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The Internet of Things


In my last post, we discussed what M2M means. More than just an acronym for Machine to Machine, it is the communication between objects and entities that is not just a traditional voice call or data session.

But the term M2M does not do justice to the potential that this market really has!

So, today, we continue the discussion with another phrase that has caught peoples imagination:

The Internet of Things!

Digressing a Bit

Do you all remember the IBM television commercial (from over a decade ago!) where a woman hears the doorbell, opens the door, and there is a service technician there to fix the fridge? She and her husband did not call for it to be fixedthe fridge made the call before it broke!

Yes, that intelligent appliance ad was way ahead of its time! And we still have not quite achieved that particular dream fully, but it was a remarkably prescient message and one that may yet happen soon.

The important point of that early ad is that the communication from the intelligent appliance (a refrigerator) to an intelligent application (a computer program) that results in an action (service technician dispatch) uses the system covered by the more recent term of The Internet of Things.

So How Should We Describe It?

Perhaps one way is:

Since the "Internet"is a large, world-wide network and system where people communicate with other people, the Internet of Things is a large, world-wide network and system where things communicate with other things.

Yes, that is a pretty broad description, although some people (including the likely first user of the term) try to limit it.

My point is simply that things that need to communicate and send data and control messages back-and-forth, may need to use systems (protocols, language, technology, networks, etc.) that are logically separated from those that are used by humansfor a variety of reasons.

This system is the Internet of Thingsand it has the potential to change our world maybe in even more ways than the Internet has done for humans!

Lets explore this a bit further.

But First ... Is It Truly Important?

Remember that the Cellular Handset Market is Saturating

In the US alone, wireless penetration and cellphone deployment has reached over 95% of potential users, even when including children below ten years old ... ignoring, for the moment, why children that young need cellphones!

Combined with the decreasing use of wired (i.e., land-line or wire-line) telephone deployment, this means that revenue growth in the next decade for telecom companies, has to come from somewhere else.

That somewhere else is the relatively untapped M2M market.

The Numbers are Staggering

By some estimates, the number of things surpasses the number of people in the world. Recent (and widely used and touted) projections from Ericsson set it at a staggering 50 billionthat is billion with a bConnected Devices by the year 2020.

And, even if this 50 billion value is inaccurate by some large factor, it is still a very, very large number and creates an interest levelalmost a feeding frenzy really!that attracts many current and future players in the industry.

Clearly, the estimate includes all kinds of devices that transmit informationwireless and wired, large and small, in almost every industry imaginable!

For example, it includes home and industrial appliances, cars and trucks, gas and electricity meters, home environment controllers, health-care devices, etc. Pretty much anything intelligent that can send datai.e., be a Connected Device!

The number also includes sensors that gather data (temperature, voltage, pressure, etc.) and transmit the data through a network to a remote system where the information is analyzed and summarized and actionable decisions are made. Since sensors are smaller than the larger devices mentioned above, the number of such sensor things is likely to be enormousprobably contributing in large part to that 50 billion number.

A Better Future For Us All

The use of M2M data to benefit businesses and society in many ways is generally well accepted. Improvements in businessefficiencycan help with the demand for increasingly scarce resources.

For example, automated building monitoring systems to automatically reduce use of heating or cooling can lead to greener solutions.Perhaps, reporting the failure of a $50 compressor fan can avoid the failure of a $10,000 commercial air-conditioning system and lead todramatically faster, Time-to-Diagnose and Time-to-Repair ... perhaps before the unit has to run overtime (wasting energy) to cool the building down again.

Perhaps, a jammed automated irrigation system, where the water is wasted (possibly leading to reduced yield, or even crop loss) would benefit from early reporting and repair.

Frankly, our imagination can run wild here! :)

Summarizing the Benefits

In summary:

  • Businesses benefit when productivity increases, cost reductions and efficiency gains, and revenue growth in new markets happens.
  • People benefit because of the lifestyle improvements, added convenience and safety, etc.
  • Society benefits because of the increased safety, cost reductions, and higher economic growth.

Thus, by all measures, it is a Good Thing to (a) have an Internet of Things network and system and (b) deploy a large number of things using that network and system.

So, yes, the Internet of Things is truly important!

What is the Network and Protocol for the Internet of Things?

Communication between devices does not require a particular network or a particular technology or a specific protocol. Indeed, since it covers a wide range of possible devices and uses, it is futile to limit the technology that is used for such communication.

The transmission could be short-range wirelesssuch as Zigbee, Bluetooth,IEEE 802.11 WiFi, and others. These are generally limited in range from a few tens to a few hundred feet. Some of these technologies transmit further than others, but the concept is clear: it uses a short-range radio, with low power requirements, very little management needed for mobility, and relatively inexpensive to deploy in large numbers.

