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Overview of IoT (Internet of Things)

Written By: 

Anand Tamboli


Can you start by giving us an overview of the concept of Internet of Things? If you had to outline its functional/building blocks, how would you?

As Internet of Things is quickly becoming a reality, it is intriguing more and more developers as well as prospective users. In a simplistic view, IoT can be seen as a sophisticated network of things. Things that are not just typical computers or mobile phones or machines but the things like door-lock, diapers, watches or anything you believe in to make life smarter and easier. It is excellent combination of multiple technologies to enable better life. The Internet of Things is the collection of objects on the internet or network that humans rely on to make their lives easier.

Until recently, information was gathered separately and then input into computerized systems to summarize and make sense of it. However, with advent of IoT, things that are going to give data would speak themselves up and perhaps would tell you much more than what you figure out with routine data-mining methods.

Internet of Things primarily needs 3 building blocks to make it functional. These are, a thing itself which could be door-lock, water tank, etc., then a connecting mechanism such as RF transmitter / receiver, NFC, Bluetooth, etc. and a stable & secure communication method or protocol.


What are the major considerations to be kept in mind while designing something to be connected to the Internet of Things? Is low power the only criteria?

It is obvious that not all the devices in network are going to be line powered. Some will be battery powered where low power consumption is going to be the key. This not only affects the battery replacements or charging cycles but also mobility of the device or the thing connected.

The most critical part I see is the one where IoT is presented to end users in most useful and simplistic form. Too many people don’t think about electricity separately, what they think about instead is turning on TV, lighting the room or playing music, electricity for that purpose is just a media or one of the enablers. In short, these all things are applications of electricity. Similarly, in order to make an IoT product, converting it into a useful and meaningful application is going to be the key. Technically, it is easier to make a product and have RF or Bluetooth connectivity built-in to it. However, it doesn’t necessarily make it IoT enabled product…why…because the application that product serves doesn’t dictate so. How not to overwhelm general users and still make sense of product is going to be tough and that will be one of the key drivers to make IoT a success and larger reality.

Interestingly, designers also need to answer many trivial but critical questions; e.g. what would smart-phones and TVs and refrigerators and cars and locks and smart clothes and whatever else would talk about with each other? Seemingly simple question raises many underlying complexities in design of such devices and systems.

From purely designers’ perspective, security, identity management, semantics, compatibility with multiple communication standards, lower power, lower costs and nil or least interference would be the major criterion for IoT based products. In some very specific cases, safety will also be significant factor to be considered.


Part 2

Can you fill us in on some of the latest product/technology offerings specific to the IoT? What kind of extension of functionality do they offer?

As of today, things are scattered. I mean, there are devices which offer Bluetooth lower power connectivity, devices which offer sensor interfacing and devices providing computing platforms. People are building things by combining these in their own pleasing manner and making devices that could work as IoT applications. Technology per se has not yet presented with something ground-breaking which is solely intended for IoT designs.

Some products on the other hand like PlantInk, Twine, TweetPee, are receiving good feedbacks that are quite good attempts for IoT enabled devices. However, we are yet to see some serious developments on IoT applications where true potential of IoT can be demonstrated.


Is the IoT concept waiting for newer technologies, more suited to its needs, to expand its wings or is it the other way round with industry players keeping a close eye on the IoT growth?

Yes and No. People are not waiting for newer technologies since there is nothing as such called starting point for IoT devices. These are being designed and developed continuously with recursive modifications as and when newer technologies are getting available.

We must understand that it is symbiotic eco-system of developers and enablers; one has to take initiative for other to work on it and vice-versa. If we wish chip makers to integrate some critical protocol into their hardware design, developers need to start making and using it in software form for some time. The need to integrate it on chip would obviate sooner or later. On the other hand, if chip makers create some enabler for better use of technology, developers would prefer to use it rather than re-inventing the wheel.


Are there any specific needs that need to be addressed by the processors and IP used for IoT technologies? Can you elaborate on how they are different?

The Internet of Things is currently limited by the fact that many developers have embraced a plethora of incompatible protocols for communicating with their devices. These protocols are effectively different languages. And as a result of that, devices connected to the internet often can't speak to each other even if they want to. In my opinion, this is going to be the critical aspect sooner as the proliferation of such devices is increasing rapidly. Protocol, therefore is a prime need to be addressed at this stage. Such protocols and mechanisms or semantics could take shape of IP in coming days.

Processors on the other hands are delivery mechanisms for these IPs. For instance, a processor can have ubiquitous protocol built-in its hardware to enable IoT based devices and applications deliver more value at lesser cost. We already have processors and controllers delivering 802.11 and similar protocols in their built-in hardware. Built-in communication stacks could be great advantage in designing and building IoT based device or system since major time is usually spent in integration of protocol stacks with external things.


