Middleware is never sexy, but it is always necessary. That’s why startup IOTech has turned an open-source middleware project for the IoT edge into a commercial product and raised $7.5 million to sell it. The three-year-old company is based in Edinburgh, Scotland and is working with a variety of systems integrators to act as the glue between different proprietary software stacks used at the edge.
IOTech is commercializing the EdgeX Foundry software developed in 2017 at Dell. The goal with EdgeX Foundry was to create a library of the different proprietary software options used in industries ranging from manufacturing to retail, and to provide a middleware layer that could stitch the data coming from those different platforms together so customers could get a unified view of their operations.
But a lot of the work associated with deploying an IoT project takes place because companies must write custom software integrations to tie together their various proprietary software stacks. Solving the software integration challenge with open-source code is a way to help the industry scale even faster, and hopefully in a way that’s more secure and less glitchy than having every company write their own integration.
Since launching the “official” version in July 2019, the EdgeX Foundry project has seen its containers downloaded more than a million times, and its software is being used by several businesses. But like any open-source project, there’s opportunity for both support and improvement. That’s where IOTech comes in. Keith Steele, the company’s CEO, says IOTech will provide traditional support for commercial clients with its Edge Xpert software, but that it has also tweaked the code to perform with lower latency for real-time manufacturing operations as part of a second product called Edge XRT.
So while the Edge Xpert software can stream data within 100s of milliseconds, the Edge XRT software does it within microseconds. Currently, IOTech charges a subscription fee for its software based on the number of devices running it, but it eventually wants to move to a pay-per-use model as companies get more sophisticated with their IoT projects.
Steele says that Intel, Dell (which led the investment in IOTech through its VC arm), Accenture, and other big systems integrators resell the IOTech software to customers. For example, a power distribution customer is running IOTech’s Edge XRT software on 80 devices that act as a gateway for incoming information from power-generating equipment made by different companies. The customer needs a rapid response time from the premium version of the software to make sure power is flowing optimally throughout its system. It plans to scale the software from the 80 devices to roughly a million devices.
That power distribution customer is also an Amazon Web Services customer, and had evaluated AWS’ Greengrass edge software for the gateway device deployment, but was concerned about latency and about getting locked into the AWS cloud, says Steele. This is not an isolated concern. Many companies trying to deploy IoT software are worried about tying their edge software to a single cloud because it can lock them in.
Additionally, outside of Microsoft, which has really worked hard at developing edge software that can run on constrained edge devices and still deliver the resiliency and low latency required in a lot of edge operations, Amazon and Google haven’t done a great job building edge software that works for many of the use cases out there. Google, for its part, has instead signed a deal to work with Foghorn, a dedicated IoT edge software company.
But honestly, most IT vendors don’t want to get too close to the edge, because it’s a harsh and unforgiving environment. When glitches happen people can get hurt and millions in damages can occur. Having a dedicated software company trying to tie critical equipment back to the IT system, and willing to do it in a way that interoperates with multiple clouds, feels like it could be a big advantage.