Advertisement
06/13/2016

Building the Foundation for IoT

Lisa Terry
Contributing Editor
Lisa Terry profile picture
The full picture of Internet of Things (IoT) in hospitality is just coming into focus, but it’s clear it will require the interoperation of systems and devices that currently exist in separate worlds. Analysts say IoT will grow rapidly — IC Insights predicts industrial IoT spending will see a CAGR of nearly 18%. That means hospitality operators need to lay a foundation for IoT even before they’ve formed a brand vision.

Plenty of technology companies are offering IoT platform products, including makers of edge devices, energy management systems (EMS), entertainment devices, kitchen equipment, networks and Internet service providers.

For MÖvenpick Hotels and Resorts (www.movenpick.com), which operates more than 80 properties in 24 countries, “the room control system could be a perfect platform because they cover most of the building, and often already have beacons inside because they connect to each other,” says Floor Bleeker, CIO. Samir Abi Frem, corporate VP of IT, Rotana Hotel Management Corporation (www.rotana.com) adds that room-based systems support the chief IoT mission of learning about customers. WiFi providers offer similar pervasiveness, says Bleeker, but openness and the ability to upgrade protocols is the most important feature in a platform.

Because it’s so new, how vendors define platform, and what protocols, standards and technologies they use to deliver it, can vary widely. Certainly, though, hospitality companies will need a stack of hardware, software and services to facilitate the rapid communication and analysis of data that will make IoT work as envisioned. Here are some key questions to consider:

1  What do you mean by platform? Platform is a squishy term. Most agree an IoT stack or ecosystem starts with a robust infrastructure in the form of high speed, secure, well-managed wireless (cellular and WiFi) and wired networks, in addition to a variety of edge devices.

“Even though a majority of these systems and technologies mesh network, the network backbone itself has to be scalable and reliably allow this data to quickly traverse to the systems that collect and interface the various systems,” says Brian Cornell, CIO for Concord Hotels (www.concordhotels.com). Concord is currently enabling its PMS, key and energy management systems to all communicate, and then looking to integrate its entertainment system so it’s all controllable from the guest room remote as the ROI becomes more defined.

Other elements include a cloud/data storage repository, applications, an integration layer and analytics capabilities. Platform products often address this part of the stack, although if standards-based, each element could come from a different vendor.

Cisco (www.cisco.com) urges operators to probe deeply into a vendor’s integration layer — does it only work with their own products? Is it point to point or require a bunch of enterprise service buses to manage? Does it extend across corporations and properties? Is the integration layer the only way to connect? Is it rightsized for the organization?

2 Is it open? Key characteristics in IoT applications include open APIs and SDKs to enable others to write calls to the system and know what they will get back. Another consideration: Can the system work with any cloud service or just one?

Telkonet (www.telkonet.com) advises ensuring a solution can accommodate a wide range of voltage requirements in the edge equipment it talks to, such as different HVAC equipment.
When Sheraton Grand Chicago (www.sheratonchicago.com) needed to retrofit a fiber network to install intelligent thermostats throughout the 1,219-room property, they knew it was important to plan for interoperability with other systems, now and in the future. The engineering and IT teams met jointly with the vendor, Telkonet and PMS provider to ensure compatibility. They also conducted an extensive feasibility study to ensure the platform complied with brand standards, supported long-term capacity needs and that everything but the end points were non-proprietary, says Brian Egan, chief engineer at the property.

“It’s all about the RFP, planning and implementation,” Egan explains. “You need to take your time, look ten years out, bring in the right minds and implement the correct way.”

Already, connectivity to energy management equipment is not just reducing energy bills, but “allows us to be proactive not reactive,” says Egan, alerting engineering staff to conditions such as low battery, device communications breakdowns or excessive runtime, a hint at what’s to come with IoT.

3  Can I make changes without additional fees? Some vendors create integrations with others’ products and then charge hoteliers a fee to make use of them. To ensure investments in IoT can accommodate future changes, “you need to make sure it’s technically possible and legally allowed without having to pay anything additional,” advises MÖvenpick’s Bleeker.

4 What standards does it use? There is no clear winner in IoT standards, but many contenders, each with their own pros and cons. Questions include: Is it lightweight? Well-established? Widely used and by whom? Has the device vendor modified the standard for their own purposes and can the platform communicate with non-standard devices?

According to Telkonet, it’s not enough to say each product uses Zigbee (www.zigbee.org) or 802.14.4: Does a device adhere to specific profiles within the Zigbee standard or have they tested interoperability with other Zigbee devices? Another reason this is important: A common misconception is that IoT should live on existing WiFi networks, since it could degrade guest bandwidth. Standards like Zigbee and Zwave (www.z-wavealliance.org) were designed with lower data rates and higher density or IoT devices as well as battery operation which can be an important consideration in retrofit applications. By picking a standard that can support a high density of devices you can create a single network infrastructure capable of supporting a larger number of IoT devices from various companies, with fewer points of failure, lower maintenance and easier monitoring.

Zebra (www.zebra.com) is among those aligning with ARM Holdings (www.arm.com) whose mbed operating system will be embedded in many next-gen silicon chipsets. The operating system consolidates devices running different protocols under a single software layer that’s simple, secure, and free to use, easing interoperability.

5 Are edge devices IoT-ready? It’s important for operators to procure new equipment with IoT in mind, even if actual IoT use is a long way off. Some vendors insist edge devices need to incorporate a variety of radios and processing capabilities into the device, while others insist they can add IoT smarts to any device. Some edge devices can act as a hub or gateway for other IoT devices. Key questions include: How does the device talk to the cloud? Does it incorporate IoT-ready chipsets; enable easy firmware upgrades; support location data?
Sheraton and MÖvenpick are applying their IoT evaluation process to every applicable piece of equipment the hotel purchases, keeping future IoT needs in mind.

6 What partners are in its ecosystem? IoT is about interoperability, so a vendor already working with a wide variety of partners is putting its integration claims to the test. It’s also a good sign if a variety of software developers are writing to the platform. “Make sure they didn’t just pick one protocol or platform,” says Concord’s Cornell. “Not just one system, but options for at least three different ones, so you are not locked into a specific vendor.”

It’s also wise to ask vendors for their IoT roadmap, advises Interel (www.interelme.com), to make sure the hotel’s vision for IoT aligns with that of the platform provider.

7 Is it designed for business? Systems designed for homes typically lack key features, since homeowners authenticate credentials once and can directly intervene if a device fails, according to UI Evolution (www.uievolution.com) and Interel. Hospitality organizations need central management and control plus high service and quality levels.
Vendors must not only be building specifically for commercial environments, but “a proven track record in support is critical,” says Concord’s Cornell. “It’s got to be a solid system.”   
     

About the Author

Lisa Terry is a seasoned business and technology journalist covering retail, hospitality, supply chain and adjacent industries, with more than 1,000 published articles, white papers, blogs and other works. Read More