Is cloud-connected aquarium tech disposable?

by | May 11, 2016 | Science | 5 comments

cloud_webWe live in the Internet of Things (IOT) age. IOT is used to described the plethora of connected devices, all using the internet to control our homes, our toys and keep us in constant connection. The IOT market has exploded: the advent of smart home products, wireless security cameras, wirelessly controlled lighting, etc. It was only a matter of time, before IOT products made their way into our aquarium. Right now, the first IOT style product is on pre-order. However, it’s important that consumers look at the history of wireless, cloud-connected devices, before shelling out several hundred dollars, on IOT style tank monitors and controllers. Consumer advocacy groups and tech insiders are finding that while the IOT era offers heightened functionality and neat gadgets, sometimes it provides temporary solutions, that rise and fall in waves of crowdfunded booms. 

IOT and crowdfunding:

revolv-smart-home-hub.0.0Tech entrepreneur Albert Gilbert recently asked, “If [with cloud connected technology] we are only buying temporary hardware. Is the internet of things era, changing the concept of ownership?” He was talking about the Revolv smart-home hub. Revolv was a crowd-funded tech start-up, producing a product that consolidated a host of smart-home products, such as lighting and security. The Revolv even worked with Nest Labs thermostats and air quality monitors. Like many IOT devices (and the upcoming Fishbit) Revolv requires a constant cloud connection to function. A while back, Nest Labs acquired Revolv and announced that as of May 15, 2016, they will cease maintenance of the devices’ cloud servers. This means, the Revolv will cease to function, and its users will be lost looking for another smart home solution, out the money they invested in Revolv.

Crowdfunding is exciting, as it gives real consumers a chance to take part in the innovation process, and fund start-ups that are enticing to them. It’s given way to some really great products. For many crowdfunded endeavors, the risk of losing out for the consumer is low. A product is produced and shipped, and doesn’t require any long term expense, or maintenance on part of the company. If the company experiences disappointing sales, the product may be discontinued, but for those who purchased it, it still works.

However, cloud connected devices (such as Fishbit, Nest Cams, etc) require constant maintenance of a cloud server. If the start-up doesn’t meet sales expectations, or decides to fold and the bill for the device’s cloud servers isn’t paid, then the product ceases function, permanently. Or, as in the case of Revolv, if a start-up is bought out by a larger company, who ceases to support a certain cloud connected product, the same result ensues. If we trust our tanks management and control to a cloud connected crowdfunded product, then inevitably the fate of our tank’s control/monitoring is tied to the success of that company.

How common is cloud-control in reef aquarium products?

uaviaCharging_largeCompared to smart home products, or wireless cameras, cloud control hasn’t infiltrated the aquarium world nearly as much. Although, products like wirelessly controlled LED lights, often implement cloud control. That said, often these are products produced by major, established companies. In the case of wirelessly controlled lighting, the lights would still function, they would simply have to be directly connected to a computer for programming, or manually controlled.

In the realm of controllers, cloud controlled devices is an entirely new concept debuting with Fishbit. Neptune apex, and Digital Aquatics controllers aren’t cloud controlled. An apex for example hooks directly into a router, and uses the aquarist’s internet to offer remote control and water quality reporting. The upcoming Fishbit will take water quality measurements, send them to a cloud server and that server will update your iOS app, with the new data. Remove the cloud server from that equation, and the device ceases to function.

Is there a long-term risk of buying a paperweight?

Diagram-640x1571In 2012, Cloud Times (an online site covering cloud connected devices) reported that within 5 years, 45% (nearly half) of all cloud networks would become obsolete. They believed the rapid production of new devices, and lack of consumer interest in upcoming devices, would both lead to this rapid rise and fall of new, cloud connected technology. Some in the tech sector consider cloud connected devices as disposable products, simply because they are rapidly replaced with something better, or the companies that produce them cease support of cloud servers.

It’s a new frontier for aquarists, as we are primarily used to buying products meant to last long-term. It’s not uncommon to have the same protein skimmer, for five to 10 years. Return pumps can last for decades, and aquariums themselves go-on without problem for years and years. While advances in lighting prompt upgrades as new technology becomes available, most aquarists have had their existing light fixtures for extended periods of time. Even existing controllers can easily be upgraded to add new sensors and features, as they become available. The thought of buying equipment, only to have it entirely cease function a few years later, is a new one for marine aquarists.

