Inside the Internet of Everything lies the Internet of Things (IoT). This has been with us for a long time. Indeed, the term was first used in 1999 when Kevin Ashton, who was then with Belkin, blended the RFID and Internet concepts together. At that time these tags were passive, drawing their energy inductively from the reading device. They were only transient members of the IoT. Since then some have been equipped with batteries and transmitters that enable them to autonomously announce their presence to the outside world.
Today's full IoT end-points are devices that can also sense their surrounding environment or act on it, both requiring internet access to some kind of computing device. The end points could be in homes, cars, fields, water treatment plants, railways – anywhere that would benefit from remote monitoring and complementary beneficial actions.
As with so many technical developments, the IoT term took a while to catch on but it accelerated following the official World IPv6 Launch in June 2012 and its promise of more or less infinite IP addresses (340 trillion, trillion, trillion of them). Then the futurologists started dreaming up all sorts of weird and wonderful applications from driverless cars to a whisky bottle that links to a personalised YouTube video greeting (http://tinyurl.com/btxwdse). A ghastly low point occurred earlier this year when Fundawear (http://tinyurl.com/c4q7p4y) announced vibrating underwear which lets your partner fondle you remotely through their iPhone touch screen.
This and, indeed, many of the other madcap IoT inventions have little to do with the CIO. But you are probably already familiar with Machine-to-Machine (M2M) developments, even if you haven't been directly involved. Many of them have been restricted to vertical applications in manufacturing, buildings, retail, utilities, transport, logistics and so on. Many have worked perfectly well without going anywhere near the IT department but this will change, largely thanks to 'the cloud'.
ICT vendors are now licking their lips at what they see as a massive opportunity through IP-addressable devices able to exchange information in meaningful and previously unplanned ways, without human intervention. As you might imagine, we're still a long way from this. It needs standard protocols and raises security and information privacy issues for organisations and individuals alike. If any of this data happens to flow across your network, then you are likely to become involved.
One of the problems with all the gung-ho predictions is that most of them are predicated on IPv6 being widely adopted, on adequate network coverage and on the devices having the brains, the power and the need to participate in this way.
Power and reach
Fixed equipment in urban areas is unlikely to have problems with power or communications. But small sensing devices which monitor the water level of a remote reservoir, or the soil moisture on an isolated farm, could be far from the nearest internet connection and would probably lack the oomph to communicate with it anyway.
Mobile devices (such as in cars) would also have issues with real-time reporting when they are beyond network range but, depending on the value of the application and the source of power, this can be side-stepped by adding more logic and a memory buffer.
Setting aside IPv6 for the moment, it is theoretically possible to connect very low cost sensing devices at remote locations by using part of the radio spectrum associated with television signals. Television spectrum always has some unallocated, or white, space. This varies by area but details are stored in readily accessible databases. The Weightless SIG has drawn up standards for using this spectrum and is seeking permission from regulatory bodies around the world. The FCC in the USA has already given permission to proceed. Ofcom and a number of others are likely to agree following pilot trials later this year. These devices can be such low power that a button battery could last fifteen years, depending on how often it collects and sends information. Tens of thousands of these devices can communicate securely, without requiring line of sight, to a single base station directly connected to the internet. Sensor information payloads can be increased by reducing the cell size and the number of connected devices. In theory, it would even be possible to create a rural broadband service for presently isolated users. Weightless and its associated low cost end points could bring M2M benefits to organisations for which it was previously just a dream - not just in the developed world but also in developing countries where, for example, water is precious and cannot be wasted.
Whatever the access method all the data flowing around will end up in one of the IP formats – IPv4, v6 or Lightweight v6 (designed for lower power consumption). If the destination is another machine that's not part of the IT estate – a manufacturing process machine for example – then it will probably tunnel there and, apart from bandwidth considerations, is not likely to affect you. Anything else will. If data is being sent from thousands of devices across your network to you for processing, then you'll need to plan for it. You may even need to put some of the aggregation and analysis nearer to the sending devices, maybe in the base station or in the cloud. The hardware and networking economics are pushing us to a world in which we will have insane amounts of data.
The trick for the CIO is to resolutely deploy the hype shield and look out for information content that will deliver real value to the organisation.
To properly qualify as an IoT end point the device needs to be able to send data directly, or indirectly via a base station, across the internet for analysis to elicit some kind of action. Many claim that a bar code, a QR code or a passive RFID would qualify since, with the help of a reader, they can send data. For example, a dog's identity chip is a passive RFID device and, when scanned, causes a database lookup and results in an action (find the owner). While it might not be the centre of the CIO's universe, it's darned useful to a vet.
The IoT purists call these pseudo end points.
Here are a few examples of the sort of IoT applications which are likely to be flourishing in the next few years and which may touch your life. They are in alphabetical sequence to avoid prioritising by one of several conflicting measures such as expected market size, growth rate, data volumes or commercial value.
Some farms cover huge areas, contain different ground conditions and grow different crops. A soil moisture monitoring system could provide the information for very localised irrigation and a plant scanner could provide growth information for the selective application of fertiliser. If the Weightless or a similar low cost implementation becomes possible, this would transform farming economics around the world.
Building automation is absolutely ripe for exploitation. Rather than just switch on lights or control air conditioning, intelligent processing will be able to combine all manner of information. A break-in could be detected and then presence detectors and CCTVs could track progress, giving security a clear idea of what's happening or perhaps automatically activating door locks or fire shutters to prevent escape.
When the Boston bombers stole a Mercedes, little did they know that the owner's car was fitted with a system called mbrace, which can call for help in the event of an accident or track the vehicle in the event of a theft. Mercedes switched the tracking on and the police were able to pick up the trail. With sensors distributed around cars, the car can quite literally report its condition to a server that, if it spots untoward patterns, can trigger a service call to the owner. More sinisterly, your car could report your driving patterns. This raises some big privacy issues: Who owns that data? Who can see it? Under what circumstances? (Think insurance companies and police ...)
How about lamppost mounted sensors that scan for parking spaces, air quality or traffic jams? None of these is difficult and it wouldn't be hard to access the data and link it to the driver's satnav or mobile phone. The lamps could also save energy by switching themselves off when no-one is nearby.
At the simplest level, meters can directly report electricity usage providing a means to bill accurately and without disturbing the householder for a reading. They can also reveal sources of problems if the usage pattern changes. In theory at least, devices in the home could be fitted with controllers that work in harmony with an electricity supplier, using energy when demand is lower. Although in-built rules would make sure that food or washing, for example, aren't spoiled as a consequence. The householder will expect guaranteed benefits in exchange for their agreement – a lower tariff at the very least.
A hospital is a busy place with continually changing demands for resources. Rooms, trolleys, push chairs, oxygen cylinders and suchlike could announce their status "I'm free" to a management system or, indeed, to some as yet unimagined system that lets medics grab the facility at the moment it's needed.
By adding sensors to machines, it is possible to spot early signs of problems. They may start to vibrate or overheat in a pattern that suggests they need some preventative maintenance. This could be scheduled into the worksheet of the most readily available qualified engineer. Environmental sensors can spot potentially dangerous changes in the atmosphere and not only activate alarms but possibly close down or slow down the offending equipment.
Shelf sensors could spot when items are moving quickly and trigger replenishment requests from the stock room. If the goods aren't there, perhaps they could be added to the re-order manifest. If they're moving too slowly, perhaps they could reduce the pricing on a digital display. Some have suggested putting transmitting RFIDs into individual garments so they can be found easily if hung on the wrong rack. But, just because something can be done doesn't necessarily mean it should be.
Sensors placed in rivers, reservoirs and the sea can monitor water quality and its suitability for the creatures and plants that live in it and the people who drink it. If they're placed on bridges and reservoir banks, they can keep an eye on water levels. And sensors in pipes can monitor pressure and provide early warning of leakages.
Without question, standards and APIs will be needed for interoperability and you can expect something of a war on this front as various vested interests vie for dominance. The mobile phone and tablet space may give us a foretaste of what's to come. Some enterprising companies just decided to create platforms so desirable that application developers just flocked to them. No-one had to tell them that these were standards, nor did any official body ratify them.
Some will work in a spirit of openness; others will prefer a proprietary stranglehold. Yet others may decide that proprietary isn't where they want to be and will put their APIs into the public domain.
You also need to think about the communications platform and the quality of service you'll need, especially as the data volumes grow. You don't really people watching YouTube movies to block your critical transmissions.
IoT is not about jettisoning the M2M past, it simply brings new opportunities for more serendipitous standards- based application developments.