When Is Free Really Free? Making Sense of Open Source IoT Platforms

Pierre Kil -
open source IoT
Illustration: © IoT For All

When there’s more than one open-source IoT platform out there, how do you evaluate the one that best fits your needs? What are some common pitfalls to avoid? This article provides a brief overview of the top contenders, with their strengths and weaknesses.

Open Source Relevance

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 using hardware or web services. If you want to embed open source code in your OEM product or service, different options are available based on the type of open source license.

Open Source 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 when needed. Moreover, you have the ability to add or optimize functionality for your product.

If the code is free, how do open source IoT developers make money? The way most companies make money with open source software is with add-ons and support services. This ranges from paid-for advanced features, organizing a hosted service (SaaS) to project management or support and maintenance for commercial users.

Selecting the Best Open Source Platform

To identify the right open-source IoT platform for your needs, consider the following additional criteria based on organizational needs, quality, and legal concerns:

  • Must have functionalities: IoT platforms require a coherent set of functionalities which include the ability to integrate through multiple protocols, use automation, provide data visualizations, use edge gateways, multi-tenancy, as well as provide a front-end strategy and account management and identity services.
  • Professional implementations: the extent to which the platform has been adopted 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 star-gazers are nice, but active contributors are what moves the needle. How recent are code commits to the projects, and is their activity in your region?
  • User-friendliness: The flexibility to tailor the code to specific applications is paramount. Great user-friendliness also entails comprehensive documentation and community support.
  • Level of open source: Which parts of the IoT platform are open source? Watch out for “bait and switch” offerings where the company’s open-source offering is, in reality, a stripped-down version of their higher-functionality for-pay product. Closely review possible code-use restrictions, such as features that are only available with a for-pay license. 
  • Professional backing and licensing: Does the open-source entity provide clear copyright and the ability to get a commercial license? Is the copyright owner well-structured and legally sound? This is relevant for professional entities who want to integrate the software as part of their commercial offering and seek long-term professional support.

Top Open Source IoT Platforms

FIWARE is especially popular in Europe and South America. It is professionally backed by Atos, Engineering, NEC, and Telefonica. On the non-profit side, it has the support of the Open Agile and Smart Cities communities. As a whole, it’s solid as a networked organization. However, potential users need to be aware that Fiware is 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 unified, complete product. 

OpenBalena is not a complete IoT platform, merely a device orchestration tool that allows you to manage many devices in the field. It’s a complementary function to all of the other IoT Platforms. Its commercial version ‘BalenaCloud’ is used by many, while the open-source version is somewhat limited, as it uses a simple command-line editor and misses some relevant features and documentation, such as querying your installed base.

Thinger was developed as a complete and friendly solution for small project users, with a few platform integrations. However, with their move to a more extensive pricing plan where features such as MQTT support or dashboard branding are not available for ‘makers’ means, 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 pushes advanced features from the open-source into a paying commercial model. This IoT platform is most popular with smaller companies.

Author
Pierre Kil - CEO, OpenRemote

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Guest writers are IoT experts and enthusiasts interested in sharing their insights with the IoT industry through IoT For All. If you're interested in contributing to IoT For All, cli...
Guest writers are IoT experts and enthusiasts interested in sharing their insights with the IoT industry through IoT For All. If you're interested in contributing to IoT For All, cli...