Should aquarists seek out cloud-controlled technology?

Wifi-Hotspots_0Cloud controlled technology is ambiguous in every tech marketplace, so it’s likely aquarists will see more and more of it. The main concerns aquarists should have are: is the product being released by an established manufacturer, who is unlikely to cease maintenance of servers should product sales not meet expectations? Also, can the product function well-enough, without cloud control? If the answer is no, to either or both, then it’s likely the aquarist is taking some risk, investing in the product.

Another concern is cost. If cloud-connected technology runs the risk of being disposable, shouldn’t it reflect that in price? Many cloud-connected devices cost just as much, if not more, than their more standard competition. The thought of spending 400 dollars on a device, just to have it cease function in under five years, would be disappointing, knowing you could have spent 500 dollars on a device, that would still function and even be upgradable with new features.

As cloud-connected technology makes its way into the world of reef aquariums, it’s at the very least, something to think about.


  1. Joe Rice

    According to the FAQ on Fishbit’s site, “Fishbit continues to work when your Internet goes out.” So how is this different from the Neptune Apex/Apex Fusion system?

    • TerenceF

      I cannot speak for FishBit but I can differentiate for you how the Apex works and how Apex Fusion fits into the equation. Someone else can compare and contrast other options and how they operate to what I will describe here. I hope they do provide this clarification. It is my understanding that some IoT devices’ functions cannot operate without the internet. Many IoT controllers (including the beta version of the FishBit I have used) cannot even turn on or off an outlet locally (or change a lights settings) without the internet connection to their servers.

      First of all the Apex is its own computer with its own built in web server. This means that at any time (even if the internet is down) you can access all its functionality locally from any web device or the Apex control screen itself. Even if your home network is down, the Apex is still controlling your aquarium using all the logic you set it up with – in other words things like “If my temperature is over 78 degrees, turn the fan on”, “if my pH is under 7.9, turn off the CO2 for the calcium reactor”, “if my temperature is over 79 degrees, turn off the lights”, etc. It’s decision making and control functions are completely autonomous from the web/internet/wifi.

      Apex Fusion is a cloud interface to your Apex(s). We created it so you can monitor and control your aquarium more easily while you are away (you can access the internal Apex web server while away, it just is a difficult thing to do IT-wise). Apex Fusion is NOT required. It just makes life easier to access your tank while away. If the Apex Fusion server were to go offline, or your internet were to go down, all the logic you have built into the Apex to control your aquarium will still go on working autonomously. This is similar to how the Nest thermostat works. It will still control your heater when the internet is down. It will still allow you to adjust the temperature on the thermostat when the network is down or even if Nest went out of business. This is not the case with some of the IoT aquarium control products (from simple lighting control to full blown ‘controllers’) coming to market.

  2. Jeremy Gosnell

    Terence is correct, and I need to edit this article for clarity on this issue. I just haven’t had a chance too. Essentially, a device like the Apex incorporates the best of both worlds. Apex Fusion is a cloud service, which eases access for aquarists. In fact, I often use Apex Fusion when at home, as I control my Apex from an iPad, I keep close to my tank. However, I experience internet outages on a frequent basis. My area in MD is under-served by high speed internet, and my high speed access is provided via a fiber-optic line which is accustom to going down. When this happens, I can still input the IP address of my Apex, into a computer (or iPad, iPhone, android, etc) and access my Apex, as it’s hard-wired to my router. With that, I have complete control of the Apex, without an active internet connection. This capability can be shared via your router, but as Terence pointed out, it’s a bit more difficult than using Apex Fusion’s cloud access. A great deal of IOT devices, rely solely on cloud access. I will use OSRAM’s smart lighting, as an example. I have OSRAM lightify lights throughout my house. They connect to my wireless router via an adapter plugged into a wall outlet. This gives them access to OSRAM’s cloud server, which tells the lights what to do and allows the user to make changes (such as color temperature and brightness). Without the cloud server, the lights function like regular light bulbs, without any control what so ever. The same can be said about the Canary smart home camera. Without an internet connection, or Canary’s cloud server being up, the unit does nothing. According to Fishnet’s developers, the device offers some pre-programmed features, in the event of an internet outage or if Fishnet’s cloud servers went down. However, it doesn’t offer any live reporting of aquarium parameters, nor does it perform any function that requires live reporting. So if your lights are to turn off, if the temperature reaches 80 degrees, it won’t happen, because the unit isn’t reporting that data to the controller. This is alarming to me, because the whole point of a controller, is to have control over these types of functions. For example, I use my Apex to turn my kalkwasser auto top off, off, in the event ph reaches 8.5. This is helpful if there is a leak in the tank, and water starts draining out, so the kalkwasser stirrer doesn’t raise ph so high, that it wipes out my corals. The same can be said for temperature, as if the heater were to stick, the Apex turns the heater off. Again, Fishbit would do this, but only if internet is active and Fishnet’s cloud servers remain online. I wouldn’t saying they are outright lying, when they say Fishbit continues to work if internet is out. According to the developers it offers limited controller function. What isn’t being said is that live water quality monitoring will not work without internet, nor will any function that requires live monitoring. I wrote this article because I feel aquarists deserve to know the full implications of a cloud based device, and deserve to understand the trend that seems to be appearing, in the realm of disposable technology and reliability, especially since this device isn’t cheap by any means.