Part 3

The next generation of internet applications using Internet Protocol Version 6 (IPV6). Why is IPV6 important for IoT?

I think nothing would be more dangerous to rapid expansion of IoT than proprietary standards emerging out with every new IoT based product which eventually impede free flow of data. This is where IPV6 comes into picture. The older protocol, IPV4 has limitation on number of assignable IP addresses whereas IPv6 provides an almost unimaginable number of IP addresses — 18 quintillion blocks of 18 quintillion possible addresses; this means more connectivity and more possible devices in the network. Besides this, better communication interoperability will be another advantage with IPV6. In all, it’s been very long that IPV4 is in use, time to upgrade now!


The IoT means more sensors and devices and thus more data – how is security addressed? What security issues will be important for IoT and how can its safe and ethical use be ensured?

Absolutely, more sensors would produce more information and more data for sure. And that would definitely pose security threats as that of we face in today’s internet world. However, it should be appreciated in early stages of IoT that unlike internet, issues and solutions would not be same or follow same pattern. As there is major hardware involvement in applications, type of issues and their solutions would be different.

As I foresee, most of the security issues would be related to inter-communication between things (or devices) connected on network, where alteration of data and information might occur. This alternation or interference could further result into mis-representation of things, may cause disruption in interconnected systems or may even result into some unprecedented stoppage of certain work. And the best way to address most of the issues would be to take pre-emptive actions in design phase of these applications as well as protocols, methods, etc. Vulnerability for a device increases when it has a feature (which is also weakness for these types of threats) of re-writable software and firmware. If majority of configuration and settings are alterable easily, exposure of thing in internet would be more since any other thing could in network could cause it to alter. By management of multilayer device design approach threats could be contained on much outer levels which could add-up to safety capability of device.

Regarding ethical use, I feel the term itself is quite relative in nature. Yet, if we can ensure that anything that would be part of IoT could be made oblivious at times and sufficiently guarded, it will, to larger extent, ensure that judicial use of IoT is done. Multi-level filtered accessibility for device could also be deployed to ensure that use is appropriated.


IoT is beyond smart watches and home automation systems. It sounds interesting. For starters, could you give us a broad overview of the physical (embedded system / sensors) and logical (information systems) components of this system?

Physical computing systems are nothing but embedded systems of some sort. These embedded computers do some work based upon preset and predefined logic. Sensors act like eye, nose, ear, etc. of such an embedded computer. Based upon various types of sensors and their output embedded system acts and functions continuously. Now, in most of the cases, this information, so gathered from physical world using sensors is local to the system and is used by the system for some work under routine circumstances. However, when we start thinking in terms of many such interconnected systems and making sense out of the information all of them would generate, we start working on a totally different level.

On a broad level, there are local embedded systems including sensors, which sense various environmental parameters as well as physical and chemical parameters of pipeline. These systems would get deployed over many kilometers of pipeline at predefined interval. All these physical computers send individual data to central server located in head office or oil / gas company where bigger picture out of multiple data-points gets visualized. The logical system part consists of a web application that would do the number crunching job and then provide meaning and actionable output to maintenance staff.


Part 4

This sounds like a sensor network. So, would any sensor network qualify as an IoT application? What are the basic credentials an implementation must have to qualify as a smart system in the IoT era?

Per se only sensor network may not qualify as an IoT application. Although, by definition, The Internet of Things refers to uniquely identifiable objects and their virtual representations in an Internet-like structure (not necessarily use internet).

However, it must be noted that anything that involves humans interacting or causing to interact can no longer be called an Internet of Things. We may choose to call it an Internet of Humans and Things (IHAT?) or something like that, but surely not an IoT. So, in short, all sensor networks may not qualify as an IoT applications.

An implementation of such system must have uniquely identifiable entities in it which provide access to their information via some standard secure protocol to any other system or entity (including human). And another important factor; these together should serve some application that required interconnected things (hence the name IoT).

Although this is not a comprehensive list of requirements, yet it covers some of the crucial ones.


You are claiming that the IoT does not involve/ should not cause human interaction – how is that possible? There are several IoT products, including health monitors, fitness monitors, elderly care, etc., which involve a large amount of human interaction. Can you give some examples to show that IoT does not involve human interaction?

Yes indeed! If there is interaction between device and human / user, then it is no different than whatever existed since last two decades. If that is the case, then we should say that IoT is in existence since 80s. However, it is

not the reality. When we add capability to a device (or devices) to interact with each other without humans helping them, then only it makes sense to call it as Internet of Things; else it is same as human-machine interaction which exists in its mature form even today. Now one thing must be clearly understood that humans could be beneficiaries of results or information generated, presented and transmitted by these devices, what humans won’t do here is controlling the devices on ongoing basis which will defeat the purpose of device being majorly autonomous.

