How did we get here?
Our first interactions with computers started with a single screen – the office computer’s monitor. Early computers were standalone devices. When the first mass-market “Web” was created in 1971, a group of computers were able to communicate with each other over a network, and soon Email became the killer app for users on this network.
Over the next 20 years, advances in computing & networking gave us the Internet & the World Wide Web, which in turn radically transformed the pace of innovation. Due to the network effect, the number of computers & network bandwidth grew at a breathtaking pace, which in turn reduced the unit cost of computing & bandwidth at an equally breathtaking pace. Today, many of us interact with at least 6 computing screens – office computer, home computer, smartphone, tablet, smartwatch, smart TV – which are connected to the Internet through one or more networks – Bluetooth, WiFi, Ethernet, cable, DSL, fiber, cellular – and satisfy specific needs & desires in our daily professional & personal lives. So, why stop there?
The low cost of computing & bandwidth means that we can now cheaply & easily connect other “things” in our homes, offices, and cities to the Internet. In 1990, a couple of enterprising engineers connected a toaster to the Internet and demonstrated it at a trade show. Today, there is an Internet-connected version of almost every device or appliance found in the home or office.
But we are just getting started. By some estimates, there will be 50 billion devices connected to the Internet by 2030.
What makes the Internet of Things possible?
The main factors that have enabled the emergence of the Internet of Things are:
- Cheap devices – From simple sensors to fully-certified network connectivity modules, the costs of IoT devices are low enough for both consumers & businesses.
- Ubiquitous connectivity – The presence of multiple wired & wireless networks in homes & offices, and across cities, enable these IoT devices to be cheaply & easily connected to the Internet.
- Cheap computing – Moore’s law has enabled computing in the cloud & at the edge to become cheaper & cheaper, so powerful software can be used to analyze data from these IoT devices, and sophisticated artifical-intelligence & machine-learning-based algorithms can manage & control them.
- IPv6 – Unlike the IPv4 protocol, which saw its last unassigned IP addresses allocated in 2011, the IPv6 protocol provides enough IP addresses to accommodate all the IoT devices that will ever be connected to the Internet.
Internet of Things Topology
The general topology of an end-to-end Internet of Things system consists of:
- IoT devices – Most IoT devices fall into one of these 2 categories (or are a combination of the two):
- Sensors – These devices are designed to monitor something specific in their surroundings & communicate the results to a computing device. Examples include sensors for motion, water/leaks, light, temperature, heat, etc.
- “Kinetic” devices – These devices are designed to perform an action when instructed to do so by a computing device. Examples include locks, actuators, alarms, etc.
- PAN/LAN – The IoT devices communicate with Edge devices over a Personal Area Network or a Local Area Network, over one or more of these common protocols – RFID, BLE, NFC, Zigbee, Z-Wave, Bluetooth, WiFi or Ethernet.
- Edge devices – If the IoT devices are not directly connected to the cloud, which is the case in most homes & offices, they communicate over the PAN or LAN with a smartphone or a gateway. A smartphone can be used to connect Bluetooth, BLE or NFC-based IoT devices on one side to the WAN on the other side. A gateway can be used to connect Zigbee, Z-Wave, Bluetooth, BLE, NFC & RFID-based IoT devices on one side to a wired or wireless LAN on the other side. These edge devices provide a bridge to the cloud, or in many cases, run software that directly analyzes the data from the IoT devices and controls them.
- WAN – The Wide Area Network connects the IoT devices to the cloud (through the edge devices), using cellular, cable, DSL or fiber data connections.
- Cloud computing – The cloud is where all the complex analysis & control software resides. Due to the emergence of inexpensive cloud infrastructure that can be rented from the likes of Amazon, IBM, Microsoft & Google, complex home, office & city IoT solutions can be implemented at very low cost.
- Fog computing – In many cases, all the IoT analysis & control software cannot be implemented in the cloud, due to security, privacy, performance or other issues. In such cases, the software runs on the edge devices, bringing intelligence & processing closer to where the data is created.
What does the Internet of Things enable?
The Internet of Things is transforming the world around us into a constantly-connected, intelligent, cohesive one. The 6 major areas undergoing transformation are:
- Smart objects – By attaching low-cost RFID tags & Bluetooth beacons, “dumb” physical objects can be connected to the Internet, to help people nearby to learn about & interact with these objects
- Smart homes – Will improve residents’ safety & comfort, and lower their energy expenses
- Smart buildings – Will lower operating costs (energy, water), implement predictive & preemptive maintenance, and improve workforce’s productivity
- Smart cars – Will improve riders’ productivity & safety, and lower city congestion & pollution
- Smart cities – Will lower operating costs (energy, water), improve workforce’s productivity, improve air quality, and improve safety
- Smart medicine – Will lower patients’ costs (remote diagnosis & treatment), improve response to intermittent patient symptoms, improve medical staff’s productivity
But can we call a system that remotely monitors & controls IoT devices “smart”? In a general sense, yes, but the tremendous advances in artificial intelligence & machine learning will make these systems truly smart. Sophisticated AI & machine-learning-based algorithms running both in the cloud & at the edge (fog computing) will be able to analyze and understand the situation, and then react appropriately, without any human intervention.
What are the challenges facing the Internet of Things?
The Internet of Things promises to change the way we live, but it does come with significant challenges that will need to be overcome to make sure that the benefits outweigh the risks. The main challenges are:
- Security – Hackers have already managed to penetrate unsecured smart home devices to install malware that then attacks other Internet sites. The problem will get a lot worse if critical connected devices in offices, hospitals, cities, etc. get compromised. For the Internet of Things to succeed, a robust set of security schemes & protocols need to be enabled, and diligently implemented.
- Data ownership – A battle has already started brewing on who owns the vast amount of data generated by connected cars – car manufacturers want to own the data, but the independent service & repair shops also want access, so they don’t get locked out of future revenue. New partnerships & business models will need to be created to share the data without causing data security issues.
- Powering billions of IoT devices – To be truly valuable, IoT devices will need to be continuously on & connected, so they are collecting data & acting on it throughout the day. Continuously powering these billions of devices in buildings & cities will need new power distribution & management schemes.
- Handling all the resulting e-waste – Our e-waste from frequently-replaced computers, mobile phones, tablets & TVs is already polluting drinking water & causing harm to ecosystems around the world. The additional e-waste from billions of discarded IoT devices is going to make the problem exponentially worse. We need new strategies & methods to limit & dispose the resulting e-waste, if we are to benefit from the Internet of Things without harming life on earth.
Over the next few years, the Internet of Things will make our homes, offices, cars, cities & even our bodies better. But the true holy grail of IoT will be when all these individual smart areas start communicating & collaborating with each other to form a single cohesive system – a “smart world”.
Are you building an IoT product or service, and need help to complete the entire solution? Contact us to learn more about how we help companies like yours get to market quickly and economically.
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