Make sense of Open Source IoT platforms, avoid pitfalls
There’s more than one open source IoT platform out there. How to evaluate the one that best fits you, avoiding pitfalls? We will give you a brief overview of the top 5 and their strengths and weaknesses.
But first, what’s open source and why it’s relevant?
Open source means you are free to use, modify, combine or compile software code in any way you want, without any obligation, as long as you don’t redistribute it by means of hardware distribution or through web services. If you want to distribute, different options are available based on the used type of open source license.
It is relevant because you are not tied to the supplier of the code, thus preventing any unwanted Vendor lock-in. Having full access to the source code, you have the flexibility to adjust to changing market conditions and extend, change or pivot as and when it is needed.
If the code is free, how do open source IoT developers make money with open source? As we are talking software, the way companies make money with open source is with add-ons and support services. This ranges from paid-for advanced features, organizing a hosted service (SaaS), to project conception and management support and maintenance for commercial users.
Great open source IoT platforms have the ability to deliver key functionalities. Must have functionalities include the ability to integrate through multiple protocols as well as use automation, provide data visualizations, use edge gateways, provide account management and identity services, and a front-end strategy.
Looking for the best open source IoT Platform?
To select the right open source IoT platform, there are a series of criteria to consider, categorized in organizational, quality, and legal:
- Level of commercial applicability: the relative extend of the platform adoption by larger organizations is a good signal pointing to the quality of the IoT solution.
- Community backing: is there an active community of users? Watchers and stargazers are nice, but an active contributors is what moves the needle. How recent are commits and is their activity in your region?
- User friendliness: The flexibility to tailor the code to specific applications is paramount. But great user friendliness also implies comprehensive documentation and community support.
- Level of open source: Which parts of the IoT platform are open source? Make sure you look at possible code use restrictions, such as features which are only available with a paid-for license.
- Professional backing and licensing: Is there clear copyright and the ability to get a commercial license? Is the copyright owner well-structured and legally sound? This is relevant for commercial entities which want to integrate the software as part of their commercial offering, and seek long term professional support.
The top 5 of Open Source IoT Platforms in 2021
Fiware is especially popular in Europe and South America and professionally backed by Atos, Engineering, NEC and Telefonica. However, it’s not a single product but a larger series of projects. This makes it hard to use in open source as it is extremely complex and CPU intensive to deploy into a single complete product. It’s backed by the Open Agile and Smart Cities community. As a whole it’s especially strong as a networked organization.
OpenBalena is merely a device orchestration tool allowing you to manage large numbers of devices in the field. It’s a complimentary function to all of the others.
It’s commercial version ‘BalenaCloud’ is used by many. The open source version is somehow crippled as it uses just a command line editor and misses some of the relevant features or documentation such as querying your installed base.
OpenRemote targets professional IoT applications in energy, city, and maintenance applications for which it has some very credible active applications with MNC and governments. It is completely open source in the vein of JBoss, so no features behind a paid service only. It has an active and growing community of contributors and users and is also backed up by a US and European commercial service entities.
Thinger was developed as a complete and friendly solution for small users, with a few platform integrations. However, with the central server offered only as a commercial service, it is no longer completely open source.
Thingsboard has gained significant traction and is backed by investors. It managed to develop an extensive library of visualization widgets, and has recently introduced a horizontally scaling solution. Like Thinger it’s pushing towards moving advanced features from opensource into a paying commercial model. This IoT platform is mostly popular with smaller companies.
Comparing OpenRemote versus OpenBalena versus Fiware versus Thinger versus ThingsBoard, there is only one 100% open source solution to build your own complete coherent IoT platform. Others are either complex or only for a (small) part open source. However they could be easier to get you quickly started. So now it depends on what criteria have the upper hand for you.
If you are a small enterprise with the ambition to grow, you need transparency on future costs or freedom to take full control. You prefer a really free system which you can set up yourself. You are happy to pay a one time fee for professional support to get started, but don’t want to tie into fixed monthly costs. OpenRemote might be the best option. But of course we are opinionated…
If you are a small or medium enterprise and are happy to tie yourself to a subscription model to get you quickly started, and if you are aware of a potential nickel and dime approach while needing larger scale and more features, ThingsBoard is what you might want to look at.
If you are a medium enterprise and care about future independence while building your own IoT team, you need a commercially proven and full open source to keep the freedom to move. Also the team should be seasoned working with large enterprises. OpenRemote, with its roots in JBoss, is your best choice.