How British Gas Connected Home is moving beyond Hive and managing an “explosion” of IoT data using an open-source Apache stack

For anyone that watches television or listens to the radio in the UK, Hive is the connected thermostat device British Gas advertises with a catchy jingle which: “Controls your heating, from your phone.”

What they won’t be aware of is the explosion of data a connected device like Hive drives back to its parent company, Connected Home, a business unit launched by British Gas in 2012 to operate along lean, start-up principles. See also: 12 best uses of IoT in the enterprise.

Explosion of data

Connected Home (formerly Connected Homes) doesn’t have any of the legacy of British Gas, meaning it can develop as an “open source shop” as head of data and analytics Jim Anning says. “We wanted to build something that puts us in a leadership position”.

Read next: Digital start-up within British Gas helps to attract new customers

This consists of a tech stack built on the Apache Cassandra distributed database, with Spark for streaming analytics and Kafka for messaging. All of this technology is built for processing large amounts of data in real-time.

Connected Home is already processing 40TBs of static data across 30 large nodes, according to head of data engineering Josep Casals. This includes 30,000 messages a second on the publish-subscribe message broker Kafka, with the main source of these reads and writes coming from Hive. (See also: what is a graph database?)

In terms of moving beyond these data volumes, Casals says they are trialling a product called My Energy Live, a smart meter app with 4,000 customers. My Energy Live pushes “electricity readings every ten seconds, and we expect to grow this. That could cause an explosion in the amount of data [being processed].”

Connected Home has already launched a Connected Boiler product in December 2014, providing proactive maintenance and failure detection.

The tech stack

Jim Anning told ComputerworldUK: “We always knew we were doing the Internet of Things (IoT) and we know that the number of connected devices is only going to rise [20.8 billion by 2020, according to Gartner]. Those sensors are collecting data all the time. For example our temperature sensor is delivering data every couple of minutes.

“Scaling that process with a traditional, relational database just wasn’t going to cut it. We knew we needed NoSQL for scale and the capacity to predict storage costs in the future. With Apache Cassandra you know that if you double the customers, you double the storage nodes, it’s simple. Cassandra was a good fit with our specific use case for IoT data and we knew we had to start doing real time analytics."

He added: “If we are going to use the brain metaphor then Cassandra is the memory and Spark is the cognitive ability.”

Read next: What is the Internet of Things? Everything you need to know about IoT

Connected devices

The company behind Hive has greater ambitions than just smart thermostats. British Gas Connected Home is looking at giving its customers control over all aspects of their home, from their heating to their electricity consumption in the pursuit of a truly 'smart home'.

Anning admits that this is still an abstract concept though, with the long term aim being: “The technologies form the brain that sits behind a product. This will process a customer’s data in real time and do the analytics to create the 'intelligent home'. Not that anyone knows what that is yet.”

British Gas does have an in-house definition for a connected home though: “One that knows when you’re home, when you’re out and adjusts the environment accordingly. Think of it as your smart butler, picking up info from a number of sources.”

In the shorter term the aim is to make customers data and usage more transparent. By using Spark streaming analytics, machine learning and pattern recognition My Energy Live can “help [British Gas customers] understand how they use their energy in a much more transparent way,” says Anning.

This gives customers an idea of their usage profile, allowing for changes in behaviour that could save them money, and reduce their carbon footprint.

Read next: How UK insurers are embracing digital innovation with mobile apps, gamification and customer data analytics

What next?

Hive is still a relatively new product, but it is already in 300,000 homes in the UK. However, with the problems seen recently relating to other smart home devices (see Nest's shutdown of its smart home device Revolv), uptake will be the key for IoT businesses like Connected Home.

Casals and Anning won’t rest on their laurels though. Connected Home is already looking at sensors and streaming data from “motion sensors, smart lights, smart plugs and beyond,” says Anning.

“We have a solid base in heating and are looking at expanding out beyond that. Real time data, at scale.”

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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