IoT Scalability: What It Means, Common Challenges, and How to Scale Effectively

Scalability is one of the most crucial criteria you should look for when considering an enterprise IoT solution. When it comes to IoT, scalability isn’t just about growing your deployment.

It’s impossible to scale IoT without also considering factors like security, cellular coverage, certifications, and your supply of devices.

In this article, we’ll help you make sense of scalability and show you what to look for in an IoT solution. We’ll cover:

  • What scalability means
  • Why scalability should be a crucial part of planning an IoT deployment
  • Common IoT scalability challenges
  • What issues you can expect at a large-scale IoT ecosystem that you won’t see in a small one
  • How Particle makes scalability much more manageable than trying to scale yourself

What Does Scalability in IoT Mean?

IoT scalability refers to the ability to go from prototype to production in a seamless way.

When people think of scalability outside the IoT context, they often envision cloud-based e-commerce merchants quickly scaling up their ability to process orders on Black Friday. In this case, they're serving a million customers in a day when they usually only need to process 10,000 orders.

Similarly, in IoT deployments, companies need the ability to scale up and down depending on the amount of data their fleet of devices is providing. To be successful, you must be confident that the infrastructure, cloud, and connectivity layers can all scale with you.

That software-layer scalability is critical, but because IoT encompasses hardware, the ability to quickly iterate on your hardware design, deploy that hardware around the world on different cellular networks, and stay within the bounds of the certification requirements is equally important.

This process often presents challenges because it can involve multiple parts: different vendors, pieces of hardware, and cellular carriers. Scaling into new geographic areas usually involves finding new carriers and seeking regional certifications, draining time and resources in the process.

Why is Scalability Important in IoT

In IoT, the ability to scale is key because it helps you prevent project failure.

Lots of IoT projects fail—up to 75 percent, according to an oft-cited 2017 Cisco report. While that number might be shrinking by now, the metric remains a reminder of the many challenges that come with IoT project development and deployment.

IoT involves a complex technology stack, and few companies have all the needed hardware, software, and connectivity expertise in-house. For example, some companies have a strong hardware background and an ability to integrate all the mechanical and electronic elements—but they lack the expertise to build a connected user experience. Others specialize in software and web development but don't fully understand connectivity between hardware elements.

With gaps in either direction, scalability becomes complicated, and project failure is a real possibility.

Common IoT Scalability Challenges

Avoiding failure in IoT means reducing the risks of your project. Most failed IoT projects only work for a small subset of use cases or involve complicated processes to scale—like customizations needed to deploy products in different regions or large retooling efforts to take a prototype design into production. If there are delays or limitations once your product is on the market, you're going to lose customers along the way.

Reliability and scalability go hand in hand here. Before you launch, make sure you can reach the number of devices and connectivity to properly deliver on the promises you make to your customers.

Let's take a closer look at a few common challenges for IoT scalability:

Security

When you deploy an IoT product at scale, it means more devices are in operation—and an increase in the number of connected devices always creates more security threats. That's because each new device adds another attack surface and more people have access to the network.

Always searching for points of vulnerability, botnets pose a significant security threat to IoT devices. If they find an open back door, they can bring down entire systems using Distributed Denial of Service attack, which is a strategy that floods a system with messages and requests to shut it down. If an IoT fleet provider experiences a DDoS attack, it could be the death blow that kills a particular project—or the entire business.

Maintaining high levels of security between devices and the network as you scale up production and deployment can be challenging, especially for smaller companies that may not have a dedicated team of in-house cybersecurity experts to aid them.

Device Management

Managing IoT devices after they're manufactured and deployed can be another challenging hurdle. Most electronic devices are sold and shipped with the latest firmware. Still, it's essential to have a way to issue and load updates, including security patches, as you discover new vulnerabilities and develop new features.

Connected devices need a reliable over-the-air service to provide periodic updates as they're deployed, giving you the ability to push those updates quickly without the need for human oversight on the device side.

Integrating hardware architecture with cloud and connectivity providers is another challenge inherent in device management. It can be a complicated and challenging process when companies attempt to integrate hardware, software, and connectivity themselves. One way to avoid this headache is by choosing a single provider that can handle all three areas.

Cellular Coverage

Ensuring cellular coverage for an IoT deployment may also prove difficult, especially when you're deploying devices across vast geographic areas.

