These days platforms are a bit 2014, and suddenly everyone I meet wants to position themselves as a ‘layer’ in the IoT stack.

One of the most interesting ‘layer’ companies I’ve spoken to recently is PubNub, which calls itself a data stream network, and exists to support real time applications within the internet. We take for granted the fact that internet applications are updated instantaneously these days, and it’s slightly shocking when there is any sort of delay.

Startup office

Carriers make a big deal about how ‘fast’ their networks are, as if the only source of lag in customer experience was the bandwidth available on the last mile. Pretty much no-one remembers that the internet, and the web, didn’t start out with the expectation that they would work in real time – or the excitement that greeted the first applications that aspired to provide real time updating, like the 1996 news and share price ticker-tape emulator Pointcast.

PubNub doesn’t claim to be the only way to make real-time possible, but it does allow service providers to not worry about building or supporting this capability. The biggest players still do this in-house, but it is expensive and burdensome. PubNub says that one well-known online game provider spends 70% of its effort on maintaining real-time synchronisation, rather than on developing the game, and that another needs to maintain 20 servers for every 5,000 concurrent game players.

The company models itself to some extent on content delivery networks like Akamai, but with the emphasis on bi-directional data in motion, instead of caching data at rest. It began life in 2010 as a self-funded, boot-strap operation. Within a year it had 30 companies as customers and was handling 100 transactions per second.

With only four people it needed to expand, and accordingly sought and received $4.5m of Series A funding. It now has over 1000 companies as customers, supports an average of 20 million transactions per minute and peaking over 3 million transactions per second, and connects around 300 million devices. Some 70 companies are signing up as customers each month.

There are 14 data centres around the world, located within the major cloud providers such as Amazon and Rackspace, and acting as nodes in a single network. PubNub claims that it can deliver messages in under 250ms anywhere in the world, with averages of 30ms-40ms of latency to any device within 1000 miles of one of these nodes (in fact, the latency is low enough to support a TV remote control application, for which purpose it is used by some customers).

The company supports a multitude of chipsets, mobile devices, servers, and browsers with over 70 (and growing) open source SDKs that facilitate device connectivity and support a variety of protocols and software standards.

To repeat the theme with which this post began, PubNub is insistent that it is not a platform company. Most platforms, it says, are primarily professional services companies with only a minority of revenue coming from software sales, whereas PubNub does not have any significant professional services or consultancy offering. It runs its network and offers code modules, so that customers can offer real time services by incorporating a few lines of software code into their own.

For example, the mobility management need to provide the signalling for a VOIP network can be provided by a single line of code that subscribes the client to a PubNub data centre; a ‘Publish’ command can then make an individual VOIP client ‘ring’.

It is a layer, or a component, so that customers who want to build say a real time financial services website don’t have to build it all.

The customer list suggests that the PubNub network is seen as reliable by the kind of company that really cares about reliability. For example, SAP is a customer.  While the company does not power Uber, it is used by most of Uber’s competitors including Lyft, Sidecar, GetTaxi, and others. Similarly, VOIP giant Skype uses its own in-house system to maintain a real-time database of customer registration and location, but VOIP challenger Rebtel uses PubNub. There are several major global corporations, including McDonalds, Coca Cola, CBS and Yahoo.

Use cases are diverse. For example, home automation specialists Insteon use the PubNub service to configure the firewalls behind which their equipment sits. Previously every sale required a call to customer service so that the customer could be painstakingly instructed in how to change router settings; there was a large team dedicated to this, and each set-up took anywhere from seven to 20 minutes.

Now firmware on the Insteon hardware, burned into the chipset at production, contains PubNub code; this automatically sets up a secure tunnel when activated so that a remote application can do the configuration.

PubNub insists that from a code requirements perspective these use cases are more similar than they are different. The IoT is not as special as it thinks it is. It requires highly reliable, highly secure, low latency device communication that can be used at any deployment scale. Other IoT providers among the customer base include home automation specialists Wink and Revolv, connected irrigation provider Sprinkl, and race car information provider RallySafe.

One of the issues that the company faces is that its story, and indeed the entire concept of a layer in the IoT stack, is not easy to grasp. Although it wants to present itself as a simple plug-in component, explaining the purpose and functioning of that component seems to inevitably expose the complexity of what it does. PubNub’s website has some impressive references and user case studies, but the tension between making it look easy and communicating its power and value is not easy to reconcile.

Perhaps for this reason the company is increasingly marketing various use case examples, often accompanied by open source code modules that make sense in a particular context. For example, it launched a new graphing library called Project Eon that includes the code need to create real-time charts, graphs, and map overlays using PubNub to refresh live data. Other use case frameworks and solution kits, like Connected Car and iBeacons have been launched, and others are in preparation.

"In a world where almost everything is a platform (and lest we forget, Evrythng is also a platform) it's nice to see that an alternative approach can sometimes prosper. The fact that PubNub started life as bootstrapped, self-funded venture just makes this story a little sweeter."