Why Open-Source Middleware Will Rule the Internet of Things

By Max Bondarenko

Scalable, nimble and future-proof, middleware made from open-source software offers users benefits that proprietary software fails to deliver.

Market researchers are predicting that by 2020, more than 20 billion devices will be connected to the Internet. These objects and devices will produce massive amounts of data 24-7, which will be a pain in the backbone to manage, unless tackled efficiently. To a great extent, the solution to the influx of IoT data rests in the effectiveness of the data infrastructure supporting cross-device communication—or, in other terms, in the effectiveness of IoT middleware. I firmly believe that in order to succeed in its purpose, this infrastructure should be founded on open-source platforms and technologies.

Imagine your car, house and workplace are all connected to the Internet and are controlled from your smartphone. Now think about all those complexities in regard to data management, cross-device compatibility and security that an IoT middleware platform must handle. Since countless use cases are hard to plan upfront, what could be a better way to create a comprehensive IoT middleware platform than making it available to the public and accumulating practical contributions from real-world users? This would create a platform that would evolve and address every new trend in hardware, network connectivity and user experience as soon as they catch the public's attention.

Ownership is a prominent benefit of open-source software. Since you own the source code of your solution, you are free to change it as you like and create something very unique compared to the competition. Moreover, you can augment your solution by integrating it with third-party software components and thus greatly expand its functional capabilities, as well as its business value. Being flexible with functionality in a rapidly evolving industry like the Internet of Things cannot be overemphasized; however, proprietary platforms can only give you a tiny fraction of the flexibility offered by open-source solutions.

Open-source software provides full visibility into the technology you use. When employing a closed, proprietary system or subscribing to a Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) for your data infrastructure and analysis, are you 100 percent certain that your personal data won't be compromised or stolen? With open-source software, you don't need to trust vendors' claims—you can see what's under the hood yourself, change it to fit your needs or add more security layers if need be. In the realm of the Internet of Things, in which data security becomes an issue like never before, transparency gives open-source software a definite edge.

All software needs to be supported. The support options vary from one vendor to the next, but for proprietary platforms, they are either expensive or ineffective. In the IoT, where the diversity of hardware boards, sensors and devices is striking in both quantity and quality, the most effective support model is community. Knowledge-sharing within the community usually runs ahead of official documentation, especially in terms of use cases, practical tips and workarounds. In addition, you can always rely on commercial support in situations when you wanted things done yesterday.

Open-source software is usually free of charge and the cost of ownership starts with zero, while a majority of PaaS and proprietary platforms charge based on the number of supported endpoints. With a regular smart-home solution that may include up to 50 endpoints, the overhead might not seem a big deal. But what if you one day need to expand your solution to hundreds or thousands of endpoints? Migrating to a different environment will inevitably result in system downtime and new infrastructure adoption costs, or you will otherwise need to continue paying a fortune in rent. In the IoT, the cost of scale is something to consider twice before you jump in.

Finally, the buzz about the Internet of Things has been around for a while now. Nevertheless, the IoT market is quite new and evolving quite quickly; because of this, the industry is seeking engineers who possess the right skillset to develop competitive software solutions for this uncharted marketplace. However, the chance of finding a person with the appropriate knowledge is much higher for open-source software, since it is more accessible to the wider public and easier to learn.

Open-source software has many times demonstrated how it can rise to the challenge in times of uncertainty or disintegrated innovation and give strong, focused momentum to IT evolution. Take Linux as a classic example. With its kernel and other components being free and open-source, Linux has gained tremendous adoption among IT folks and beat its proprietary rivals to become the leading operating system for embedded systems, servers and supercomputers. Will the Internet of Things usher in more prominent open-source platforms? I am positive that it will—and that very soon, open-source software will take up the reins of connecting everything.

Max Bondarenko is the marketing director of Kaa, an open-source IoT middleware provider.