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What Is IoT Device Management?

IoT device management provides administrative access to a deployed network of Internet of Things devices and automates processes. These connected devices, which perform tasks like data collection, data routing and edge computing, must be monitored for security and uptime. The management application monitors the network and sends notifications to an administrator, who has secure access to troubleshoot those devices, update their firmware and reboot them if needed.
 
To enable administrators to perform these tasks, deployments in the Internet of Things need to be integrated with IoT application management tools. One of the critical capabilities is the ability to perform mass firmware updates to many devices without logging into each device individually.

Note: Without this critical functionality, IoT network managers cannot keep their deployed network of devices up-to-date with security patches, and cannot seamlessly and efficiently update the functionality of their deployed devices, which can leave the devices vulnerable, out-of-date, out-of-compliance and unreachable.
 
In this blog post, we will provide additional insights on how IoT system management tools work and how to evaluate their features, which is a critical step in selecting an IoT solutions partner.
 

IoT Deployment Examples: The Case for Connected Device Management

Internet of Things devices can be deployed anywhere. While it’s not uncommon for devices such as radio modules, gateways and cellular routers to be installed close at hand, many such devices end up far afield, in difficult-to-access places or dangerous environments. Let’s look at some important use cases for remote IoT device control.
 

Smart City Lighting


Smart cities today are moving to automated, sensor-based lighting systems that detect changing lighting conditions and the presence of vehicles. These smart lighting systems are far more energy efficient, as they automatically turn off when they are not needed.

As the devices to detect and control the lights are installed on top of a light post, they are physically unreachable except by a technician in a truck outfitted with a “cherry picker,” which is a highly expensive proposition. Additionally, there are typically thousands of these devices. Managing configuration, security, or functionality updates for all of those devices is highly impractical.
 

Farming and Precision Agriculture


Agriculture is one of the top industries for adoption of IoT technologies for a range of applications from automated feeding systems to tank and feed bin monitoring, smart watering, activating frost fans, and other automated processes.

In precision agriculture, IoT devices can be deployed at varying points across thousands of acres of farmland. For example, GPS-enabled IoT devices are deployed in automatic watering systems, not only to activate watering systems based on soil moisture sensors and rotate the system across a defined crop area, but also to locate the systems if they have rolled off course.

Operators must have the ability to remotely access the devices for troubleshooting to ensure these systems are functioning properly. Increasingly, artificial intelligence is incorporated into these applications to enable automated decision-making processes based on incoming data.
 

Mobile Applications


IoT devices can also be found in constant motion – such as in city transit systems, supply chain and delivery services. For example, in buses, subways and light rail systems, IoT devices are tasked with everything from fare collection to security monitoring to providing operator GPS and passenger Wi-Fi. And in supply chain and package delivery they monitor and track fleets, vehicle operator metrics and package deliveries across large metro areas. These applications have a critical need for reliability, which requires the ability to remotely monitor, troubleshoot and manage them from a centralized location.
 

Industrial IoT Applications


The definition of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) is broad. It includes the emerging Industry 4.0 applications for automation, machine learning and artificial intelligence on the factory floor. It includes a vast number of applications in oil and gas, mining, water and wastewater management, and environmental remediation projects. It also includes remote monitoring of wells, communications systems and clean energy installations such as solar panels and windmills. It even includes digital signage on city streets, in subways and on highways, as the devices supporting these deployments must be industrial-grade to handle temperature extremes, moisture and vibration.
 
Therefore, in the Industrial IoT, connected devices can be integrated in remote areas, underground systems, construction projects, digital signs in subways, on bridges and overpasses, or deep within a maze of pipes in an oil refinery. All of these devices require monitoring, management and periodic firmware updates. They also require a security framework for secure access and data transfer, and therefore monitoring and alert systems must be in place in the event of security threats and other challenges.
 
These are just a few of the many reasons for the need for device management in the Internet of Things across the commercial, government and industrial landscape. But they all demonstrate one thing. Managing all of those devices requires centralized management and control.
 

The Role of IoT Device Management Platforms


One of the most important factors to keep in mind when planning an IoT deployment is that an IoT network is not static. It is like a living organism. Another important factor to keep in mind is that it’s not possible for humans to keep an eye on dozens, hundreds, or thousands of devices, to manage their security effectively, or to manually perform updates to all of those devices. Therefore, the management platform has some very important functions.

