just as open banking allows third-party organisations to access bank data to build their own services and capabilities, any organisation can allow others to do the same, encouraging them to create new products and capabilities on top of IoT devices and the data they generate. By using APIs to expose IoT devices and data in a standardised way, the opportunities for enterprises to benefit commercially will grow substantially. As for the security dilemma, APIs also offer their own solution. With APIs, organisations can build-in security by design and embed standardised access and authentication controls into the APIs themselves, regulating access to IoT devices and data.

Above all, standardisation is the crucial factor for making the IoT a success. The better the connections between online devices, the better they communicate. As communication improves, the capabilities they enable will become more useful and accessible. This in turn encourages others to consume and adopt capabilities based on IoT data, driving innovation. In this way, APIs are the most vital ingredient to the IoT’s future success, connecting its various layers and helping to democratise access to the data being collected from billions of devices and sensors. We may not have realised the IoT’s full potential just yet, but APIs will be the vehicle that gets us there.

Ian Fairclough, VP of Services, EMEA, MuleSoft