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What does $1 billion buy you as IoT moves computing to the edge?

Oct 20, 20176 mins
Internet of Things

Enterprise firms jostle for share of burgeoning IoT space as computing moves to the edge—and Dell aims to lead with new division and strategy

What does $1 billion buy you these days? Speaking at an event on New York’s Fifth Avenue in early October—interestingly next to a building owned by Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim—another billionaire, Michael Dell, chairman and CEO of Dell Technologies was typically upbeat. As well as announcing that the company is investing $1 billion in IoT R&D over the next three years, he announced a new IoT division, to be run by VMware’s CTO Ray O’Farrell.

Dell talked about how there will be an intelligent internet of things located at the edge of the internet, many with sensors and all delivering user and performance data, to create what he termed “a perfect mirror of our world, with every object streaming information.” Of course, to achieve this you need huge amounts of computing power at the edge, something which no doubt peaks the interest of a hardware vendor such as DellEMC.

“This new technology requires a real-time response, which is driving technology towards a distributed model again,” said Dell, illustrating its importance by suggesting venison would be on the menu if a deer ran out in front of a self-driving vehicle that relied solely on the centralised cloud. We sort of know this already but we get the point. It’s all about speed and ease of use.

Last year Peter Levine from VC firm Andreessen Horovitz set the current tone. He said that edge computing would overtake the cloud and that the cloud would store important data but as devices become more sophisticated, all the data curation and learning would take place at the edge. Levine of course was interested from an investment perspective, finding businesses in what he considers to be the next billion-dollar tech market.

So to see the likes of Dell Technologies, GE Digital, the newly created Hitachi Vantara business, Oracle, SAP, IBM and HPE, among others, investing in this space and acquiring businesses to stock up on key ecosystem components, is not surprising.

According to analyst IDC, “an IoT platform is a commercial software product that offers some combination of the following elements: connectivity management; device management; data ingestion, processing, and management; visualization tools; application enablement; and analytics.”

How many businesses does this currently describe? There is certainly considerable fragmentation here and if the market does shift to a more distributed model with the rise of edge computing then we could expect to see a push to consolidate key infrastructure technologies to form sustainable IoT ecosystems.

This is why Dell Technologies reckons it has an edge, excuse the pun, with the likes of VMware, RSA, EMC and of course Dell in its ranks. Tom Sweet, Dell’s CFO, told IDG Connect that a lot of the strategy has been driven by customer frustrations, particularly around interoperability between many of the various IoT functions.

“We looked at our capabilities at the edge, to the core to the cloud and realised we cover a lot of this now,” he said. “We are not going to be all things to all people but it’s an interesting business opportunity for us. There’s not many companies out there doing this, in terms of a complete IoT ecosystem.”

Sweet also referred to its membership (through VMware) of the EdgeX Foundry, an open source project of about 60 vendors, to build a common framework for IoT, which launched last April. If there is a standard, then Dell clearly wants to be there from the inception. If there isn’t one, then it can of course fall back on its own horizontal solution, something which Chris R Wilder, senior IoT analyst at Moor Insights and Strategies, believes uniquely positions Dell “as one of the only tier one, end-to-end, IoT solutions providers in the industry.”

That may be so but Dell is not going to have it all its own way. GE Digital for one has been treading this path for some time now and has a breadth of industrial subsidiaries in energy, health care and aerospace verticals, to name a few. Its Predix platform won plenty of analyst plaudits last year. The new Hitachi Vantara business also has a rich seam of industrial customers to pull on and will no doubt be strong in its traditional regionals too. HPE also offers an ecosystem, that competes more closely with Dell, in terms of being an IT vendor.

Then there is Oracle, which naturally has backed the cloud and data analytics big time, with recent acquisitions of NetSuite, Moat and Wercker. You get the feeling Oracle will buy its way into the market, while SAP announced last year it was investing $2 billion in IoT over five years, with an OEM ecosystem strategy. Expect more consolidation as business look to build their own ecosystems, which brings us back to Dell’s $1 billion. Where’s the money going?

Sweet said that “clearly there is a lot of investment going into VMWare right now and also our ISG business [Infrastructure Solutions Group] and CSG business [Client Solutions Group]. We’re funding Project Nautilus, an initiative to develop software that can query data streams from IoT gateways in real time, and there’s money going into RSA.”

He wouldn’t be drawn on any potential acquisitions other than to say that security was “a big area we are keeping our eye on.” Sweet also referred to Dell Technologies Capital, the company’s startup investment arm, as a potential source of IoT technologies to join the business.

“It gives you a relatively, inexpensive way to take a closer look at new technology,” he said. “So I can place 20 different bets. Not every one of those is going to pan out. If I do it thoughtfully and smartly and enable my engineering teams to plug into next generation thinking, then it’s good for us. You’ve got to find ways to stay connected to the latest technology.”

IoT edge computing is clearly an opportunity for all IT suppliers but for Dell, the edge has always been its traditional hunting ground. The IoT may have changed the rules a little, but as the market swings back to a distributed model, it would take a brave person to bet against Dell taking a lead, although HPE and GE Digital may just have something to say about that.

Marc Ambasna-Jones is a UK-based freelance writer and media consultant and has been writing about business and technology since 1989.

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