Remote Access

For the reasons stated above, regardless of the type of application, every successful IoT deployment includes the capability to perform monitoring, maintenance and troubleshooting across the entire deployed network. Administrators must have an established IoT device management protocol for monitoring device performance and security, receiving alerts, and remotely managing devices.
 
An IoT device management solution, such as Digi Remote Manager®, provides these capabilities to empower administrators and technicians to get alerts and troubleshoot issues, even when devices are remote or physically inaccessible, and even if they number in the hundreds of thousands. It can also provide out-of-band access that would traditionally be managed through a serial interface.
 


Configuration Management

How, when and why IoT devices perform their functions varies considerably, and therefore every application must be able to set specific device functionality through the device’s firmware configuration.

Let’s look at some examples of configuration management tasks that are typically performed through the IoT device management platform in preparation for deployment, and after the devices are deployed.
 
IoT use cases often require edge-computing, where data processing takes place in close physical proximity to the machine or process being controlled, rather than in some distant data center. Ideally, an IoT device management application will have functionality to perform the data processing in whatever location is the most efficient and most cost effective, whether that’s close to the deployed device, back at the corporate data center or somewhere in between. This functionality can be set through scripts that are downloaded to the devices from the device management platform.
 
One example is an agricultural setting, in which there may be thousands of sensors spread out across hundreds of acres of farm fields, measuring soil moisture, temperature, and other environmental conditions.

Since these sensors often need to transmit only small bits of data on an hourly or daily basis, maximizing battery life is a priority, and intermittent connectivity may be sufficient. In these cases, the IoT devices may be configured to “wake up” on a scheduled basis, such as hourly or daily, to check and report on conditions. It’s also therefore important to note if for any reason a device does not wake up as scheduled. For example, a device may need to be rebooted or its battery replaced.
 
By contrast, an industrial IoT setting may require higher bandwidth and a higher level of automation to ensure that the devices are always on and always functioning properly. In IIoT situations, power may be readily available and low latency may be critical for the safe operation of machinery and equipment. So the ability to configure all of the devices to behave a certain way is crucial.
 

Security

Your IoT device management platform must also support the security of your deployed application. How the platform performs this function will vary. Digi Remote Manager, for example, performs automated configuration monitoring across the device deployment. It will also reset configurations back to their approved state to thwart any tampering, and administrators can receive alerts in the event of any attempts to change the configuration.
 

Three Steps to IoT Device Management

 The three primary steps involved in connected device management are:
  • Installation
  • Monitoring
  • Maintenance
 The ability to perform these steps through software has multiple important implications, including device and network security, ongoing system-wide insights, and the amount of human resources required to successfully deploy and maintain the deployed network of devices.
 
Let’s look at how an IoT device management platform supports these critical functions.
 

Installation

The first step in connected device management your devices is the process of adding a new device to a network. This process includes:
  • Configuration: IoT devices need to be configured with firmware attributes, as we’ve discussed, including security settings and behavior. The ability to configure and control devices remotely is critical, both during and after deployment, in order to set their initial functionality and also to update that functionality when needed. For example, there may be a need to increase the frequency of status reports to keep closer tabs on a sensitive process. Alternatively, reporting frequency may need to be reduced to save on network bandwidth (and cost) and to conserve battery life. Future security patches are another reason to plan for the ability to send firmware updates out to all devices.
  • Authentication: This is the process of confirming that a device’s identity as it is enrolled into the IoT system. This is to ensure that each deployed device appearing on an IoT management dashboard really is a legitimate member of the network deployment. Proper authentication assures that only devices with the required credentials are enrolled, so that the deployment is safe from intrusions and proprietary information is kept confidential. Authentication, it’s important to note, also applies to persons trying to access the system. 

Monitoring

Automatic monitoring is necessary for the smooth and secure operation of each device or group of devices. A management dashboard enables network administrators to monitor the entire deployment and drill down into device groups or individual devices to investigate anomalies. The connected device management application may use cloud-based analytics to provide useful insights into any problems that occur across a fleet of connected devices.

IoT device management applications can produce program logs to track performance and help identify and diagnose problems. For example, if a device’s power usage spikes for an unknown reason, program logs can provide administrators with data about the time and circumstances of the usage spike so they can analyze and address the issue. Monitoring network metrics can also reveal patterns and trends that affect performance or indicate security threats. Administrators can set alerts to automatically notify them about certain conditions, and generate status reports at desired intervals.
 

