Hardware Platforms for Internet of Things: The Choices We Make

June 4, 2015


After a brief overview of the IoT communication standards last week, it’s time to get to the hardware aspect. As Internet of Things is a quite popular concept everyone’s trying a crack at nowadays, the choice of platforms, kits, and accessories can seem overwhelmingly wide.

Choosing a hardware platform to prototype and build your IoT appliance on is not too difficult though. In this post, we’ll try to briefly walk you through the decision making process.

Actually, the main decision here is what kind of platform you’re looking for. Depending on skills, goals, and budget it can be an Arduino-like low-power board, or a full-blown mini-computer like Raspberry Pi, or maybe a kit solution that usually requires less time to assemble and set up.

Let’s take a closer look at all three platform types.

Arduino and Co.

Started 10 years ago as a student project in Italy, Arduino is one of the most popular programmable single-board microcontroller families used in an awful lot of industries, including IoT. In addition to Arduino-branded boards, there’s plenty of similar solutions, including Pinoccio, TinyDuino, RFduino, panStamps, and many others.

What’s similar in most of the mentioned products is that they’re compatible with so-called Shields, extension blocks that can be connected to the main board to provide additional capabilities. It can be motor controls, GPS, Ethernet module, small display, and many other things.

So, what can you expect from Arduino-like hardware platforms? First of all, their power consumption is extremely low, which is a result of their CPUs usually running at 8 to 16 MHz. This makes them an ideal solution for places where there’s no way to get external power: with aggressive enough power saving, an Arduino board can run for months on several AA batteries.

Pi and Other Berries

This platform type consists of single-board computers of the size of two matchboxes that aren’t very different from those we use every day, with the widest-known one being Raspberry Pi. Most of them are based on ARM processors capable to run specially tailored Linux distributions and behave like, well, normal computers.

With a Pi-like computer and a power socket in the immediate vicinity it’s possible to create pretty much anything, from a home media server (which is what people usually start with) to a beer-can keyboard.

Same as Arduino-like solutions, these mini-computers can be augmented by adding various components using traditional interfaces like USB or HDMI, as well as GPIO (general-purpose input/output) pins.

Obviously, better performance means higher power consumption, so think about using this kind of platform in places with the access to power grid. A few other, deeper differences between Arduino-like and Pi-like solutions are described in this post.

Kit Solutions

If you’re in love with the IoT concept but not so much with tampering with PCBs and occasional soldering, pre-packaged platform kits are your choice. These usually consist of a hub module as well as a few sensors that can be connected easily and without hassle. It doesn’t mean, however, that kit lack functionality: there are IoT products on the market build exclusively on them.

Here’s a bunch of examples.

Wunderbar, $199. An IoT kit “built for software developers,” it’s intended for rapid prototyping. The chocolate bar-style kit consists of 5 sensor boards, a master module and a bridge module, to which you can connect additional sensors, as well as computers and microcontrollers mentioned in the first two parts.

mBed Ethernet IoT Starter Kit, $120. Created by ARM and IBM, this one is supposed to be “suitable for developers with no specific experience in embedded or web development.” mBed consists of a main board and a “shield” extension module with LCD screen, joystick, and a few sensors.

Thingsee One, $299. A stylish black box powered by its own OS, this is basically a hub with a bunch of sensors that can talk with the outside world. It has built-in GSM module, as well as Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connectivity. In addition to that, the manufacturer promises “up to a year of battery life with one charge,” though it probably means working with the wireless interfaces turned off.

As you can see, it’s not that hard to navigate the market of IoT hardware platforms, where everyone can find something suitable for their purposes. Now go ahead and make your choice, this world needs more awesome smart appliances!