Review: Microsoft Azure IoT Suite

Azure IoT Suite can relieve the nightmare of creating infrastructure to support IoT sensors

IoT internet of things businessman
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The Internet of Things – a vast network of connected microdevices, sensors, and small computers generating vast amounts of data – is all around us. In fact, it's hard to find an industry that remains untouched by IoT.

In healthcare, for example, continuous glucose monitors and insulin pumps communicate to precisely adjust the level of insulin delivered to a diabetic patient. Wind power companies can use sensors embedded in turbines and spindles, in conjunction with wind forecast data from weather providers, to predict low utilization periods where preventative maintenance can occur. Retailing giant Target leveraged beacon technology to serve up hyperlocal content to its customers, offering deals via its mobile app to move more product off shelves. IoT is pervasive, and it will only continue to grow in momentum and importance.

+Also on Network World: What is IoT?+

But just because all of these sensors and resulting data exist doesn’t mean companies have the expertise or systems in house to deal with it. Often, it's individual business units and departments that are trying to get IoT projects off the ground using cloud-based offerings. It seems simple enough: Hire a data scientist contractor, outfit your infrastructure with some sensors, start up a cloud-service account, and before long you could have several terabytes of sensor data and be ready to get fired up.

Microsoft has been innovating in this particular area with its Azure service, and they have some compelling offerings. These compete with Google’s Cloud IoT suite and Amazon’s various IoT tools, although Microsoft’s starter kit is far more polished than others.

Platform as a service

The Azure IoT Suite is designed to be a quick-start type of portal—a true example of a platform as a service (PaaS) that gives you the resources necessary to deal with all of the data being sent back to you, while also allowing you to understand it, manipulate it and use it to either improve your business processes or solve some nagging problem.

NOTE: There is also a newer software as a service (SaaS) offering called Microsoft IoT Central, geared toward the software that powers the sensors and connects everything together. This offering is mainly aimed at manufacturers, who can use IoT Central to build their own SaaS-based IoT solutions hosted on the Azure IoT cloud service and get their solutions to market more quickly without having to reinvent the plumbing, the platform and more.

There’s also the very new (as in Spring 2017) Azure IoT Edge suite, a complementary offering that lets in-house or contract programmers develop logic for the small computers and sensors on the “edge” of an IoT environment in convenient, more accessible (and commonly known) languages like Java and C#, rather than Assembly and other more obscure languages. In this story, however, we will focus on the Azure IoT Suite because it more clearly highlights the capabilities of the overall platform.

Monitoring, maintenance and orchestration

The Azure IoT Suite itself bundles together a bunch of relevant Microsoft Azure services into a surprisingly simple package. It starts off by allowing you to create a couple of ready-made IoT consumption scenarios, including predictive maintenance and remote monitoring, and automatically orchestrates the various Azure databases, websites, web services, data ingestion point, and more, creating and linking them together so that you are ready to go from square one.

For example, for remote monitoring you can start with a pre-configured package. Azure self-selects and configures the following services, including an analytics service, database, storage services, web sites and hosting, and input ingestion services, handling the provisioning process automatically:

  • Azure IoT Hub (1 high-frequency unit, also called an S2 unit)
  • Azure Stream Analytics (3 streaming units)
  • Azure DocumentDB (1 S2 instance)
  • Azure Storage (1 GRS standard, 1 LRS standard, 1 RA-GRS standard)
  • Azure App Services (2 S1 instances, 2 P1 instances)
  • Azure Event Hub (1 basic throughput unit)

 Don’t worry too much about the S2, GRS, LRS, and similar jargon. They refer to the size or bandwidth capabilities of each of these services. The suite handles the provisioning automatically.

Each of the other solutions has a different makeup, but you get the idea: everything you need with just a couple of clicks.

You start right out in the cloud and take advantage of the tremendous scale of resources that Azure already has, which is growing quite a bit each year. Instead of spending money on storage and compute, you just pay for the Azure services and runtimes you consume with your project, which you can scale up or down as your needs change.

Even better, Microsoft is starting to build links to third-party software so you can see the day when your Azure IoT data could be integrated within Power BI, for example, allowing regular knowledge workers (as opposed to trained mathematicians and data scientists) to query your data sets using natural language and get results back in a nice, graphical, easy-to-consume format.

All of that glue and linkage would be much harder to create in a on-premises environment, and I think Microsoft here is betting that IoT initiatives are new and green enough in most enterprises that it is not difficult to start them off in the cloud—or at least not as difficult as, say, deciding to move SharePoint into the cloud. In fact, right now, the Azure IoT tools integrate with the Cortana Analytics solution, which provides data science, number crunching and machine-learning tools, and you can then inform your business processes of the insights you derive by linking Cortana Analytics with the Microsoft Dynamics suite of enterprise resource planning (ERP) tools.

Provisioning

You can get started by heading over to https://www.azureiotsuite.com and logging in with your Microsoft account. There you can either use your current MSDN Azure benefit credits or fix up a new one, and then you’ll be presented with the Provisioned Solutions page, which is the first page of the Azure IoT Suite package itself.

Then, follow these steps:

1. Click Create a new solution to build your own IoT “workspace.”

2. You can then choose a couple of different preconfigured solution types, including “connected factory,” “predictive maintenance,” and “remote monitoring.” For this walkthrough, we’ll show you remote monitoring, so click the latter option.

3. The "Create remote monitoring solution" screen appears. Here you enter a friendly name for this workspace, the Azure region in which all of this should be spun up (you would ideally want the region closest to either you or your sensors to reduce latency), and the Azure subscription to which all of this should be billed. You can find pricing information for all of the components of Azure that the IoT suite will provision at https://azure.microsoft.com/en-us/pricing.

azure iot screenshot2 Jonathan Hassell/IDG

4. Click Create solution, and then grab a cup of coffee while Azure spins up all of the resources it outlined. In our testing, this took about 10 minutes, give or take a couple.

5. After the provisioning is complete, you’ll be back at the Provisioned Solutions screen, and your friendly named workspace will be shown there with a green check mark. Click the Launch button to get inside.

6. You’ll be greeted with the dashboard screen. This shows a map of the Seattle area (this is the default) with four sensors geoplotted, each with a colored indicator (green or red). These sensors are simulated, just to give you an idea of the type of dashboard you can build with your own sensor deployment. On the right side, you can see the Device to View menu, which gives you a drop-down selector where you can pick individual sensors to examine. On the lower left side, there’s the Alarm History section, which shows sensors that are meeting some predefined problem threshold, and then on the lower right you see speedometer-looking graphs that show various properties and values the sensor fleet is reporting.

7. On the left side, click Devices. This gives you a grid-style list of devices. You can use the “+” button in the lower left to add a new sensor, which can be either another simulated device or a physical device with SIM card (ICC ID) for cellular connection or access to a wireless connection. You can also modify the properties the simulated sensor displays to the workspace, including model and revision number, asset tag or anything else you like.

8. On the left side, click Rules. You can add new rules that operate on the two existing data fields, temperature and humidity, and set the thresholds that apply to those rules. This area is what kicks off those alarm history items on the dashboard; if a device is setting off an alarm, its status on the map changes from green to red to make it easy to identify.

Certified Sensors

That’s a quick walk around the preconfigured solution, but the key thing to remember is that all of this is live with Azure. You can adjust any of this, from the configuration of the dashboard to the way resources talk to each other to anything else; you manage all of this from within the Azure portal, same as any other Azure resource.

If you’re looking for a remote monitoring solution just to get started, this solution saves you a lot of effort to get the right pieces in place—start there, tailor it, and build on from there. There’s no additional charge to start here, other than the resources the solution spins up to run itself. The design and code are free.

As far as the sensors go, last October Microsoft launched its Azure IoT Suite Device Catalog, which showcases more than 500 devices from more than 200 partner manufacturers that are all certified to work with the Azure IoT suite. On the developer and software side, the Azure IoT suite is a full scale member of the Azure service, and thusly works with Visual Studio, Eclipse, Chef, Puppet, GitHub, PowerShell, Python, MongoDB, Hadoop, Ruby, docker, MySql and anything else that is part of the set of compatible offerings and capabilities with Azure.

In summary, Microsoft has a robust set of tools for integrating all sorts of IoT devices. They have more scale than a typical customer dies and the IoT Suite is compatible with a wide variety of devices. If you are building an IoT infrastructute, then you owe it to yourself to play around with Azure IoT Suite. We have not seen a solution in this space where it is easier to get started and make tweaks to build your own workspace. It’s worth a look.

Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.

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