The expression Internet of Things is often used in general terms to connote an ongoing technological macro-phenomenon, which aims at the digitalization and interconnection of traditional products and production processes. This trend is justified, on the one hand, by the opportunity to collect via sensors and transmit through protocols and internet infrastructures a growing amount of data about the use of products, their status and customer usage habits. On the other hand, digitalization makes it possible to make products intelligent and modify their functionality and behavior in a dynamic and adaptive way through special digitally controlled actuators.
This vision of the Internet of Things suggests a radical transformation of the current competitive structure, due to the multitude of value-added services that can be built on the basis of data collected from digitized products / systems and the possibility of their dynamic reconfiguration. This scenario, however, represents a condition “to tend” and does not fully reflect the current state of the art. In fact, in the current transformation phase, traditional products and systems coexist with new generation ones, which are installed already equipped with digital capabilities. Therefore, one of the factors necessary to enable the Internet of Things is the integration of these two very different macro-types of systems. This integration, in particular, requires to enrich traditional systems with additional digital capabilities, which can on the one hand “extract data” from isolated and in some cases analog systems and on the other hand transmit this data over a network infrastructure using protocols. new generation designed for IOT (eg MQTT, OPC-UA, COAP, etc.). Obviously, these data then need to be filtered and processed adequately in order to generate value for the production and decision-making processes of the company.
THE POSITIONING OF ALASCOM Integration and interconnection
The integration and interconnection effort required by the current transition scenario represents a unique opportunity for operators specialized in telecommunication services and systems. Contrary to the general trend observable in many other market operators, which focus mainly on the “high added value” part of the data collected through the IOT, Alascom has decided to develop its proposition by taking care – in addition to the data – the infrastructural aspects of the IOT, which represent an essential enabling condition for the digital transformation of existing infrastructures.
This choice is in continuity with Alascom’s core business and its evolution trajectory, historically centered on system integration with a focus on telecommunications. Furthermore, this choice is complementary and not mutually exclusive with respect to the upper part of the infrastructural stack typically associated with the collection and analysis of data. To this end, in fact, Alascom has internally developed a data analytics service line precisely to respond to the complementary need to “extract value” from data. Overall, Alascom’s IOT proposition covers the IOT technology stack in an “end-to-end” manner, from the physical level of sensors and devices, through the connectivity and data acquisition levels, up to the application and technology transfer towards the customer’s organizational and decision-making processes.
PROPOSITION OF VALUE
The value proposition of Alascom’s IOT business model follows a transversal approach, that is “end-to-end”, in relation to the technology stack, while it vertically addresses three areas of application of the Internet of Things, namely Industry 4.0, a subset of use cases for the Smart City and efficient energy management. Regarding the end-to-end solution, Alascom has created areas of expertise for each level of the IoT technology stack:
On a physical level, Alascom’s research and development specialists carry out a continuous scouting of sensors, actuation, tracking, I / O equipment and dedicated hardware (embedded) vendors. This scouting has led to the creation and continuous updating of a portfolio of physical devices that can be readily integrated into the customer’s infrastructure. Currently, this scouting has involved several use cases that include manufacturing production lines based on legacy machines and controllers (PLC), shipbuilding and infrastructure monitoring, logistics and inventory management (RFID), energy monitoring and more.
Level of connection
The connectivity level is in continuity with Alascom’s core business and therefore represents a natural extension of the company’s telecommunications offer. In the IOT field, Alascom has strengthened its expertise on new generation components expressly created for IOT needs. This component includes the so-called “IOT gateways” and “IOT routers”, ie devices capable of extracting data from equipment based on legacy and industrial protocols (eg. Modbus, Profibus, MPI, etc.), processing / filtering locally part of the information and retransmit it via new generation protocols designed for the Internet of Things (eg MQTT, OPC-UA, etc.).
