Culture / Edge / IoT

Off-The-Shelf Hacker: Three DIY Trends Enterprises Should Watch

23 Jan 2016 9:30am, by

These are exciting times for hackers. And, it’s only going to get better, with increased focus on security, availability of Off-The-Shelf hackable (OTS) hardware and the explosion of DIY/Maker Movement how-to’s and forums.

Everybody is a hacker in their own way. They’re all over the place, including the enterprise.

Executive-based hackers find interesting ways to solve their company-run challenges. Managers hack their teams to efficiently put products out the door. Engineers hack systems and devices for fun, profit and just because they can. And, developers…well…you know. I’m certainly focusing on the positive, constructive aspects here.

I think it’s important for enterprise “hacker” folks to stay current on “physical computing stack” topics. If you don’t start getting good at security, lawsuits can put your company in a tough position. Not keeping up with new hardware will make it hard to field increasingly ubiquitous networked products and services. With all the complexity of the “physical computing stack,” being able to find, manage and use applicable information will keep both customers and employees from slipping into “knowledge worker/user” backwaters.

So, here are three trends I think you should keep an eye on.

Connected Security

Security is front and center for IoT and connected-to-everything devices. Marvel at these recent horror stories.

These examples expose the vendors and users to possibly grave situations. Who is liable for these issues will most certainly become an important question in the future. And, with increasing lawsuits, convincing corporate decision makers to move ahead with a “connected” project will undoubtedly become more difficult.

There is good news, though. In the last year or so, hardware has changed radically. The Arduino and Raspberry Pi are so two years ago. Just kidding, they still provide extreme OTS value and capability.

I’m talking about the very latest chips, which are outlined in the next trend.

Advanced Connectivity Is Creeping Into Chips

Powerful processors and WiFi/cellular connectivity are creeping into off-the-shelf devices at a rapid rate.

You may already know about Particle (formerly Spark), who makes a variety of cloud-connected WiFi and cell-capable modules for use in end-user products and IoT applications.

The Photon costs around $19 and includes a complete WiFi stack and Arduino-compatible general-purpose input/output (GPIO) capabilities. Messages to and from the device happen through a cloud-based system. Their Electron product uses cellular-based connectivity. Price, $39 plus a $2.99/mo. data plan. For one-off specialty products, that basically work anywhere, the cost seems reasonable to me.

The CHIP computer is another example. This little board, runs Linux and has onboard WiFi hardware, on a credit card sized board. It also sports a 1 GHz processor, 512K of RAM and Bluetooth. Did I mention it costs $9?

One of the most exciting new pieces of gear is the ESP8266 series of WiFImodules. Well, I guess if you call the last 6 or 8 months new. These little 3/4” x 1-1/4” slabs of printed circuit boards feature a 32-bit processor running at 80 MHz, B/G/N WiFi, various numbers of exposed GPIO pins, SPI, I2C and UART interfaces. There are about a dozen different models with various layouts, GPIO and antenna options. You can program them through the Arduino integrated development environment (IDE) and several other programming frameworks. Best of all, I bought three of the aforementioned (ESP8266-01) modules for a little over $3 each. They took about a week to arrive from China. Also, these were the latest plus models with 1 MB of program space and free shipping. How can you not like this stuff?

I can’t help but think that industry will soon move to integrating WiFi, cellular, Bluetooth and other various other radio technology in their devices, across the board.

Truly powerful, inexpensive and full physical computing stack capable devices will go a long way to help the current immature security situation.

How will you know how to develop, build, program, integrate and use all this tech?

Funny you should ask.

Explosion of How-To’s, Tutorials And Lessons From The Big DIY/Maker Vendors

Knowledge and experience are valuable. What if you don’t have experience or knowledge of a topic? The Internet has changed the whole information landscape. You just need to develop a knack for finding the information you need.

The big DIY/Maker Movement houses are shining examples of how it’s done. Take a look at the following links. Notice the layout and how easy the sites are to navigate. They pay particular attention to the customer’s need for useful, practical information on how to actually use their DIY/Maker products in projects.

I relied heavily on Adafruit tutorials, as I came up to speed using the small color TFT displays with the Arduino and Raspberry Pi boards.

All the sites have fairly good search capabilities, so just surf up to the main page and enter good search terms to find categories of interest.

For the most exotic or absolutely bleeding-edge tech, you likely still need to search Google for information on using and programming devices.

I also found that it usually takes about a month or so, after a piece of hardware is released before you start to see hacks and information on how to use the darned thing. Just work on another project for a few days or a week, then return and you’ll likely find what you need.

Enterprises might also note the interesting knowledge management models, used by the DIY vendors, for their customers and employees.

Adafruit and Sparkfun create their own tutorials, videos and so on then post everything on their Web pages, in an easy to read (and find) format. Part of the charm is seeing the company principals actually hosting and appearing in the videos. It really brings home the point that they care and want to personally help their customers. Good lessons there.

Make and Instructables have a mix of vendor and community-generated tutorials and how-to’s. Like the others, the information is easily searched and very comprehensive.

It’s the best time in history to be a hacker, both individually and in a company. Focus on security, order cutting-edge Off-The-Shelf (OTS) hardware from the best DIY vendors and then use the explosion of DIY/Maker Movement how-to’s and forums to develop and build your projects.

Feature Image: The Particle Maker Kit.

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