Azure IoT Central, a SaaS solution
Blog|by Mary Branscombe|13 January 2022
How you can build enterprise-grade IoT applications on Azure IoT Central
Low code and no-code services like Microsoft’s Power Platform mean that business users who aren’t developers can create their own workflows, visualisations and even applications to solve business problems and make themselves more productive. Azure IoT Central extends that to building IoT systems, wrapping what could be a complex architecture for provisioning, managing and accessing IoT devices and analysing the data they emit in a fully managed, no-code SaaS platform where you can build dashboards for IoT systems from templates or create a custom system in the portal.
The support engineer who goes out and fixes industrial refrigerators isn’t likely to have the skills or time to use Azure Maps, Power BI, Cosmos DB, Azure Stream Analytics and Azure Machine Learning to create a dashboard to keep track of the units they might get called out to fix, even though it could make them more efficient.
With Azure IoT Central they can build a dashboard with real-time monitoring of temperature, humidity and other operational parameters alongside the status of the customer’s maintenance contract and the history of previous repairs (plus a map showing where the unit is located and what the traffic is like on the way), in just a few minutes by starting with the appropriate template and pulling in data and visualisations from a library of controls.
IoT Central has templates for industry sectors like retail, energy, healthcare and local government – making it easy to create dashboards to monitor patients, smart meters, water usage and quality, logistics or warehouses and stores. Those templates include device templates, dashboards and connections to Azure services like Azure Storage, Event Hubs and Azure Monitor. You can use Azure Maps to see where IoT devices are, even creating indoor maps and floorplans of private spaces to create a digital twin of an industrial system or an entire building.
The flexibility of dashboards means that an organisation can create specific solutions for their IoT systems with custom views for different roles, and individual employees can customise those further.
Azure PaaS packaged as SaaS
IoT Central is built on familiar Azure services: Azure Active Directory for role-based access control, Azure SQL DB, Cosmos DB and Azure Data Explorer for ingesting large amounts of data. A rules engine built on Azure Stream Analytics lets you monitor and create alerts for events that indicate unusual levels of usage or problems with devices. You can aggregate data from multiple devices and create custom views for individual devices, so you can look at how many people are visiting all your retail locations or see the current location of a specific delivery truck with a customer order on board.
You can send that data to Azure Functions, Power Automate or Logic Apps to kick off workflows and notifications, or stream data to other business applications and systems. IoT Central applications are hosted and run by Microsoft, but you can use REST APIs to send data to your own apps or create custom integrations, including querying data held in Azure IoT Central.
IoT Central uses the Azure IoT Hub device provisioning service to manage device registration and connection: you can use IoT Plug and Play devices or load a spreadsheet of device information to get started, then build device management jobs in the portal to update devices in bulk. You can even see raw data from IoT devices for diagnostics.
Azure IoT Central use case
Starbucks uses IoT Central for quality assurance and predictive maintenance on its Mastrena 2 espresso machines – bean to cup systems that cost around £13,000 each and can be programmed remotely with new recipes (adjusting the grind, dispensing, tamp, water pressure, brewing temperature and time to match seasonal coffee beans and drinks).
New recipes used to mean distributing USB sticks to every Starbucks store: now the settings are provisioned through IoT Central, but what the baristas see is a customised Starbuck user interface.
Complex processing ability
Just because it’s a no-code solution doesn’t mean IoT Central can’t handle complex processing and Microsoft has added more features for experienced developers who want to use it as a rapid application development platform.
Integration with Azure IoT Edge means you can deploy edge servers and modules like smart cameras that collect telemetry and analyse it locally, like using Azure Video Analyzer to detect from the labels that a package on a conveyor belt has been loaded onto the wrong belt and is heading for the wrong destination.
IoT solutions that scale
IoT Central isn’t just for building your own dashboards. Third-party vendors are using IoT Central to create IoT management systems to go with the products they sell (and you can use the same custom branding and white labelling on your own dashboards). Eaton uses it to manage cloud connected circuit breakers and Sagegreenlife monitors the living walls of plants it installs and manages in buildings.
Some Microsoft products also build on IoT Central, like Dynamics 365 Connected Spaces. This is an application to help retailers monitor their in-store experience by tracking the status of both store equipment and products on the shelves, as well as how customers behave – notifying staff that there are long queues at the checkouts or sending a warning if the temperature is fluctuating in a freezer, so they can check if it’s a fault or a customer has left the door open.
The Xbox team even used IoT Central’s integration with Intel’s Connected Logistics Platform to track Xbox Series X shipments to make sure they hadn't been dropped, subjected to extreme temperatures that could cause damage – or opened en route. Their logistics partner TMC initially considered building its own IoT platform so it could offer similar supply chain monitoring to other customers, but realized there was little point in spending time and money duplicating what IoT Central could already do.
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Mary Branscombe is a freelance tech journalist. Mary has been a technology writer for nearly two decades, covering everything from early versions of Windows and Office to the first smartphones, the arrival of the web and most things in between.