How can I use ThingWorx features on Azure IoT devices? (Hint: The ThingWorx-Azure IoT Hub Connector)
The scenario: Your company has settled on Azure as a cloud platform and you are currently using Azure IoT Edge as your connectivity strategy. You need a quick way to build IoT applications with your Azure devices. You’re looking for industry-proven and time-saving features like Mashup visualization, built-in connectivity to enterprise systems (like SAP or Oracle) with ThingWorx Flow, secure and scalable file transfer to your Azure-connected devices and the ability to create augmented reality (AR) experiences with Vuforia Studio. All of these options are available to you thanks to the ThingWorx-Azure IoT Hub Connector; it’s like the ice cream truck driving by on a hot summer day.
(If you’re wondering why we selected Azure as our preferred infrastructure, check out my previous interview with Neal, a Worldwide ThingWorx Center of Excellence Principal Lead here at PTC.)
I sat down with Ankit, a ThingWorx Product Manager, this week to learn more about the ThingWorx-Azure IoT Hub Connector. When Ankit’s not learning new hobbies like how to surf, snowboard or bike, he’s supporting our Microsoft partnership by enhancing and implementing ThingWorx-Azure functionality. Here’s how our conversation went:
Kaya: What is the Azure IoT Hub?
Ankit: The Azure IoT Hub acts as a central message router for bi-directional communication between the cloud (and your ThingWorx applications) and your connected devices. The Azure IoT Hub securely connects, monitors and manages billions of devices. It is an open and flexible cloud platform as a service that supports open-source SDKs and multiple protocols. With ThingWorx, we enable you to authenticate user access per device to ensure your IoT solutions remain secure.
Kaya: I understand your team has created the ThingWorx-Azure IoT Hub Connector. Can you explain what it is and what it does?
Ankit: The Azure IoT Hub Connector is an extension that is imported into ThingWorx for a developer to connect the Azure IoT Hub to ThingWorx. This helps ThingWorx to leverage the security and scalability of Azure while retaining the ThingWorx domain expertise to provide fast time to value.
The Connector is built on the ThingWorx Connection Server core. What it essentially does is convert JSON objects from Azure IoT Hub into ThingWorx property types (and vice versa) so that the digital twin data of an Azure device can be native to ThingWorx.
Since the Connector is built on the ThingWorx Connection Server, it is horizontally scalable and leverages features such as health check, metrics (message count and size, property writes) and logging.
Kaya: What was the challenge developers were facing that led us to create the Azure IoT Hub Connector?
Ankit: There was no easy way for a developer to use ThingWorx to represent an Azure IoT device. Users weren’t easily able to take advantage of ThingWorx services and functionality on their Azure IoT devices, which were inherently connected to the Azure IoT Hub. Similarly, ThingWorx users were not able to take advantage of Azure services in a “configure-not-code” fashion in ThingWorx.
Kaya: How does the Connector solve this problem to enable you to integrate the two platforms and device models for a better combined solution?
Ankit: Once you have an Azure device represented as a “Thing” in ThingWorx, you can use all the features and capabilities of ThingWorx Composer, Mashup Builder, etc. to build applications using the data from that Azure device.
Kaya: That’s pretty great.
Ankit: Thanks, agreed. In the next version of the Connector, we’ll integrate more closely with Azure, such that our developers can leverage Azure services as well via ThingWorx, instead of building those services from scratch on Azure all on their own. For example, developers will be able to send software content, like firmware updates, to an Azure device without writing any code on Azure. All of this can be done on ThingWorx using Azure components like Azure IoT Edge Runtime.
Kaya: Awesome. In the meantime, what are the top two or three things a developer can do with the Azure IoT Hub Connector today?
Ankit: Today, developers can take advantage of ingress and egress processing as well as file transfer. I’ll explain what these mean.
Ingress Processing: Azure IoT devices (i.e. devices that are running Azure SDKs) send messages to the Azure IoT Hub. These messages are typically values of device properties (e.g. temperature). The Azure IoT Hub Connector “listens” for these messages, translates them and passes them to the ThingWorx platform.
Egress Processing: Egress messages are messages that arrive from ThingWorx and are pushed to the Azure IoT Hub; an example might be pushing property updates to an Azure IoT device.
File Transfer: The Azure IoT Hub Connector supports transferring files between Azure IoT devices and an Azure storage container (i.e. Blob store). An Azure storage container is represented by a ‘FileRepository’ Thing within ThingWorx. This enables developers to transfer files from an Azure storage container to ThingWorx and vice versa.
Kaya: What are two exciting features planned for a future release of the Connector?
Ankit: Two exciting features planned for July include software content management (or SCM) and compatibility with ThingWorx Asset Advisor.
Software Content Management (SCM): In our next release, we plan to have support for SCM from ThingWorx to an Azure IoT Edge device (an Azure IoT device with IoT Edge Runtime) via Azure IoT Hub. SCM allows users to transfer a variety of content like configuration settings, operating system patches and software updates and/or patches to a software agent on your Azure devices. SCM also allows you to manage your remote assets and keep them patched, secure and up-to-date with the latest features without having to dispatch a technician. This helps to reduce cost and complexity of software distribution and installation.
Compatibility with ThingWorx Asset Advisor: Also planned for our next release, you will be able to readily manage Azure IoT devices directly through Asset Advisor to see key device alerts and warnings. This makes it even easier for you to leverage Asset Advisor to rapidly enable remote monitoring of your Azure devices.
Kaya: Exciting stuff. For our readers not familiar with Asset Advisor, check out this episode of my “ThingWorx on Air” podcast to understand what Asset Advisor is and how it works. Okay, next question. Do you have an example of a customer using Azure IoT Hub?
Ankit: Absolutely. Colfax, an industrial manufacturing company, is using Azure IoT Hub to improve the efficiency of its IoT efforts across the enterprise. You should check out our case study on Colfax if you haven’t seen it yet.
Kaya: Where should I as a developer go if I want to learn more about the Azure IoT Hub Connector or Azure in general?
Readers, let me know what you think about the Azure IoT Hub Connector in the comments below and reach out with any questions. While we’re excited to deliver what we have planned, our release content may change. In the meantime, for updates, tips and tricks and relevant info, stay connected!