D6 Labs' Post

"Advancing to Enterprise-Grade Wireless Sensor Networks"

Posted on Thursday, December 21, 2017. Steve Montgomery

The purpose of this article is to explain the difference between a wireless sensor network and a true enterprise-grade IoT platform: they are not the same and surely the latter provides greater benefits.

A typical wireless sensor network (WSN) is, as the name suggests, an array of remote sensors connected together either directly (mesh network) or through a common hub. It is often the case that such WSNs are assigned unique names and alerting criteria for each sensor, and their reported data are often stored and processed in the cloud. Interestingly, while this configuration sounds good at a high level, given common technology, once a WSN exceeds but a few sensors, these systems break down or become unfeasible.

First, consider how to visualize the deployed sensors. Most WSN solutions will provide a web-based interface through which a table lists each sensor and its current status, including such things as the latest values, battery status, and even historical trend values. This sounds great; however, such an interface becomes onerous on end-users when there are multiple sensors in the list. For example, consider a grocery store chain with 25 locations, each containing a WSN of 20 temperature sensors (monitoring refrigerators) for a total of 500 sensors. Assuming all the sensors are merged together, scrolling a list of 500 sensors is untenable, just as is scrolling twenty-five separate lists of twenty. Even with filtering, the job would be tedious and prone to error.

Also, take into consideration what happens when multiple sensors alert at the same time. Continuing with our grocery store example, it is not uncommon for refrigerators, especially smaller units, to temporarily exceed acceptable storage temperatures during business hours as employees or customers open and close the doors: this is especially true in restaurants. A typical WSN system quickly becomes flooded with alerts, which overwhelms end users. Over time, and not a great deal of time, the alerts simply get ignored, to the chagrin of senior management who paid to have the system implemented. Another response is to turn the alerting threshold up, which is a dangerous response, which is a dangerous response for applications involving food safety or cold-storage food monitoring. There is a better approach, which I will address as I describe an enterprise-grade solution.

Finally, ponder how reporting might work for such WSNs. Given our above example, at the end of each day, week, or month, a report may be required for refrigerator temperature information broken down by location. Such reporting is complex, customer specific, and is not normally included in the typical reporting systems for WSNs. Customers usually pay a third-party development firm to hook into the data to create a reporting system, which is quite expense and often not feasible for a smaller business or certain business segments.

There are several other factors to consider, such as provisioning, ease of installation, durability, maintenance of the system, battery life, radio interference, outages, and much more, which all impact whether a solution can scale to an enterprise-level application.

An enterprise-grade solution is one where a WSN solution is designed to scale into large and complex environments. Most WSN vendors suggest their solutions are thusly scalable; however, as you have likely surmised from this article, I have found that promise to be lacking, which was partly my impetus for creating the Whisker.io® solutions discussed hereinafter.

Fundamentally, an enterprise-grade solution must have end points with long battery life, let’s say 5+ years, to avoid creating a new problem of trying to keep the batteries fresh. Moreover, a scalable implementation cannot require an inordinate number of devices, which is a direct result of radio range. These fundamental factors describe the baseline of D6Labs’ Whisker.io® technology, long range and long battey life, upon which an advanced executive dashboard, intelligent alerting, and simple reporting are added to create a complete enterprise-grade offering.

The Whisker.io® executive dashboard allows for a high level, complete view of the entire enterprise by graphically representing each location with an icon on a map. The icon can be a green circle, indicating all sensors are in a valid state, or a red triangle indicating they are in alert status. With just a glance, a high-level manager can know the status of the organization. With one click, the manager can focus in on a single location, wherein all sensors are displayed graphically on a map. One more click, and the manager can focus on a single sensor.

Intelligent alerting is another key aspect of Whisker.io® tech. Through the web portal, each sensor can be set so that alerts trigger only when the device is showing signs of a malfunction, rather than during a brief moment of being outside an acceptable range. Also, by allowing the account administrator to adjust this at will, the system remains functional over time as varying conditions can be handled.

Whisker.io® also provides a platform for ad-hoc reporting based on arbitrary levels of grouping. For example, a restaurant franchisee with ten locations could create a report that breaks the data out by location or can create daily reports for each location. Likewise, headquarters could create similar reports by say country, region, group, or franchisee. Whisker.io® contains flexible, scalable reporting to satisfy the various levels within an enterprise-class organizational structure.

Whisker.io® was designed for the enterprise from the beginning and has a number of other enterprise-level benefits including integration with external 3rd party applications and devices, a REST API for custom app development, and complex/compound alerting. Stay tuned for future blog posts on those topics.

Contact us today to find out more about the enterprise features of Whisker.io®.