Dell Launches IoT Program, Includes Microsoft as Partner

Microsoft is among over two dozen companies that have joined Dell's newly launched effort to create an Internet of Things (IoT) ecosystem.

Dell announced its new IoT Solutions Partner Program last week. The company, which unveiled its first IoT gateway nearly a year ago, has lined up a variety of players ranging from key IT players such as SAP and Software AG, to those that provide industrial automation wares and services such as INEX Advisors, Kepware, OSIsoft and PTC.

Dell's IoT push comes as a growing number of enterprise and consumer tech providers are seeing a large opportunity to gather machine data from operational technology (OT) infrastructure, including sensors and other machine components, for the purpose of automation and data mining.

Spending on commercial IoT technologies on infrastructure, software and services -- but excluding devices, sensors and automation technology -- is expected to be $247 billion, according to Technology Business Research (TBR). Growing at a 20.6 percent CAGR, expenditures are expected to balloon to $629 billion by 2021, according to the research firm.

Attention on IoT has accelerated recently, with industrial manufacturers gathering this week in Germany for the annual Hannover Messe technology conference. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella was at the event on Sunday to give the opening keynote. Nadella introduced a number of customers, including Rolls Royce, Jabil and Liebherr Group, that are using Microsoft's Azure machine learning and IoT technologies to automate their manufacturing processes.

In the case of Liebherr, which manufactures refrigerators and freezers, the company has partnered with Microsoft to automate repair orders when an appliance isn't working properly using Windows 10 IoT (formerly Windows Embedded), Azure and Power BI.

"I would posit that what's new today is that the very thing that you produce, the very thing that you manufacture, for the first time, is connected with all of the web of activity around it," Nadella told the Hannover Messe audience. "That is what's really different. These new digital feedback loops that I refer to as 'systems of intelligence' is the new inflection point that we, collectively, across the software industry or the digital industry and the manufacturing industry are, in fact, bringing forth."

Nadella added that the bridging of IT and OT will continue to enable a growing number of these "digital transformation" efforts.

But, as Dell and some of its partners noted at a media event earlier this month to discuss its new IoT partner program, bridging IT and OT is a complex endeavor.

Dell's IoT initiative actually began several years ago as a business plan. The company has since defined IoT as a key area to embrace, said Jason Shepherd, director of strategy of partnerships and solutions at Dell. In addition to the 25-plus partners announced last week, Shepherd said Dell is gathering others, ranging from ISVs to systems integrators (SIs). Unlike other traditional IT areas, building IoT-enabled applications requires a multidisciplinary approach to bring together hardware that operates digitally.

Dell's key IoT entry came a year ago when it announced a new division focused on offering IoT gateways, which are small, wall-mountable PCs with wireless receivers and loaded with an embedded operating system -- either Linux or Windows 10 IoT. The edge gateways typically receive signals from sensors or other fixed operational components. They then tag or process those signals into data so they may be passed along to some kind of database cluster or other processing engine where analytics are performed.

Naturally, security and analytics are key components to the IT part of the industrial-automation equation, and Dell points to its own offerings and those of partners that can perform various forms of predictive analytics.

Dell, with Microsoft and energy-management solution provider Blue Pillar, is now offering solutions for utilities to help streamline the distribution of electrical power. One partner using the recently launched Dell Edge Gateway 5100 in a variety of settings, including orchards, vineyards, greenhouses and logistical environments, and often in environments subject to extreme temperatures, is INEX Advisors. INEX Advisors President Christopher Rezendes said a good amount of these automation systems are evolving, but Dell offers one of the more robust IoT edge gateways available.

"I think we got them early, so there is still a fair amount of feature sets that need to be stabilized or needs to be released, but we think with the approach they are taking, we're going to get a nice collection and selection of tools and utilities that will be pretty easily integrateable in their stack," Rezendes said. "So it's not a finished platform, so to speak, because not all the services and not all the features have been enabled in the services stack. But it performs brilliantly."

Most of the pilots he's involved in haven't used Microsoft's new Azure IoT offering yet, and Rezendes suspects cost is a factor. "I'm hearing they're very expensive," he said.

Given Dell's close ties with Microsoft in other key areas, it makes sense for the two to partner in advancing IoT, said Ezra Gottheil, principal analyst for IoT, devices and platforms at TBR.

"The Microsoft alliance is a good one for both Microsoft and Dell; Azure will be the platform of choice for many customers, especially for the 'start small' approach that Dell favors," Gottheil said. "This is not to imply that Azure won't scale up, but Azure is already present in a lot of environments as a result of Azure Active Directory, so some customers will not choose another cloud/IoT platform for small-scale IoT implementations."

Gottheil also noted Dell has a number of important key IoT components, including its "well-differentiated" software/services like Statistica and Boomi.

"Their gateway is, in essence, a hardened PC, and will fit some solutions but not all," Gottheil said. "Cisco's gateways are, naturally, more focused on connectivity and [Hewlett Packard Enterprise]'s are server-based. Many OT vendors also offer gateway solutions. Most of Dell's other IoT offerings are part of their conventional IT portfolio, as is also true of HPE, but Dell has a head start in working with its embedded and OEM partners to incorporate Dell solutions. On the other hand, companies like IBM and Cisco have a head start relative to Dell in bringing in new customers through an interest in IoT."

About the Author

Jeffrey Schwartz is editor of Redmond magazine and also covers cloud computing for Virtualization Review's Cloud Report. In addition, he writes the Channeling the Cloud column for Redmond Channel Partner. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreySchwartz.