Tuesday 14 June 2016

What is IOT - A Newcommer's Primer

What is IOT? A Newcomer’s Primer
 IOT. The Internet of Things! Such an esoteric, pretentious yet potentially meaningless title for something we’ve always had: lots of things connected to the internet. So what is all the fuss? Well let me explain.
Before we dive into what users of this phrase seem to imply, it is instructive to review where we’ve been: what is the internet so far? Well it is quite simple.  The internet started out its life as an email network. This allowed us to exchange information.  Mail servers morphed into web servers and web sites were created to feed us stored information.  The next evolution was the addition of web services: little bits of programming logic to do stuff for us: calculations, lookups, translations, collection and storage or even push our information all over the world. Principally, the internet was a bunch of user level devices (laptops, PCs, tablets and phones) connected together via a bunch of servers and networks that help store, manage and forward traffic. So you see, the internet was all about us. I like to call this the IOU: The Internet of Us.

Enter the concept of things. Well we always had things because you couldn’t use the internet without them: phones and tablets and laptops and websites... Phones in particular added a huge number of things. As of February 2014, phones outnumbered humans (6.8 billion) and given that by now, almost all will be smart phones, this makes the phone the most common device (or thing) connected to the internet. Add in Servers, PCs and all those other mobile devices and we’ve easily topped 10 billion things, even back two years ago. Clearly then, when someone talks about an Internet of Things, they must mean something other than just phones and PCs. And of course, they do. They are implying something completely different.

To understand what is meant by the things in IOT, we need review two important trends. Firstly, devices are getting smaller and more tightly purposed and this bumps up the volume somewhat. This might be my home security system connected to supply video feeds and alarms or it might be a temperature sensor on a freezer set to alert problems. It could be a soil moisture monitor stuck in some farmer’s paddock or a flow monitor in an irrigation manager. In other words, the interactive nature of the web, such as you or me browsing web sites, is slowly being expanded by things – devices - doing specific tasks. An average house could conceivably have 20 such devices, a farm hundreds and a factory or building, thousands. The second trend going on is that the traffic for these new devices is getting smaller and more frequent because it is getting closer to being just raw, unformatted data: nothing you and I could look at without a lot of interpretive software. This means though that there has to be something out there capturing, storing and using all that data. Do you see the trend? The internet was firstly a delivery platform for static information (emails), then it became a source of interactive data (web sites) and now it is turning into a giant multi-lane highway for endless streams of raw data (sensors).

So the things in IOT are really implied to be sensors, devices and switches that will send data to the internet or be controlled by data from the internet. This IOT network lives right alongside our existing IOU network. IOT can be considered as data for machine consumption whereas IOU is mostly data presented for direct human consumption. This distinction is important because of how their respective data streams are handled. IOU data is presented nicely formatted for direct human consumption – IOT data needs storage, conversion and interpretation. There is a cost to building and maintaining that IOT framework. For IOU, the cost is only in formatting and storing the data.

Mostly, web sites and web services are designed to be consumed by everyone or groups of people given access. Once we get down to these IOT sensors and devices, these are usually owned by individuals and they transmit their data to specific locations or applications. So now the internet is taking on the role of providing a free pathway for a whole range of devices to provide services and functions to which we subscribe or own and there are potentially tens of billions of them.

Some obvious examples include:

·         Environmental monitoring and reporting: commercial, agricultural or personal

·         Weather monitoring, water quality or sea level monitoring

·         Alerting mechanisms: temperature, proximity, access, security, levels…

·         Data collection for statistics or commerce or compliance

·         Remote control: turn things on or off

So whether it is agricultural monitoring, home security, traffic monitoring or just your fridge ordering more milk because you ran out, it is all about tasks, data and outcomes. Is it good? Maybe- I don’t want my fridge ordering 100 litres whilst I am away overseas on holiday. Is it inevitable? Definitely. Two years ago Gartner predicted 100 billion devices will be connected to the internet by 2020 but this turned out a tad ambitious and they have since revised it back to 40 billion. Whatever the real number – and nobody knows – it is large. The takeaway is that the number of devices will grow but the direction and speed is difficult to predict. I don’t think the reality will quite match the hype. Why? Because it is more expensive and complex to implement IOT than people expect and my next blog will explain this in more detail.

So the Internet of Things is really just a way of saying what has always been the case. The internet is full of things already but the diversity is growing and the usage changing. We are, however, moving from IOU only to IOT plus IOU: from a place where we were just connected to shared public resources that benefited all of us to one that includes potentially vast amounts of traffic that benefit individuals. The past two decades saw a concentration on public networks and universally accessed data but the way forward now is seeing a more private use of devices for personal and commercial benefit. The variety of things is endless but this is what this use of things really means: remote monitoring, management and control for a really wide range of devices.

This definition is important because it will shape the discussions going forward.

Geoff Schaller


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