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Microsoft's IoT Hub lags behind Azure IoT Suite

Microsoft is facing off against archrival Amazon in the race to establish cloud IoT services, but its Azure IoT Suite still has some key components missing or in preview.

Microsoft Azure and Amazon Web Services are preparing for a battle royal in the Internet of Things market, but Microsoft's products are still very much being developed.

Microsoft made its Azure IoT Suite available for purchase Sept. 29, with support for remote monitoring of devices, and added proactive maintenance in an update on Dec. 1. These products stitch together multiple Azure services to make the Internet of Things (IoT) easier for customers to use. (See "What will be delivered with the Azure IoT Hub" below for more details on what's under the hood of the Azure IoT Hub.)

However, one key component has lagged the rest of the Azure IoT Suite -- namely, the IoT Hub, which SearchCloudComputing has learned is still in preview release.

Without the IoT Hub, users must apply a lot of elbow grease to achieve bidirectional communication with devices. It's possible today to send signals from the Azure cloud to connected devices in response to telemetry information, but without the Hub, users must cobble together Azure services themselves, including Event Hub, security authentication tokens and Service Bus.

For customers eager to get started with IoT, the DIY approach is recommended for existing products, according to Microsoft officials. But for new development projects, Microsoft is strongly recommending IoT Hub.

One user that has tested the product believes that the IoT Hub will be a critical piece of the overall suite that will elevate Microsoft's competitive chances.

"Being part of the preview has helped us further enable a number of activities and capabilities within our Max Service base initiative [the company's predictive maintenance solution]," said Patrick Bass, CEO of ThyssenKrupp North America, a maker of industrial equipment, including elevators, based in Chicago. "It's not just a nice-to-have, it's a must-have, and I think it takes Microsoft to the next level in their total platform offering for IoT."

Asked if delivery of the IoT Hub lagging four to five months behind the rest of the Azure IoT Suite would put a crimp in his product plans, Bass said it would not.

"Because we've been so closely connected through the partnership, it wouldn't have made a difference for us," Bass said. "Will it make a difference for potential other customers? It's a great enhancement, so sure, I can imagine it would."

Specifically, one of the major advantages the IoT Hub provides, according to Bass, is a broader interface into other programs that his company has built into its business processes, which cuts down on the need for custom programming.

"And in the end, [custom programming] is the key piece," Bass added.

Another user, who deployed Azure a few years ago, said that while the added wait for the IoT Hub isn't critical to their plans, they'd like to see it released to general availability sooner rather than later.

"The sooner Microsoft releases [IoT Hub], the more quickly we can work it into our roadmap and come to market with a product that has the Rockwell logo," said John Dyck, global director of software business development for Milwaukee-based Rockwell Automation, which makes software for the oil and gas manufacturing industry.

The finished version of the IoT Hub is expected to be generally available no later than the end of this year's first quarter, according to Jerry Lee, director of product marketing for the Azure IoT Suite.

Speed bumps abound on the IoT Hub road

One source familiar with the company's plans, however, said the product has run into snags during its public preview -- particularly around capacity and scalability. While multiple capacity units can be stacked on top of IoT Hub, Microsoft calls out a 6 million message per unit, per day limitation. On the other hand, archrival Amazon Web Services (AWS) claims support for billions of devices and trillions of messages on its IoT platform.

Microsoft's Lee denied that the product has run into architectural issues during the preview. He also pointed out that Microsoft's IoT Hub is priced to accommodate fewer, larger messages than the AWS IoT system, which prices in 512-byte chunks.

While Microsoft has been trying to make hay against Amazon by claiming its overall IoT Suite has been available longer, AWS' IoT platform has natively included bidirectional communication since its release to general availability in December.

Despite the bidirectional capabilities of Amazon's IoT offering, when Dyck's firm evaluated offerings from Microsoft and Amazon, he said the company never seriously considered Amazon.  He felt there wasn't anything compelling that "would have us reconsider or fundamentally change our strategy."

Both Dyck and Bass said their companies have successfully implemented remote monitoring for IoT through the Azure suite. In the United States, Bass said safety standards prohibit the remote operation of elevators, so bidirectional communication in that case is not relevant.

What will be delivered with the Azure IoT Hub

Azure IoT Hub, which is a fully managed service, is seen by many as the heart and soul of Microsoft's Azure IoT Suite. Some of the technology's secret sauce includes: 

  • Bidirectional communication with millions of IoT devices
  • The ability to provision each device with its own security key, allowing it to safely connect to the IoT Hub
  • Can expose public protocols to enable devices to natively use the HTPP 1.1 and AMQP 1.0 protocols
  • Can be scaled to handle millions of connected devices simultaneously
  • An event processor engine, which allows it millions of events per second from devices and process them on your hot path. It can also store them on your cold path for analysis.

Azure, AWS IoT pricing details

Azure IoT Hub has three editions:

  • Free, which is meant for proof-of-concept evaluation only, and with support for up to 8,000 messages per day across all connected devices;
  • S1, which is meant for IoT networks that generate relatively small amounts of data, supporting up to 400,000 messages per day, per unit across all connected devices; and
  • S2, which supports up to 6 million messages per day, per unit across all connected devices.

Up to 200 units can be allocated per IoT Hub, according to Azure IoT Hub stats published on GitHub, and up to 10 IoT Hubs are supported per Azure subscription.

S1 is priced at $25 per month, and S2 at $250 per month, though this pricing will change -- to the tune of 50% higher -- when IoT Hub becomes generally available in the first quarter of 2016.  

AWS IoT is priced at $5 per 1 million half-kilobyte messages, beyond a free tier of up to 250,000 messages per month for 12 months. While messages are measured in these small chunks for pricing purposes, messages are not limited to this size for processing.

Amazon's generally available platform also includes IPv6 support, which Azure and the Azure IoT Suite don't natively support, though support is also in the works, according to a Microsoft spokesperson.

IPv6, which features a larger IP address space, can better accommodate the proliferation of Internet-connected devices than what Microsoft supports today in IPv4. No timeframe was given for when this support will be available.

"Relieving yourself of that legacy network constraint is going to be a huge deal for organizations trying to take advantage of [IoT]," said Patrick McClory, director of automation and DevOps for Datapipe, a provider of managed hosting services for AWS in Jersey City, N.J. "This process of IPv6 being supported and the level of interest that we're seeing from these types of organizations is going to spur more IPv6 support from ISVs."

Meanwhile, Microsoft partners said customers are still in the early stages of putting together IoT applications.

"I have clients working around this topic, but it's still [in the] very, very early days," said Kristian Nese, CTO of Lumagate, a Microsoft partner based in Norway. "The products from Microsoft are in a good enough state to get things started."

Both AWS and Microsoft are breaking new ground with IoT platforms, and both will experience growing pains in this market, according to Carl Brooks, an analyst with 451 Research in New York. Microsoft's ultimate strategy is to bundle together its services under the IoT Suite to simplify deployment. Amazon users will connect the IoT platform to other AWS offerings, such as DynamoDB, Lambda, Kinesis or to SNS and SQS through a Rules Engine Amazon made available for customization. Amazon does not charge extra for this integration.

"They're both laying down a rudimentary framework to support what they see as the coming avalanche of microconnected devices," Brooks said. Each platform "is as functional as the end user is able to comprehend it and make it usable -- it does not simply drop into place for anyone."

Beth Pariseau is senior news writer for SearchAWS. Write to her at [email protected] or follow @PariseauTT on Twitter. 

Ed Scannell is a senior executive editor with TechTarget. Contact him at [email protected]

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