AWS IoT Fleet Hub is announced
At its recent Re:Invent 2020 bonanza, Amazon Web Services revealed that it now has more than ten thousand customers using its IoT infrastructure, with a total of more than half a billion devices connected. Existing AWS IoT components are quite technical building-blocks, ranging from FreeRTOS and Greengrass running on the device, to IoT Core, IoT Analytics and IoT Device Manager in the cloud. They are the classic “by developers, for developers” best-in-class, technical components for which AWS is known.
The entirely new AWS IoT Fleet Hub recently announced stands-out because its envisaged primary user is an Operations person, not a technical person.
What is AWS IoT Fleet Hub for?
AWS IoT Fleet Hub is an answer to the question “how do you manage lots of devices?” - where “lots” is more than 1,000 or so. As with any other kind of infrastructure, such as servers, someone needs to be in charge of that fleet, to ensure that customers are getting a good service and, if not, establishing root cause and resolving. How can that person see the big picture? That’s what AWS IoT Fleet Hub is all about.
Existing AWS IoT components do a robust job of dealing with the everyday needs of connected devices, such as establishing a secure connection and upgrading firmware. To a large extent, they treat each device as an island. If you want to upgrade one device, you can prod AWS IoT Device Manager to upgrade it. But what if you wanted to upgrade a thousand devices - or a million? How would you even know which devices need upgrading? Likewise, you can set up IoT Analytics to trigger a rule when one device gets into a particular state (e.g. notify when battery is low). But for an operations person with thousands or millions of devices under their watch, this kind of rule is too primitive, because there are always things going wrong, and being on the receiving end of thousands of pings an hour is not anyone’s idea of a good time.
What an Operations person needs is a big-picture, wood-for-the-trees, single-pane-of-glass view of the world - which is exactly what AWS IoT Fleet Hub aims to provide. Of course, lots of little problems are occurring all the time - and usually there are already processes in place to deal with them. But sometimes new things go wrong, or problems start to escalate, and that’s where you need the big picture.
Although it may seem unusual for Amazon to produce tools aimed at operators rather than developers, a key concept in AWS IoT CTO Werner Vogel’s keynote at Re:Invent 2020 was the importance of observability, in a world where everything that can go wrong will go wrong. Of course, he was talking mainly about core cloud infrastructure, where the AWS CloudWatch product has stood for more than a decade, giving DevOps people the opportunity to manage the infrastructure and code that they deploy.
So perhaps what’s most interesting about AWS IoT Fleet Hub is that it envisages managing the estate of IoT devices deployed into the real world in largely the same way as the servers deployed in the cloud. We’ve heard server monitoring companies like New Relic and Datadog talking for years about extending their proposition into IoT, but somehow this has never really happened.
Why do you need AWS IoT Fleet Hub?
Which begs the question… why do you need a different tool? Why can’t you just use your classic server monitoring tools to manage your IoT devices?
One answer is that IoT devices emit fundamentally different types of data. In server-land, you may have tens of servers, or maybe hundreds, each running a load of disparate processes, each spewing out text-based logs. The monitoring job is then to try to structure this data, to detect important events, and to aggregate and chart and trigger from them.
Although the flow is conceptually very similar for IoT, the details are different-enough that classic server-monitoring tools don’t really cut the mustard. For one thing, the number of devices can be way bigger - in IoT it’s quite normal to have millions of devices. And for another, the data coming from those devices is not raw text, it’s mainly highly-structured telemetry.
Who uses AWS IoT Fleet Hub?
But the main difference is probably the user. Server monitoring is done by highly technical DevOps engineers, because the actions that it surfaces are highly technical. Whereas device monitoring is usually done by people who are customer-facing. Resolving a problem on an IoT device might require anything from calling up the customer to flip a breaker, to sending some replacement batteries.
A tool aimed at Operations people has to be simpler to use, for normal business-people, but also has to control access to the delicate technical innards so that operators can’t accidentally crash servers or brick devices. AWS IoT Fleet Hub leverages AWS’s “IAM” architecture to ensure that users can only perform operations that they are allowed to.
How does AWS IoT Fleet Hub differ from DevicePilot?
Conceptually, the two are very similar, and in the same category of tools used by Operations people to manage fleets of devices (aka device estates) at a high level, particularly to optimise whatever service the connected devices are supposed to be delivering.
- An operations portal
- Big-picture monitoring analytics across device estate (e.g. breakdown of errors)
- Some automation (alarms)
- Universality: AWS Fleet Hub only works for “all in” AWS IoT customers who are already using it from bottom to top, whereas DevicePilot works for any IoT devices (even a mixture of AWS-IoT and non-AWS-IoT devices)
- Use-case focus: AWS Fleet Hub is quite “downwards”-focused, on managing the layers that AWS has already defined, such as device management (OTA updates etc.). Whereas DevicePilot is perhaps a little more focused on measuring and optimising service-delivery to the end customer, for example by integrating with hundreds of other business tools to drive business process automation
- User interface: AWS Fleet Hub requires AWS credentials to access, and is quite basic (but then, this is the first version) - but is fine for internal use. DevicePilot is a complete, finished, robust, good-looking standalone SaaS application which can be shared with partners and even customers.
AWS IoT Fleet Hub is perhaps the starting gun for the category of IoT service monitoring (or IoT fleet management … or whatever name the world eventually settles on for this new category). The fact that the world’s largest cloud infrastructure provider has identified a need would seem a strong endorsement. Fleet Hub makes an easy way for Operations staff to get some visibility into the device estate, and it’s really nice that it can be enabled without writing any code, for pure AWS IoT users.