Cellular connectivity is an essential piece of the puzzle for a successful deployment, as interruptions can mean the loss of vital data. To manage cellular connectivity at scale, companies have a host of strategic decisions to make about:

  • Manufacturers and firmware (including whether to use a traditional SIM or eSIM that enables OTA updates)
  • Modem components and modules
  • The microcontroller network stack
  • SIM provider mobile network operator
  • Roaming partner MNOs
  • Radio Access Technology (2G, 3G, LTE, and various LPWAN cellular categories like Cat 1, M1, NB-IoT)
  • Regional certifications
  • Network protocols
  • Internet providers

Finding a partner that can manage at least some of these decisions and negotiations can help to simplify an otherwise complex problem.

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What Issues Do Large-Scale IoT Deployments Have That Smaller Ones Don't?

While all IoT deployments face the fundamental challenges of security, device management, and coverage, large-scale IoT often involves a few additional hurdles:

Elasticity

Because data flow and system demand will ebb and flow, large-scale IoT deployments need a software stack that can provide the elasticity to perform well during the lulls and peaks. Newer cloud architectures such as microservices and supporting technologies like Kubernetes effectively manage this issue.

Scaling Globally

When you're scaling an IoT product worldwide, the endeavor often requires many individual vendors to provide the global connectivity needed. It's a matter of folding in discrete network operators and obtaining certifications in different jurisdictions.

Cellular device certification is often shrouded in confusion, with laws on the books that are sometimes vague. Interpretation of these terse regulations is varied depending on which "expert" you talk with, and this makes it difficult to know what is permissible.

Most companies don't want to get involved in this potentially messy—and risky—area of scalability. Choosing a provider that handles carrier negotiations worldwide and provides precertified hardware is a great way to avoid this potential issue.

How to Scale IoT Efficently

Scaling IoT effectively requires a range of technical expertise and a great deal of coordination. If you take a DIY approach, there won't be an "easy" way to scale your IoT ecosystem.

Connecting with a provider that can carry at least some of that load opens the door to scaling up more quickly and efficiently.

As an integrated IoT solution, Particle is built for scalability. Here's how.

Easy-to-Use APIs and Hardware for Prototyping and Production

Particle provides all the hardware and firmware you need to build a prototype. We provide hardware kits that are easy to set up and integrate with on your lab bench, our Device Operating system is open source, and we have a thriving community of over 200,000 developers to learn and hire from.

Once you're ready to move toward production, you can port the firmware seamlessly to any of our hardware platforms, and use the same firmware OTA services to update 1 or 1,000,000 devices quickly (average OTA is 27 seconds). This allows you to scale from one device to 100,000 and beyond without integrating different technologies, vendors, and providers.

Streamlined Cellular Connectivity

Particle simplifies connectivity with pre-certified hardware and pre-negotiated carrier partnerships around the world.

Our IoT-specific SIM card, EtherSIM, is built into our hardware and is powered by 350 global carriers that automatically connect to the best networks across WiFi, 2G, 3G, and LTE technologies. Particle also provides reliable, international OTA update services across markets.

Assured Security

With a high volume of devices and deployments globally, Particle has developed strong IoT security practices to ensure all devices are protected per local regulations and enterprise-grade standards.

With end-to-end encryption from hardware to connectivity to cloud, SOC II and GDPR certifications, public/private key authentication, open event logging framework, firewall protection, and more, Particle offers the peace of mind you need to operate securely at scale.

Simplified and Robust Supply Chain

Often, IoT developers use hardware components for prototypes and through the proof of concept stage, only to realize that they're no longer available when it's time to scale—especially in the current supply chain crisis.

At Particle, we help you obtain hardware you couldn't get otherwise, acting as a supply chain buffer through supply issues with silicon and other key materials. While many IoT vendors are telling customers they will be unable to fulfill orders, Particle can build you pin-compatible hardware that will continue to be widely available, both now and in the future.

That means you get:

  • Components available in unrestricted volumes. Every unavailable component in our portfolio has been swapped out with components we can guarantee. Particle will continue shipping your orders throughout the extended silicon shortage.
  • Seamless migration. Our supply secure modules will require limited hardware and firmware changes to migrate from existing Gen 2 and Gen 3 products.
  • Upgraded components. Many of our supply secure modules come with more powerful processors, more memory, and other enhancements.

Struggling to get out of the POC phase of your IoT project?

Talk to one of our IoT experts to learn how Particle can help you get to market faster and with less risk.