The IoT company behind the curtain

Greenwave Chief Scientist Jim Hunter explores the promise of the Internet of Things and the challenges it still faces.

jim hunter greenwave
Greenwave Systems/Thinkstock

Greenwave Systems is sort of the BASF of Internet of Things: It doesn’t make the IoT products you buy, it makes them better. Greenwave (one of Network World’s recently named IoT Companies to Watch) provides software and services that help consumer-facing companies like Verizon deliver IoT features to their customers. IDG US Media Chief Content Officer John Gallant talked recently to Greenwave’s Chief Scientist, Jim Hunter, about how the company is empowering IoT applications and how new voice and social-media-driven capabilities will change the market. Hunter also explored the evolving IoT market and offered a candid assessment of how data ownership and security issues could hamper the IoT revolution.

Tell me how Greenwave got started and what you’ve set out to do for customers.

Greenwave started out in energy looking at some challenges that existed among companies that were vying for energy solutions. The CEO and one of the founders of the company is Martin Manniche. Martin was the chair of the Human Network at Cisco and the CTO of Linksys. When this all started in 2008, IoT was a very different animal than it is now and it looked like a good opportunity. Because of funding, because of a lot of the opportunity around the world with regards to energy, it looked like a great space to get into.

As the company began to grow we realized that we had a lot more expertise than just energy. We started to build a product that was a horizontal application for connectivity. I’ll tell you where that has evolved to in a second. We are today 250 employees. We are spread out around the world. We’ve got about 110 employees in Singapore, we’ve got 15 in Korea, we’ve got about 60 in Copenhagen and the rest are here in the U.S. with headquarters in Irvine, Calif.

We are something that most IoT companies are not and that is profitable. We actually have been profitable year over year for the last three years. The way that we go to market and the way we get profit is through our partners in our channel. We work not directly with consumers but with businesses that sell to consumers and those businesses have big footprints among consumers – tier-one telcos, cable operators, utilities and retail. We look at the challenges of IoT and we say -- It’s not just a software problem. We are a software company but because we come from Linksys and Motorola and Belkin and all these companies, we know hardware really well. We marry our expertise with hardware with our professional abilities with software and create great solutions for our customers.

What was the problem you were initially setting out to solve in the energy industry?

It was user capabilities; the ability for the user to be involved, the ability for the user to actually invoke change to save energy. It was around the time that demand response was really big, with a lot of the financial initiatives going on. There was $300 million being deployed across the grid and it was a big push back then. There was a lot of activity and there was a lot of interest but it didn’t seem like it was enough interest from the consumers’ perspective with a platform that could enable them to easily see, visualize and save energy.

That was the original. I’ve been in IoT for 24 years. I’ve founded two companies and sold them both to Motorola. A lot of my team is here as well so we know this space probably better than most of the players that are out there. We do a lot of writing and speaking in the community to help people become aware of some of the challenges and the opportunities that we have to think about IoT from a different perspective. Specifically, all of our thinking revolves around usability ultimately for the end consumer.

Let’s talk about the products. What does the Axon platform provide?

The biggest challenge that exists with all the different standards is the translation. You need to be able to translate into and out of languages easily. That needs to happen at an abstracted layer. Languages, whether they’re standards that are IP based, whether they’re standards that are an essential part of your radio, whatever that connectivity is for us, is abstracted away at a deeper layer.

Our software platform starts all the way down in embedded devices. By embedded devices I mean the gateway. Somewhere where you need a physical connection to bridge to a given technology, whether that physical connection needs a secure element, whether that is because you need a different radio, you need to put a ZigBee or a Z-Wave radio in place, you need Bluetooth to be hosted, something that’s different, we land in some piece of hardware in the home.

Then there’s this abstracted layer that we go down into on this hardware. We put pretty much our own little operating system for IoT on there, which is extremely modular. In the past when you put software down onto hardware, that was called firmware and you’ve got this huge issue that I’ve got to replace the firmware every time I want to upgrade. We identify the abstraction where there’s a layer of firmware and then there’s a modular layer very much like an app store.

We have basically taken that layer above the firmware that is very static once it goes in. It’s really dependent on the hardware that’s there. We build an entire modular architecture very much like an app management system. With these apps, these modules we call them, we’re able to connect and to extract all the things that that single piece of hardware has to offer through what we call the embedded core API. This entire piece that starts down in that piece of metal, that device in the home, we call that the embedded core. Then we can build modules of functionality that we or third parties write. We have an SDK and a developer kit to allow people to write rules.

The reason you would host a module there is first, if the Internet goes down things continue to work. It’s also great because in any kind of architecture there is a certain amount of processing done in different layers to take advantage of distributing the processing that becomes available. There may be times, for example, where you want a module that can collect different data points and summarize that as a new piece of information, a little bit of analytics that can run locally.

There may be a module that needs to abstract the devices. Say you get a Z-Wave and a ZigBee and a bunch of different protocols of devices that are in a home. You need to recognize that the light bulb is a light bulb is a light bulb. It doesn’t matter about the technology underneath it and the consumer doesn’t care about technology. What you do care about is that you can represent them in a consistent way.

That’s the first real opportunity that we have to actually bring these abilities, by making everything consistent; that is, these modules that communicate. We have a module that represents virtual devices, data that represents an object and then that object is Splunked or connected into whatever that deeper layer is through this abstraction layer. The light could be a fixed light, it could be a [Philips] Hue light, it could be a Z-Wave light. We really don’t care. The functionality of that light should not be affected by anything above the layer that’s specific to that light.

Give me an example of how one of your partners is using this.

In the United States, Verizon has a high-speed network called FiOS. With the FiOS network there is a router, the Quantum Gateway. We went to Verizon and said: ‘Listen, through our software we can give you better network coverage. We can give you better streaming, better working with other devices in your home and we can put Z-Wave on board and give you all kinds of features for your customers today and tomorrow. We basically won the bid for the fourth generation of broadband router for the home called Quantum and we began deploying those a year ago last November.

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