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An Introduction to The Five Clouds of IoT

This article is an introduction to the concept of “The Five Clouds of IoT.” It’s a tool I’ve been developing for some time as a way to help people trying to understand the role of the cloud. This is a mental model I developed as a way to explain service offerings to people interested in building fleets of IoT devices. It includes services developed in-house and services they choose to purchase from external providers.

Today I will discuss the genesis of these classifications and why there is more than one cloud type in the first place. In future articles, I’ll take a deep dive into each of these clouds to compare and contrast their features and look at example services.

I believe it’s important for us to focus our understanding of these broadly-general terms (like cloud and IoT). Doing so lets us define what problems need to be solved in the IoT space, and how best to approach them.

Giving advice about IoT Cloud Services

I have been building internet connected (IoT) devices for a long time. When someone comes to me for advice on their startup or business enhancement, they typically ask for guidance on selecting from different service offerings in the marketplace. There have been, and continue to be, many options out there.

The conversation usually starts out with, “should I use foo for software updates? Or is bar better because it includes more stuff?” They’re coming from the perspective of looking for solutions without understanding the problems they need to solve in the first place.

So as a first step I ask questions about their needs. Questions like:

  • How are you connecting to the internet?
  • What kind of device are you building on?
  • What’s the scale of your deployment?
  • What’s your cost and cost structure?
  • What is your business model?

But the most important questions to answer for picking cloud services are:

  • What are you willing to outsource?
  • What should you outsource?
  • What would get you to market faster if you went with a provider?

From there we can have a more grounded conversation on which aspects of the cloud are needed and which combination of providers they might want to evaluate. Very few service offerings will cover every aspect of an IoT deployment and business needs.

The more of these conversation I’ve had, the more I started to realize that there might be different types of IoT cloud solutions. In fact, I think there are five. And while in practice different cloud companies might offer overlapping features, describing them as separate clouds will help us better understand the core strength of each cloud type and why we might want to use them.

Why are there “Five Clouds of IoT”?

Here are The Five Clouds of IoT, as I define them:

  • The device cloud
  • The connectivity cloud
  • The data cloud
  • The application cloud
  • The development cloud

“You’re just making these up!”, you say? Yes and no. These are classifications based on the service offerings of companies throughout the ecosystem, including the company I founded a couple of years ago (Golioth).  But at the end of the day, these are my classifications and how I view the IoT ecosystem…so yeah, I’m making these up.

However, each cloud represents a business case being served. Each cloud type I listed has a prime example of at least one company serving a particular area of focus. That’s how big the market is and how much need exists for services.

Bringing IoT to the Masses

Each IoT cloud solution helps make deployments possible without massive internal cloud teams at a device maker or service company in the IoT space. Someone who wants to keep their core team small can do so by hiring out parts of the business to different service companies representing one or more of the Five Clouds. They focus on a particular part of the business and lean on service providers to help scale their application.

We’ve already mentioned Golioth as one example of a device cloud. We’re a device cloud because we focus on the management & security of devices and the data they produce. An example of a different cloud would be Soracom, which is a connectivity cloud that addresses different aspects of connecting devices to the internet that spans SIMs, data plans, VPNs, and more.

The key here is that the fundamental focus of a cloud like Golioth and Soracom are different:  device offerings vs connectivity offerings. You need to understand what problem you want to solve when choosing between clouds. For example, why you’d want to leverage Golioth, Soracom, or both.

Which Cloud is right for you?

In future articles in this series, I’ll take a deep dive into each individual cloud and look at example companies that exemplify the characteristics of each cloud. As you start to put together your business needs for your company or your next startup idea, you will be able to piece together which clouds you will need, and find some good companies that can help you achieve your goals.