Dell's Jason Shepherd: IoT's In the 'AOL Stage.' The Next Stage Is Open.

'In any emerging market, you have to get through that dumb-it-down stage before people can handle the choices and start to go do things on their own,' Dell edge computing exec Jason Shepherd says.


Dell Technologies executive Jason Shepherd said IoT is in the "AOL stage," likening the field to the days when many consumers used the simplistic dial-up internet service in the 1990s. It is a necessary step to take, he said, but that means IoT needs to be truly open to realize its full potential.

"In any emerging market, you have to get through that 'dumb-it-down' stage before people can handle the choices and start to go do things on their own," Shepherd, Dell's CTO of IoT and edge computing, said in a keynote Wednesday at The Channel Company's IoTConnex virtual conference.

[Related: Packaged IoT Solutions Can Help VARs Get Past Pilot Paralysis, Survey Says]

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For companies who want to thrive in IoT, their key differentiation needs to be innovation and openness, not strategies that involve software and hardware lock-in, according to Shepherd.

That's why he thinks EdgeX Foundry, a vendor-neutral, open-source platform for IoT edge computing started by Dell, is an important part of the puzzle for the next stage of IoT. The platform, which is hosted by The Linux Foundation, now has over 1 million downloads, half of which happened in the last two months alone after a production-ready version launched in July, Shepherd said.

"We took an open-source strategy for interoperability with EdgeX," the Dell executive said, adding that the platform is doing for IoT "what Android did for mobile" in providing a "allows you to bring together any protocol, any operating system, any hardware" with a common, open API.

One of the problems EdgeX is seeking to solve is the large number of protocols that exist in operational technology, or OT, environments. Whereas the IT world has tens of protocols, the OT world has thousands, which makes it costly to do IoT, holding back the field from becoming truly scalable.

"Would Dell ship a PC every second, or probably even more these days, if it cost $1,000 to connect your keyboard? No, you must drive openness," Shepherd said.

Another issue holding back IoT is the need or desire for OT operators to keep their systems disconnected from cloud environments due to security and operational risks.

"Imagine a world where the OT person gets a message that pops up on their SCADA system that says, 'hey, please save your work, your manufacturing line's going to reboot in 15 minutes,'" Shepherd said.

That's why it's important that systems are architected to balance the needs of the IT and OT sides of the house, because having things like the continuous delivery of software will eventually become a matter of competition and survival, according to the executive.

"You just need to look at the capabilities and the needs, but also think about how you architect, because you might not want to do continuous delivery of software now, but when your competitor starts to out-innovate, you better be ready," Shepherd said.

While Dell is continuing to push IoT to become more open and interoperable, the company is already working on the next big thing in technology, which is making data a trusted asset, Shepherd said. And it's not just about throwing a bunch of blockchain at the problem. This means using a variety of technologies and methods, like silicon root of trust, open authentication, immutable storage so that strangers can share data knowing that it's authentic.

"In the business world, you cannot have any single company own the trust in the greater scheme of things," Shepherd said, adding that there is a need to create a "universal trusted fabric" to enable businesses to share data without compromising intellectual property or privacy.

Ray Miciek, executive vice president of sales at Aquitas Solutions, a Roswell, Ga.-based system integrator, said while Dell is correct to hold the view that technology needs to be more open and interoperable with IoT, industrial software vendor PTC was ahead of the curve when it acquired Kepware, which enables industrial connectivity.

"It was a very good move, because what they did is they foresaw that the plant floor" had a variety of protocols and devices that are needed to take full advantage of IoT applications, he said.