Building an online M2M portal

Maxon has traditionally been in the design and manufacturing of industrial modems.

The company recently launched maXconnect — a cloud-based M2M management portal which allows users to access, monitor and control their modems securely.

PACE speaks with Maxon's Paul Lourenco, the software architect who designed maXconnect.

What is your vision for maXconnect?
I came on board to bring to fruition, Maxon's vision of having a software service as a product that they could offer customers who use our industrial modems.

maXconnect is basically a web based service that allows users to access a portal from any PC or mobile unit and then monitor their devices. They are able to monitor, control, analyse and troubleshoot their industrial modems out in the field.

Previously, a customer would have to individually log onto each device to capture data and then upload it as a file. With this solution they can do that with a click of a button for hundreds or thousands of devices.

Our modems attach themselves to various assets. So our solution can be applied to a variety of industries and be monitored from a central location. Maxon set out to develop a carrier and device agnostic M2M online management portal with API functionality that is flexible, expandable and future proof.

We have developed APIs that allow users to interconnect existing applications like SIM card provisioning and billing engines and develop their own proprietary applications specifically for their business to integrate with maXconnect.

How does maXconnect differ from other systems in the market?
That was part of our analysis in the early phases. There are off-the-shelf solutions that do this, however we found them to be very expensive – even to trial. These solutions are not exactly what our customers want and are too big, very complex.

We wanted to meet the market need, so we decided to make our own solution from the ground up. maXconnect is developed in Australia.

We did not wish to start with something big and perhaps overwhelm our customers with a product most would probably not need straight away. Moreover, a complex product would have been very expensive for us to maintain and licence.

Do you see a big uptake in SCADA applications?
We are not aiming to be a fully fledged SCADA solution; it's more a monitoring service for our customers. Usually applications which require SCADA already have fully rolled out SCADA solutions to provide total control.

maXconnect is more of a solution in between fully fledged SCADA and no SCADA whatsoever. Also, SCADA forms part of the broader M2M world. The uptake of M2M is increasing as we implement more automation technologies driven by the need to increase efficiency and manage operating costs.

Tell us about the heart of the system.
We had to find a way to communicate with devices in remote areas, that have dynamic IP addressing – every time they come online they get a different IP address from the carrier. We needed to get a system that would still be able to connect even though the IP address changed.

We found the MQTT protocol was our best fit because it's used extensively by instant messagin. A device can send a message to another without the latter being online; once that device comes online it would receive the message, much like instant chat. It's also very lightweight.

The first step was to see how we could send MQTT messaging from the devices to a central server. The central server was then built to receive and store in the database, the messages coming from all devices in a scalable way.

The third layer on top of that was a graphical interface to view the information in as simplistic a way as possible. The ability to manage separate and disparate devices across multiple carriers is a breakthrough that has not been replicated.

Do you make any allowances for poor line quality?
Absolutely. A device can move out into a remote area on the fringe of cellular service where there's very low signal strength. maXconnect displays signal strength to the user, identifies dropout times and duration so the technician can troubleshoot the installation, or look for alternative locations or antenna types.

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How do you see this system evolving?
Flexibility was our priority so that we met the needs of clients who require customisation or development. Those customers can engage Maxon to carry out this customisation or they can contract their own developer to utilise the API connectivity to expand the features and functionality.

maXconnect is the foundation that can integrate with other systems giving the user one single view of all operations. Our customers are predominantly integrators who distribute our modems and routers.

The flexibility to white label maXconnect is a significant feature allowing our customers to on-sell this service to the end user. Another significant breakthrough was allowing other modem and router manufacturers to connect their products to the portal rather than being manufacturer-specific.

A firmware agent developed by Maxon allows for this to happen quite efficiently. The open API makes maXconnect an expanding platform for SCADA and M2M operators.

The system is flexible giving our integrators and users reduced cost of ownership compared with larger and more complex systems that have more advanced functionality which they may never utilise. Maxon has now successfully built a software service, where as we've traditionally been a hardware business.

This is our foothold into new product and service offerings as well as new engineering capabilities.