In this article we’ll take a look ‘under the hood’ of the IoT and delve into the communities developing the industry standards, network infrastructure, devices (‘things’) and industry terms. Whilst still in its infancy, the IoT is generating a buzz about the industry and gaining momentum with several different standards currently competing with each other, and more may be joining the contest soon.
With the IoT set to pick up speed in the coming years over 200 member companies are contributing to the specifications, which provide a standardised framework for communications between wireless-enabled devices. The new standards cover architecture, security requirements, Application Programming Interfaces (API’s) specifications and mapping to industry protocols such as CoAP, MQTT and HTTP.
Having such a set of specifications working together at the service layer to truly stitch the IoT together will allow service providers to support applications and services across a range of industries. This opens up a whole new world – a future of seamless interaction to transform the way we all work and play in the future.
The ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT), or more prosaically ‘Machine to Machine’ (M2M) communication, is well under way — after all, microprocessors are to be found in all manner of ‘things’: domestic white goods, cars, credit cards, your passport, your family pet, the CCTV camera in your street, the lift (elevator) in your office and many more. Add the magic ingredient of internet connectivity (or the ability to be read by an internet-connected device), bake with applications and services that make use of the data gathered by this vastly expanded network, and you’ve cooked up another technology revolution.
The IoT represents a major step forward in the history of the Internet and is truly a state-of-the-art solution to connectivity and interoperability across almost endless applications of use.
The IoT/M2M ecosystem
The current IoT/M2M technology landscape is complex and filled with multiple players. Future IoT applications can be built using any subset of the following ecosystem components that are broadly categorised into four layers as mentioned below:
The ‘things’ in the IoT, or the ‘machines’ in M2M, are physical entities whose identity, state (or the state of whose surroundings) is capable of being relayed to an internet-connected IT infrastructure. Almost anything to which you can attach a sensor — a cow in a field, a container on a cargo vessel, the air-conditioning unit in your office, a lamppost in the street — can become a node in the Internet of Things.
These are the components of ‘things’ that gather and/or disseminate data — be it on location, altitude, velocity, temperature, illumination, motion, power, humidity, blood sugar, air quality, soil moisture… you name it. These devices are rarely ‘computers’ as we generally understand them, although they may contain many or all of the same elements (processor, memory, storage, inputs and outputs, OS, software). The key point is that they are increasingly cheap, plentiful and can communicate, either directly with the internet or with internet-connected devices.
All IoT sensors require some means of relaying data to the outside world. There’s a plethora of short-range, or local area, wireless technologies available, including: RFID, NFC, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth (including Bluetooth Low Energy), XBee, Zigbee, Z-Wave and Wireless M-Bus. There’s no shortage of wired links either, including Ethernet, HomePlug, HomePNA, HomeGrid/G.hn and LonWorks.
For long range, or wide-area, links there are existing mobile networks (using GSM, GPRS, 3G, 4G, LTE or WiMAX for example) and satellite connections. New wireless networks such as the ultra-narrowband SIGFOX and the TV white-space NeulNET are also emerging to cater specifically for M2M connectivity. Fixed ‘things’ in convenient locations could use wired Ethernet or phone lines for wide-area connections.
Some modular sensor platforms, such as Libelium’s WaspMote, can be configured with multiple local- and wide-area connectivity options (ZigBee, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GSM/GPRS, RFID/NFC, GPS, Ethernet). Along with the ability to connect many different kinds of sensors, this allows devices to be configured for a range of vertical markets.
What about the standards?
Six emerging standards are tackling the interoperability of M2M communication, these are as follows:
The Thread Group
Developed by Google’s Nest Labs, ARM and Samsung, Thread is designed to build a low-power mesh network as an alternative to Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and more. Thread, which uses 2.4GHz unlicensed spectrum, is built on existing standards, such as IEEE 802.15.4, IETF IPv6 and 6LoWPAN, meaning that existing devices which use ZigBee / 6LoWPAN etc. can easily migrate to Thread.
It doesn’t rely on a central hub, unlike other smarthome platforms, even though it already connects more than 250 products on the market.
Nest already uses Thread for its smart thermostat and smoke and carbon monoxide alarm, and has also partnered with Mercedes-Benz, Whirlpool and light bulb maker LIFX to integrate their products too.
Open Interconnect Consortium
Unlike Thread, the Open Interconnect Consortium (OIC) is still defining the wireless connectivity requirements that would enable billions of devices to connect with each other.
Set up in June 2014 by Intel, Samsung, Dell and others, OIC is looking to build up on existing technologies, such as Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and Zigbee, with plans to reveal its own open-source software by the third quarter of this year. The organisation is currently focusing on smart home and office technologies and then plans to target vertical sectors like automotive and health care. It also plans to certify devices that are compliant with its standards.
Led by the Linux Foundation and Qualcomm, the alliance includes big names like LG, Sharp, Panasonic and Cisco. The group is working on an IoT standard based on Qualcomm’s AllJoyn opensource code, which members can use in their products for free.
There are now 51 organisations in the alliance, which also welcomes software giant Microsoft.
A group of 40 UK-based companies, including IBM, ARM and BT, have developed an Internet of Things (IoT) standard called Hypercat.
Hypercat is a thin interoperability layer that allows devices, such as lamp posts and smart meters, to interact with each other. Like an address book, it lets applications ask data hubs what types of data it holds and what permission it needs to ask them, making sense of it without human involvement.
Hypercat can browse machines, searches by metadata and uses standards such as HTTPS, Restful APIs and JSON as a data format. Hypercat, which officially passed the first phase of development in June 2014, was developed by 40 UK-based tech firms, including IBM, Intel and ARM, startups and universities that banded together 2 years ago thanks to a £6.4m grant from the UK government’s Technology Strategy Board (TSB)
Apple announced a software platform it claims will allow devices, such as locks, lights and thermostats, to be unilaterally controlled from one app. Apple claim the interface will save users from having to access different home devices through the manufacturers’ respective apps. Manufacturers can also now label their home devices as ‘Made for iPhone/iPad/iPod.
Industrial Internet Consortium
Intel, IBM, AT&T, GE and Cisco formed the Internet Consortium Alliance, an open membership group, earlier last year. Managed by the Object Management Group (OMG), the group is focused on “industrial internet” apps in markets including manufacturing, oil and gas exploration, healthcare and transportation.
The group is likely to collaborate with other research organisations and standards bodies that are already conducting research activities in the IoT space.