Every computing device on the market has to run some type of operating system. The smaller and more resource-constrained devices usually run a real-time operating system, or RTOS. Larger devices, such as an MRI machine or a factory computer, might run a custom version of Linux or Windows. And for just about everything else, there’s Android.
Some variation of Android sits inside point-of-sales systems, Alexa, kiosks, medical devices, and more. But Android wasn’t developed for the internet of things, and companies trying to put it into hundreds of thousands of devices that might get sold around the world can face huge challenges when it comes to patching, troubleshooting, and managing those devices. Now, a Bellevue, Wash.-based startup wants to help.
The startup, Esper, has built software to embed on boards, modules, and other connected devices that will help configure, monitor, and manage the health of the underlying connected device. Yadhu Gopalan, co-founder and CEO of Esper, was previously an architect of Windows CE at Microsoft, helped run the Amazon Web Services program that uses telemetry data to manage data centers, and was in charge of systems engineering for the Amazon Go store.
The idea at Esper is to build software that runs on a device and, using available telemetry data, can pull in data about the OS running on it along with location and overall system health. That data is sent to the cloud and from there, Esper customers can manage their devices without having physical access to them. Features include the ability to do staged rollouts of updates, to learn about the device’s physical location, and to track performance such as the device’s battery level or wireless signal strength.
All of which may not seem like much, but in the world of connected devices, this kind of functionality is few and far between. What Esper is doing is bringing the best practices of a scaled-out data center to the world of IoT. This is essential if we want to build systems that are scalable. When you have 100,000 or even a million devices a person can’t physically inspect one that is glitchy. They might be in a customer location in any part of the world or inaccessible. It can even be challenging to locate the glitchy device in the first place.
We’ve seen other companies try to solve this problem. For example, on the embedded side, Foundries.io is working on creating a stable, configurable, and patchable version of an embedded RTOS. At the hardware level, companies such as Particle and Electric Imp are tying their software and cloud services to physical computing boards to offer some of the same features.
Gopalan says that Esper has already signed a deal to embed its software agent on Mediatek modules which are used in a wide variety of connected devices. It has also inked a partnership to put its agent on Lenovo devices that have displays, such as those used in kiosks. The company just raised $7.6 million in a Series A round led by Madrona Ventures.
The funding will help Esper bring on sales staff to convince other companies to put the Esper agent on their modules and to sign customers for the service. Gopalan says Esper will charge on a per-device basis. In addition to beefing up the sales effort, he’d also like to focus more on security. The company has created secure ways to link up the agent to the cloud, but as anyone building for the IoT knows, security is an ongoing act of adaptation, not something that’s ever finished.
I like what Esper is doing with its service. We can’t think of the IoT on a device-by-device basis. We have to manage the millions of sensors and computers at the edge in a way that scales. Otherwise, we won’t be able to realize the promise it offers.