Maintenance

The ability to maintain visibility across the device deployment, get alerts, and troubleshoot issues, is one of the most important aspects of IoT device management. In IIoT deployments, devices may have a service life of a decade or more. So it is inevitable that feature enhancements, security patches and firmware updates will be needed from time to time.
 
Without a strategy for performing these ongoing maintenance tasks, teams are forced to find a way ot perform these updates manually. In many cases the result is that device deployments lapse in security and fall out of compliance.
 

Evaluating IoT Device Management Software


Device management starts with your initial selection of an IoT device. It is critical to work with a device vendor that offers an integrated, sophisticated and secure IoT device management platform that enables you to configure, monitor and manage your device network seamlessly from an application interface.
 

Include IoT Software in the Device Purchasing Decision

There are some important reasons to evaluate and select a device vendor with the IoT device management platform in mind:
  • Configuring and enrolling devices in the network should happen through the software, which will then have a record of every device ID, its device type and configuration, and its location on the network.
  • The ability to configure large groups of devices simultaneously and monitor their security effectively ensures scalability. Without these capabilities, enterprises cannot roll out large deployments, keep tabs on them or effectively manage them.
  • Not all IoT device management systems are alike. The key features of the program must match your deployment, device configuration, edge computing, remote access, and monitoring requirements.
Note: As a cautionary tale, it is far more challenging to add an IoT device management program to a device network after deployment.
 

Key Features of an IoT Device Management Platform

Most platforms for managing your IoT device network include basic capabilities to authenticate and configure devices, push new firmware to groups of devices in order to update device functionality or security, and remotely troubleshoot issues. For many applications today, it’s important to have much more comprehensive control via an intelligent network solution.
 
Here are some additional key features to look for, and the value they provide for intelligent application management:
  • Robust, sophisticated APIs:
    • Look for an API explorer that offers seamless navigation of the API library and easy testing of the API functionality.
    • Look for the ability to connect your own software or database program to the remote management program. This feature enables integration of the remote management program functionality into your own system, as well as the ability to send data to a database in order to create customized reports and analytics from the IoT device management platform data.
  • Customizable dashboard:
    • It is important to be able to edit your application interface to your needs and specifications. For example, Digi Remote Manager enables you to customize your dashboard widgets, as no two IoT deployments are alike. This functionality enables managers to set up at-a-glance views or charts that provide insights into the most critical conditions of their specific network.
  • Ability to send custom scripts to deployed devices:
    • This functionality enables application managers to send files such as Python scripts to the deployed devices. For example, Digi Remote Manager provides authorized file system access to devices for the purpose of downloading scripts and other files. An example of this would be to set up a secure Wi-Fi hotspot login page to enable access to the Wi-Fi on a router.
  • Ability to group and control device groups:
    • A key ability of a device management platform is control over device configurations, and should be standard with any such platform. A key differentiator to look for is the flexibility to create any device group and apply a specific configuration. For example, if you have one device type that you deploy to three different applications, you must be able to set the configuration separately for each application. Digi Remote Manager offers this flexibility, but not all IoT management programs do.
  • Access to edge devices:
    • Enabling edge computing is a critical feature of an increasing number of IoT deployments today, to reduce latency in the transfer of data, and to improve the efficiency of the network. Your IoT device management system should enable this access to ensure you can manage the flow of data from the edge.
  • Out-of-band management:
    • The ability to reach and troubleshoot offline IoT devices can be crucial for many applications. While some remote management tools require upgrades to access this important functionality, Digi Remote Manager enables out-of-band access through its basic-level service. This is done via serial connection through a combination of Digi Remote Manager and cellular products running the Digi Accelerated Linux (DAL) operating system.
  • White labeling:
    • For those who want to develop solutions that incorporate their own branding, this is an important capability. For example, Digi Remote Manager offers white labeling options to enable value added resellers to incorporate the functionality into their solutions. As an example, some customers use Digi Remote Manager APIs to customize the software for specific use cases or language localization. See the Enlazza customer story for an example.
To learn more about how to securely manage your IoT device deployment with sophisticated IoT device management software, contact Digi today at www.digi.com/contactus.
 
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