  3. Franklin Dattein

    Nice topic, it is important to start this discussion because most customers don’t understand enough to care about it. Yet, this model is going to become more popular as IoT and Aquarium Computers become more popular.

    I have personal interest in the topic, because I developed a home-brew IoT Aquarium Computer, powered by a RPI, which addresses some of these problems. It is called REEFmate Aquarium Computer.

    It is hard enough to talk about this with technically knowlodgeable reefers, so it is a surprise the topic is getting covered by mainstream meadia like

    This is what I think:
    The cloud based model is advantageous for the manufacturer, because it is much simpler to update a single server app, than thousands of hardware devices sitting on customers premisses.

    It also enable a fresh new look for old and underpowered hardware, without the customer having to re-buy it all again. Good example is the Apex Fusion cloud app for the Apex Controller.

    In addition, simpler means more cost effective. So, it is up to the manufacturer to either pass the cost savings to the customer or covert it into higher profits, which may be key for the manufacturer’s survival.
    Ecotech, is a good example of premium priced products, with very simple firmware deployed to the hardware and a very rich app hosted in the cloud.
    IMO, there is no right or wrong, it is all about the companies business strategy.
    At the end, it is technology, it changes fast and is up to the customer to do the research before buying. Some will be happy, some not so happy and most won’t know the difference.
    What is important for they to understand, is that adding a shiny new cloud app to underpowered hardware, adds some cool new features, but doesn’t change the fact that the hardware is underpowered.

    IMO, the Aquarium Controller of the future won’t be a controller, it will be a Computer and it will leverage the following points:

    – Performance comparable to a smartphone, at least.
    – Should be programmable with an IoT programming interface.
    – Should be easy to use, to cater for users that don’t care about programming.
    – UI should be responsive and work on any device size.
    – The user should own software and hardware.
    – User shouldn’t depend on the manufacturers ability to keep a cloud server up, for the reasons stated in the article.
    – Should be easily updatable from the internet.
    – Should be able to control extensions from multiple vendors, just like a Dell laptop can control a Microsoft mouse.
    – Shouldn’t depend on internet connectivity, but should be able to leverage it.
    – Should speak Internet of things (IoT), so they can can easily be plugged to existing IoT solutions and ones that are going to be invented.

    It is challenging for a company to deliver all of it, because some points don’t consitrubte to profitability and some others give the user too much power, which can cause fatal accidents, like fire.

    Happy reffing.

  4. Jeremy Gosnell

    Franklin. Excellent incites, and I agree on all fronts. Personally, I use a lot of smart home, iOt devices at home and took an interest in the fact that the newest aquarium controller on the block, is in fact an iOt related device. I do believe these devices will change our concept of ownership. Just look at many iOt devices, they are simply boxes or plug in adapters, but once paired with a smart-phone or tablet, they open up a realm of possibilities. It’s my personal opinion, that an aquarium controller/computer/whatever is best, when it has stand-alone functions, that don’t require an internet connection or the cloud, but are simply enhanced by them. I also think a display is of value, especially for doing quick parameter checks when dosing, etc. I don’t really like standing in my fish room, clenching my iPhone, to monitor my ph as I dose. Staring at a native display is much easier, but a display sort of under-mines the whole point of iOt devices. I guess once the new kid on the block is released, the market will decide what’s best. However, I think aquarists have a right be aware, that the history of iOt devices thus far, has had some bumps in the road and left a few customers out in the cold, or should I say up in the clouds?


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