I am (and many other true believers of IoT are) concerned about some people abusing this (IoT) term for marketing purpose or just like a gimmick; where it is being used irrelevantly. We all know for a fact that health monitors or fitness monitors a typical device use by healthcare professionals; how does it suddenly becomes IoT application without any autonomous interaction? GPS technology is old too and one was able to track mobile phones using triangulation method in last two decades too; then how a tracking device by itself becomes IoT application today? Well, it does not ! To a device (or sensor) be IoT compatible or IoT based application, it should have very least or no human interaction (for its control).

Although, I do understand that this point could be debatable within various technologists and that would be fair enough.


How does one take a simple application like say traffic monitoring or building security and re-think it in the lines of the IoT era? That is, what extra technological capabilities can one build into traditional systems with the power of the IoT, and what is the starting point for a system design engineer to redesign a system on these lines?

Well, for example, consider simple automatic water level controller or traffic signal. As such they are good examples of embedded systems functioning for some utility. However, if we are to make these rudimentary systems interconnected, we first need to identify what will be the potential use by interconnecting them together. If these are two totally different things or systems (such as traffic signal and water level controller) both may not be useful to each other. However, if there is water level controller and building utility meter / management system; tying then together under IoT paradigm makes sense. So, system designer should first figure out operative uses of such application and accordingly figure out what changes to make to make system IoT enabled.


What kind of businesses, you think, will expand and, what kind of businesses will disappear with the advent of IoT? What are some interesting real world examples of IoT in industrial settings?

Well, sensors are the future of distributed data. General-purpose computing is dissipating and becoming increasingly embedded into our lives with the advent of IoT. We are starting to move sea of data, have our movements monitored and our environments measured and adjusted to our preferences, without need for direct intervention. This means new opportunities for sensor designers, active sensor mechanisms and wireless technology / protocol developers. Additionally, design houses with smarter design capabilities would flourish and make sensible contributions to the IoT world. Overall, electronics industry has great potential in near future.

Additionally, as general purpose computing is becoming past, most of the things that are based on it would start becoming smaller and then disappear. So would the businesses that are based on general purpose computing.

Some of the value of any machine is in its controls. By running them remotely and upgrading them every night like a Web service, machines can be constantly improved without any mechanical modifications. The industrial internet means that machines will no longer be constrained by the quality of their on-board intelligence.

In industrial settings, IoT is still in conceptualization and implementation stage. I don’t recall if there are any commercial full IoT solutions available yet. However, initiatives like OpenXC - a Ford program that gives Android developers access to drive-train data, signify the coming of plug and play intelligence. In this a driver not only stocks his car with music and maps through his phone, but can also provide his own software and computational power for the car’s drive-train, updated as often as his phone. One driver might run software that adjusts the car’s driving characteristics for better fuel economy while another will do for sportier performance. This type of customization could bring about a wide consumer market in machine controls.


Part 5

Where do you see the IoT and its technologies creating the most impact?

A few decades ago when computer and inter computer connectivity was new, only businesses and serious users of computers used inter-networking capability or methods. However, when people started working on things that can be done with inter-networked many computers, internet was born. Similarly, even today we use so many embedded systems and devices and simultaneously, we are also avid and regular users of internet. But when designers start combining these two to create meaningful applications that could make life simpler, smarter and easier, things would impact the most.

One could make some fancy application for hobby or limited group use purpose. While it may be called as IoT; it won’t be impacting much. Number of people using certain kind of IoT application could be perhaps one of the measures to decide if the application is most impactful or not. For instance, there is online Google code sand-box and there is online Google search engine too. Both by same company but have different no. of users; and we know which is more impacting than other, reason – no. of lives it touches and improves!

Who would be those users and where would they use this technology or any device is totally unknown as of today; however, if there are too many of them existing, that device could be certainly one of the most impactful ones.


How do you think Indian designers can contribute in IoT development?

Many other countries where IoT is already on fast pace, people have come up with many applications that cater to IoT base. However, I have seen that all those are quite monotonous in nature and do not really show or utilize IoT potential. If you search over internet, you would realize that there are only a few typical applications based on IoT such as smart-watches, home automation, home plantation and access controls. I think IoT is much bigger than that. Have a look around and one could figure out so many potential applications of IoT there itself.

See in kitchen, one fine day house-wives suddenly realize that LPG is exhausted and they need new cylinder which causes enough inconvenience; why can’t we work on that application where you get advance alerts and not only that but order for new cylinder can also get placed in advance.

See in your living room, where you might spend many useful minutes in finding TV remote sometimes. Can something be done to make it simpler?

My point is, if we look around carefully, there are umpteen no. of potential applications which are untouched and which could actually solve real-life problems and make living simpler – smarter. IoT is all about that. And I think Indian designers can very well take lead in developing such applications while rest of the world is still working on smart watches and door locks.