By “edge computing” we mean the practice of moving the data filtering, preparation and analysis logic away from the central node (eg cloud) and near the data source. This paradigm involves the use of computational resources located in the field, such as industrial PCs, IOT gateways with sufficient computational and storage capacity, or “intelligent” sensors and controllers, i.e. equipped with micro-controllers / microprocessors and internal memory. Given the limited resources available compared to central nodes or cloud infrastructures, the “edge” processing logic must follow criteria of parsimony and optimization of computation and data storage, which makes this level particularly challenging but equally important for Alascom specialists, at in order to avoid the ingestion of “garbage data” towards the central infrastructure and to develop faster, more reactive and adaptive models.
Data abstraction layer
Once received, the data needs an appropriate level of abstraction and representation. This level of the stack presents several challenges, since IOT data has varying levels of structuring: from clearly structured data according to well-defined fields (such as alarms and event messages), to semi-structured data (e.g. based on representations XML, JSON, REST), up to unstructured data such as video, audio or streaming from other analog source transformed into digital. Orthogonally to the structuring level, the data has different levels of speed and volume, which in some cases allow persistent storage, while in other cases they require a “real-time” analysis. In the case of persistent storage, an important choice concerns the use of relational and structured representations (eg. SQL), rather than non-relational (eg. NoSQL). In the case of real time analysis, the context may require the use of “in memory” technologies (eg. Spark), rather than directly “in hardware” (eg. Dedicated FPGAs). Alascom has trained its internal resources for the use of these technologies, with the exception of “hardware” solutions, for which the company has established partnerships with operators specialized in the production of dedicated systems, maintaining the integration task and therefore the focus on its core business.
At the application level, the IOT poses two main challenges. The first is a challenge of integration with existing applications and information infrastructure. This first challenge requires integrating the information flows from the IOT with ERP systems, CRM, databases and reporting systems and support for existing decisions / operations. The integration task is in continuity with Alascom’s twenty years of experience as an integrator of ICT systems, for which resources and know-how are spread throughout the company. Regarding the second challenge, the data needs to be analyzed in order to “extract value” from them in a business key. To this end, Alascom has formed a dedicated team of data scientists, for which further information is available in the section of the dedicated website.
Business process level
Once implemented at the technological level, the IoT solution is both extremely useful and totally useless. If the organization does not incorporate and assimilate the technology within the operating practices and processes, the effectiveness of the solution is likely to be frustrated. For this reason, Alascom has set up training and technology transfer programs aimed at informing and educating company actors about the use of the systems and solutions implemented.
A transversal problem to the entire technological stack is the security of information and communications, which in the case of the Internet of Things also becomes a problem of physical security of production systems and processes, since the digitization of the level of implementation and control could allow attackers to take physical control of machines and devices. The security of the entire IOT infrastructure, therefore, represents a critical high priority aspect. Alascom’s cybersecurity offer has been expanded so as to be able to address specific issues of the IoT both in terms of perimeter and internal monitoring of the network infrastructure and / or any SCADA infrastructure. The scope of application of this end-to-end value proposition is divided into three main areas, namely the industrial and manufacturing sector (industry 4.0), local administrations and services of public interest (smart city), and optimization of energy management that is transversal to different application domains.
As part of industry 4.0, Alascom’s proposal focuses on enabling systems and solutions for the following use cases: predictive maintenance, monitoring and optimization of production processes, logistics and inventory management, personnel safety and improvement of work practices, development of value-added services based on IOT data.
In the smart city area, the Alascom portfolio consists of vertical solutions for waste management, smart parking and smart lighting. The spectrum of sensors and solutions for environmental monitoring is wider, which can be applied to different areas, not necessarily related to the public sector (eg for applications in the agro-food field).
Energy management is an aspect that crosses various business areas, both in the private sector and in the public sector. At a technological level, efficient energy monitoring requires the installation of sensors and smart meters that detect various energy consumption parameters including electricity consumption, thermal and environmental values. Alascom has selected “cross-industry” smart metering and energy management solutions, functional to different types of customers.