Summary:

BlackBerry is turning its attention to a cloud back end for processing data from connected devices. It hopes its experience with security and open source cloud tools can entice developers to its new platform.

Alex Saunders. Photo by Stacey Higginbotham
photo: Stacey Higginbotham/Gigaom

BlackBerry is launching a series of projects called Project Ion for the internet of things with the idea of using its experience in building secure, connected devices to connect sensors, cars and anything else in a secure fashion to a cloud back end. Alec Saunders, the vice president of cloud at BlackBerry, launched the project at the O’Reilly Solid conference in San Francisco with a call for developers to try to build applications on the proposed platform.

What is Project Ion

The project is a cloud back end and BlackBerry’s QNX software that allows a device to send information back to the cloud. When it comes to the cloud portion, Saunders said in an interview before his talk, “We have stolen liberally from open source software in computing and networking that has been going on in the last couple of years. Many of them didn’t exist in the form we are using them in, 18 months ago.”

The database is Cassandra, chosen because it handles data writes (as opposed to reads) better, and BlackBerry assumes that all the data from devices coming in will be massive and possibly in different formats that will eventually need to be consolidated into one single format. The cloud uses Kafka for getting data in and out of the Cassandra cluster, Solr for search and Vert.x for programming.The cloud back end is being hosted with an undisclosed provider, chosen because Saunders noted, “We are building this very fast.” My hunch is a public cloud provider, although Saunders said the current host might change because depending on how each provider structures their offers and the eventual architecture of the cloud, it might cost less to host elsewhere.

The software side will rely on QNX where it already exists, such as in cars, but BlackBerry will also provide documentation or maybe even open source parts of QNX to allow programmers to write code for devices that can talk back to the QNX cloud. Programmers can use JSON, C languages, Node and other popular tools.

Who and when?

BlackBerry is working with both the Industrial Internet Consortium, the group founded by Intel, GE, Cisco, AT&T and IBM earlier this year, and the Application Developers Alliance, which was in part founded by BlackBerry. The idea is that an invite-only beta program will open this summer, and Saunders was at Solid to entice developers to join. The public beta will be in the fall with a formal product launching before the end of BlackBerry’s fourth quarter in February 2015.

BlackBerry will compete in a crowded market against firms such as Xively, Ayla Networks, Berg Cloud, ThingWorks and many other businesses hosting a cloud back end for corporate clients hoping to send sensor data in and get analytics out. Saunders believes BlackBerry’s focus on security and privacy will be an advantage over others, as well as its experience working with the physical devices. The idea is that a full product has to cover both client side devices and the cloud back end, especially where you are thinking about security.

What’s more interesting is how BlackBerry is thinking about building context-awareness into devices to allow data to be shared only in certain situations. He used a car’s telemetry system as an example, saying the manufacturer might ask for all the cars’ data, while a dealership might only get the data about diagnostics and how a person is driving. The device should have some programs that understand what information to give up and to whom. And when those triggers are met, the device can send the appropriate data.

“We can offer permissioning based on what info needs to known at any one time,” he said.

So will Project Ion and a focus outside of individual devices save the company? I don’t know, but joining the rush of companies building a product for the internet of things isn’t a super stretch for BlackBerry and it might as well throw some spaghetti at the wall and see if it sticks.

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