The IoT Platform Build vs. Buy Decision Guide

The marketplace is filled with IoT platforms that are designed to help you with every type of IoT component out there.

When comparing these technologies, businesses often face a difficult choice of deciding which technologies are better to build, and which ones are better to just buy. 

The purpose of this guide is to help you assess which ones you should build and what you should buy when setting out to build a connected product.

The Build vs. Buy Decision Process For IoT Platforms

The build vs buy process for an IoT platform is a bit different than deciding what type of software service you would like to buy to make your company run more efficiently. In fact, there is a lot more complexity and investment involved. 

First off, you are not just choosing a single technology. You are making an investment in a stack of technologies that are tightly integrated together and dependent on one another to work properly.

IoT platforms typically provide numerous integrated offerings, ranging from hardware, software, connectivity, data management, device management, and security. The value of an IoT platform is that it abstracts much of this integrated complexity away from you, the buyer, so you can focus on your core product. 

IoT Platforms, Architecture, IoT Platform
An illustration of IoT platform architecture.

For many, their gut response is to build rather than buy. But it’s important to step back from the “I can do this myself” mindset, and question “should I do this myself?” 

Being open to purchasing ready-made solutions can save you a lot of time and money. And keep in mind, just because you buy an IoT platform doesn’t mean there won’t be some building involved. 

And just because you build from scratch, doesn’t mean you aren’t spending money on resources and time. It’s important to look at the the total cost of building and decide what is best to be built and what is best to buy, which is what this guide is designed to help you accomplish:

1. Understand Your Business Problem

Before building or deciding what to purchase, you need to develop a basic understanding on how IoT can benefit your company. Too many companies jump into the IoT product development process without a clear explanation on how IoT will bring value to the business. Companies that are just looking to create a connected version of a product fail to solve actual problems that are affecting the business.

Companies should first understand the problem they want to solve. Does a factory machine break too often? Are you losing business to a 3rd party service provider to fix your equipment? Once you establish the problem, you need to make sure every product decision is driving towards solving that business problem.

At this stage, companies often misdiagnose the real business problems they are facing, and try to build an IoT product to solve minor problems that don’t deliver real value. IoT products only prove economically viable when they deliver continuous, recurring value for your business and your customers. While there are multiple ways companies can create value through IoT, we’ve found that there are five primary methods companies make money off of their connected products:

  • Preventative maintenance — Manufacturers can connect machines and equipment with sensors to receive proactive alerts about maintenance status.
  • Asset tracking — IoT technologies allow manufacturers to monitor their constantly moving assets (like equipment or vehicles) in real time. With increased visibility, they can solve problems before they occur.
  • Compliance reporting — By remotely monitoring sensitive assets, IoT devices are allowing manufacturers to dramatically reduce the costs associated with regulatory compliance.
  • Supply-chain management — Companies can connects their supply chain operations to increase visibility and optimize services.
  • Environmental monitoring — IoT sensors can be used for commercial farming, water monitoring, and more. By protecting valuable resources, companies can deliver recurring value for customers and their business.

2. Define Product Scope

IoT Platforms, Architecture, IoT Platform

Before building your IoT product, you need to identify your product’s functional and architectural features. You can accomplish this by asking yourself how the product would work, what is it supposed to accomplish, what components it would need to work, and how it will be manufactured. For instance, if you were building an asset tracking device to monitor your company’s vehicles wirelessly, your list might look like this:

Functional

  • Sensors to send alerts and other notifications 
  • Realtime GPS to track location and plot coordinates on a map
  • Billing  and transaction capabilities
  • Reporting features

Architectural

  • Durable enclosure to protect device out in the field
  • Cloud connection and network connectivity
  • Integration with a mapping provider
  • RESTful / Realtime APIs
  • Device management controls
  • Remote device diagnostics
  • OTA (Over-The-Air) firmware updates
  • Device analytics dashboard
  • Security infrastructure

Listing these features out will help you better understand what your product needs to function properly. 

3. Define The Scope of Work

After identifying your product’s features, you need to define the scope of work required to build each functional and architectural feature. What is the minimum and ideal functional scope for each feature?

Afterwards, you should identify how much time it would take to get a product to the minimum and ideal scope. Ask yourself, what resources do I need to make this a viable feature? Has anyone on my team built a feature like this before? How much does the infrastructure cost once you have it setup? You should reconcile these questions with the budget you have for the project.

4. Conduct Market Research

In this step, take the time to discover what is out there and aggregate your possible choices. You should learn how other product creators and businesses have built their IoT products. What IoT platforms did they use? What didn’t work? What challenges occurred? What platform solution worked best for them? If you can, talk to people who have tried to build a product that is similar to your solution. If you are looking for resources, here are some websites that can help you learn more about building an IoT product.

  • Particle Community  — Particle’s community offers a supportive team of IoT experts who can answer any of your IoT project questions and concerns.
  • Hackster.io  — Hackster.io offers a development community for learning and building an IoT project. You can take inspiration from the thousands of IoT projects that are listed on their website.
  • Adafruit  — Adafruit is the go-to place to learn anything about building IoT projects. They offer tons of resources, hardware, and guides to help you get started.
  • Stackoverflow  — While primarily for programmers, Stackoverflow has a large supportive community that can help answer your IoT-related questions.

Once you have an understanding of the market, narrow down your options that can help you meet the functional and architectural features you scoped out earlier. No solution will be perfect, so don’t expect every base to be covered here.

5. Develop a Functional IoT Prototype

IoT Platforms, Architecture, IoT Platform, Particle Electron

No matter what, before embarking on an IoT product development journey, you should try to build a functional prototype in the early stages. A prototype will help you prove viability to your team and stakeholders. Plus, it will give you an intro to the complexities of building an IoT product.

Whether you go down the build or buy route, you should try building a prototype with the IoT platforms you narrowed down in the previous steps. This process will help facilitate your decision-making process based on ease of implementation and give you a taste of what a platform can offer you before investing in enterprise offerings and support. 

If you find that you can’t build a functional prototype easily, then you may need to revisit the expertise of your team. If that is a problem, ask yourself if a provider or service can provide the expertise that you are lacking. Or maybe the provider doesn’t offer all the services and core functionality you need to make your product work. Examine other providers to see if they provide a central feature better, or ask yourself how much time it would take to build what you need.

6. Reach a consensus

After you have defined the scope of work, researched the market, and narrowed down your options, speak to your team and come to a consensus on which options are best for your business. 

Whatever route you go down, you should create reassessment measures in your product development process to ensure accurate decision-making is made throughout the process. This can significantly help counteract confusion, complexities, or other anxieties that can occur during development. Assessing this ahead of time will give your team breathing room to make mistakes and build the best product for your use case.

The Bottom Line

Product creators and enterprises building an IoT product will face numerous challenges during development. But proper assessment throughout the journey can help facilitate the right decision-making to keep your IoT project moving forward, regardless if you go down the build or buy route. 

Author Bio

Content Strategist at Particle - Discovering how the world is using real IoT one story at a time.

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