Or it could be a longer range communication the thing could use cellular CDMA, GSM, LTE, or (insert your favorite cellular technology here!) service, satellite transmissions or the wired Internet, to send and receive its data and control messages. In some of these technologies, the physical mobility of the device is often important (although M2M cellular applications are typically grouped in to two categories: Fixed Applications and Mobile Applications).Thus, the technology may need to allow for physical location changesthe devices may move!

Of course, other short-range and long-range network technologies will surely be deployed in the next ten yearsand M2M communication will use these networks too.

Finally, since the term is very general and broadly defined, even the act of reading a Radio-Frequency ID chip (called an RFID tag) embedded inside a device, when it passes by an RFID reader, can be an integral part of the Internet of Things concept.

Like human languages used today, the protocols (or language) used by devices is likely to be varied and complex. Some devices will be able to talk to some other devices but not to all othersthere isnt a currently identified need to communicate with all devices!

Application by application, technology by technology, the protocols will be developed and targeted to the specific requirements of the communications.

Addressing Things in the Internet of Things

Depending on the requirements of the application, whether it is short-range or long-range wireless, whether it is likely to conflict with communication between other devices, etc., the transport technology generally incorporates the necessary addressing capabilities.

Remember the home-automation devices deployed by BSR in the US, using a standard called X10 over power lines inside your home? It had a simple addressing scheme: you could only reach 256 devices. And the available controllers were limited to accessing about 8 to 16 devices inside any given home. Conflicts with nearby systems could occur, although the likelihood that your neighbor had deployed an X10 system was low enough that the potential for conflict could be ignored. Any operational conflicts that did occur, generally could be handled pretty easily by changing the base address of your system to select a different set of 16 devices.

Today, the addressing concern is far more of an issue with large-scale, wide-area networksparticularly with devices and technologies that use Internet Protocol (IP) addressing. For years, the Internet community has anticipated the exhaustion of the IP addressing scheme called IPv4. This has now occurred: new address range allocations in IPv4 are no longer possible!

Continuously-connected, wireless cellular IP devices added to this concern, and the stop-gap measuresfor example, Network Address Translation (NAT)are no longer capable of handling the addressing needs for wireless devices.

Thus, the new IP address mechanism, IPv6, is imperative for deployments of large numbers of devices. If you are not already using IPv6 for your IP devices (wireless or otherwise), please make it a priority to implementparticularly for 4G device deployment! If your devices use a network or technology with an IP addressing requirement, make sure that they are IPv6 capable (even if they are not using it today) particularly if you plan to keep them operational for the next few years to decades.

How Large is the Thing?

The thing that communicates can be, quite literally, any uniquely identifiable and addressable object that has a need to send and/or receive information of some kind.

So, it could be an RFID chip that gets read at short-range and data is transferred to an automated system such as the chip inside new US Passports!

Or a vehicle that automatically sends its location and emergency information when a crash is strong enough for the airbags to deploysuch as new Hyundai automobiles sold in the US today.

Or a cargo trailer that reports in when it has been filled, and is ready for a pickup for the shipment to be transported quickly and efficiently.

The point is that the source of the information and data from the device can be quite varied, and limiting it in any way (such as only using the term for RFID devices) is not meaningful.

The Internet of Things is Easy to Implement, Right?

If we could make all things in the world become uniquely identified objects that transmitted data for their particular application, and make this data available to all other things and humans, this would indeed change our world!

However, the implementation of an Internet of Thingsparticularly with the way I have broadened the scope of what is covered (since I find the RFID usage quite limiting)is a difficult challenge.

So, it is not trivial!

But, this doesnt mean that we cannot attempt specific implementations ... using known approaches to make these a reality!

For example, we know that using data transport hierarchy makes senseisolation and management of leafs and nodes and sub-trees in the hierarchy, makes larger scale deployments practical and possible.

Thus, consolidation of information from one technology or deployment or one site makes it easier to deploy the M2M application.

Visualize a potential deployment where all sensors (temperature, door alarms, human presence, etc.) inside a commercial building use short-range ZigBee radios to communicate with a building collection point system.The collection point can then use the Aeris cellular data network to send the information on to other locations where the information can be analyzed and summarized ... for humans to make decisions and take action.

Such hybrid, hierarchical deployment approaches can make it easier to deploy a large number of M2M devices in a cost-effective manner to achieve the goals of the application and solution, if the cost of deployment is prohibitive in certain situations.

It is Possible and It is Happening.

The bottom line is that the Internet of Things is being deployed as we speak one device, one network, one application, one solution at a time.

It is truly an exciting time to be part of this industry and watch it grow so dramatically over the next years!

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