International Startup Aims to Fix IoT Software Updates

Tucked into a small office in the heart of Seattle’s Capitol Hill is one hub of a tech startup whose team members hail from 10 countries. The international aspect of Resin is interesting by itself, and so is the challenge it’s tackling: wirelessly updating software on the billions upon billions of Internet of Things (IoT) devices proliferating everywhere from your front door lock to utility-scale wind turbines.

Resin’s co-founders and 25 employees and contractors—at offices in Seattle, Athens, and London, and working from home in Vietnam, Belarus, Chile, and elsewhere—believe their solution will do for IoT configuration, security updates, and performance improvements, what the DevOps movement, championed by companies like Seattle-based Chef, has done for provisioning, configuring, and updating servers in the data center.

“We see that happening today with customers in digital signage, industrial scenarios, smart buildings, where all of a sudden they can no longer get by with the annual release cycle that the data center ditched over the last 10 years,” says Bryan Hale, Resin’s president.

For Hale, Resin’s first American employee, the similarities to Chef were obvious, but the opportunity in front of Resin is potentially larger, and fresher. Hale should know. A Seattle native and most recently an entrepreneur-in-residence with venture capital giant Draper Fisher Jurvetson, Hale was Chef’s first business hire.

IoT devices have unique characteristics and challenges not found in data centers. Network connections are often weak and intermittent, and may be costly. Compute cycles matter. Virtualization doesn’t make sense for reasons of efficiency and because “you actually want to touch the hardware in a very direct way,” says Resin co-founder and CEO Alexandros Marinos. IoT devices are precious in a way commodity servers are not, and they exist in the physical world—context that must be accounted for in deploying software updates.

“If you’re a server and you’re getting torn down, that’s fine,” Marinos says. “If you are a drone and you’re flying, not as fine.” logoResin says it’s addressing these challenges with a solution that starts with a version of Docker, the open-source application deployment framework that makes use of software containers. “We were the first people to get containers—Docker specifically—working on ARM chips,” Marinos says. “So until that, officially even today, Docker was an Intel x86 64-bit thing alone. That’s the world of the datacenter… We got it on 32-bit Intel machines, 32-bit ARM machines, several architectures” prevalent in IoT devices.

In addition, Resin has a system to compare the current software configuration on an IoT device (or fleet of devices) to the desired state, doing this work on a server. The resulting software update sent to the device can be orders of magnitude smaller than the original, requiring that much less wireless network bandwidth.

“That might mean that a security fix makes it to the device or doesn’t make it, if it’s a bigger payload and you’re not able to get it through a small connection window,” Marinos says.

A third aspect of the technology is the Yocto Project, an open-source collaboration that enables development of custom Linux distributions for embedded systems.

“The core innovation really is linking up the Yocto Project with the container world and then adding the whole management layer on top of that,” Marinos says.

It’s all built to be flexible and customizable, reflecting the diversity of Linux-based IoT single-board computers—and the myriad devices they power—which are multiplying in complexity and falling in price. Last month the Raspberry Pi Foundation unveiled a $5 Raspberry Pi Zero sporting a 1 gigahertz processor and 512 megabytes of RAM.

Resin emerged from work Marinos and his co-founders did for a company deploying high-tech recycling bins in London. They were in charge of managing the software running digital signage on the bins. “How hard can this be?” Marinos remembers thinking. “Famous last words.”

“Eventually, the company that was building the bins started connecting them over 3G, which gave us a lot of the sort of bandwidth and intermittence problems that we’ve solved now,” he says.

When that company didn’t work out, Marinos and the team focused on solving the underlying infrastructure problem, betting on the opportunity in a wave of IoT devices growing now. “Resin is the platform we wished we had when building the bins,” Marinos says.

The company today is adding paying customers in industries including digital signage, warehousing, and environmental monitoring, and talking to very large industrial companies about the technology.

“There is very serious interest from some of the largest customers we could possibly have,” Marinos says. “I expected that it would be growing gradually and we would eat into the larger space, but this is a really big problem and they just don’t have a solution for it, which means they’re willing to take a bit on somebody that’s newer on the block.”

Resin’s ambitions are big, and its funding, thus far, is modest. The company raised a $3 million seed round from DFJ last year, and a small angel round before that. But it has managed to gather together a top team by embracing a global, remote workforce.

“We built the company to be remote from very early days,” says Marinos, who is Greek, but earned his PhD at the University of Surrey in the U.K. “That was actually, unbeknownst to us, a key to being able to really bring in amazing people from anywhere, instead of having to compete in the London market, or God forbid, the San Francisco market. We were just able to say, ‘You can work from home. As long as you’re good, we don’t care where you are.’ On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”

Managing a startup is hard enough if everyone’s in one place. Resin, which is distributed across time zones and geographies, has implemented a set of collaboration tools, and maxims to go with them, to make location less relevant. Marinos recounts them: “If it’s not in Flowdot, which is like Slack, it didn’t happen. If it’s not Jira, it won’t get done. If it’s not in a wiki, we won’t remember it. If it’s not on the blog, it’s not released.”

The company also has to carefully screen candidates for strong self-managers.

What about the much esteemed idea of a company culture? The Resin team seems to be bonded by a sort of global tech culture, and a love of international barbecue.

“You would expect a lot less commonality than there is,” Marinos says. “And I think there’s something that’s happening, maybe geek culture, or the Internet—kids who have all grown up with the Web.”

It helps to get together, too. At an annual summit in Athens this summer, South African team members showed off their braii, while Argentines brought the asado. There was also a wildcard “Red Team” made up of members from former communist countries. Resin has since hired a Texan, so brisket is expected in 2016.

Resin chose Seattle over San Francisco for its U.S. hub, which surprised Marinos at first.

“We were actually going to go to San Francisco,” he says. “That was the plan. And we tried to hire some people in San Francisco and they tend to be fleeting and expensive and have their own world views.”

When a few people started suggesting Seattle, he was dismissive at first. Then he noted attributes of the city’s tech industry that fit well with Resin’s goals: “Infrastructure is here. This city understands scale and reliability. There’s some industrial experience around.” The regional strength in DevOps, with Chef and Puppet Labs in Portland, OR, were factors, too.

The decision has been a good one, as San Francisco-based candidates were willing to move north. But if you’re good—even if you’re a dog, and especially if you can bring it on the grill—it doesn’t matter where you’re located.

Trending on Xconomy