Photo Credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Internet_of_Things.jpg
What is the Internet of Things (IoT)?
According to Wikipedia, the Internet of Things is defined to be the networking of physical devices, vehicles, buildings, and other items all with special embedded hardware and software that makes each device more intelligent, and more importantly, interconnected to one another via the internet transmitting data related to the “thing” in which we have embedded this intelligence. In 1984, the number of items connected to the Internet was 1,000 and this was largely limited to government computers here in the United States. Gartner claims that 6.4 billion devices were connected to the internet in 2016, up a sharp 30% from 2015. Further, it is estimated that 5.5 million devices are being connected every day at an accelerating pace. Gartner and other researchers are predicting that what we are now classifying “The Internet of Things (IoT)” could be as large as 21 billion devices by 2020 (some sources have this estimate even higher) and these devices will be capturing 50 trillion GBs of data each year.2
Through 2016, the growth of the Internet of Things had resulted largely from increased connectivity of our desktop computers both at home and in the workplace. Of course, the huge popularity of our mobile devices including tablets and cellphones has helped as well. Future growth of the Internet of Things will be driven by the interconnection of devices within our homes, businesses, transportation systems, and more.
We’ve have certainly noticed that our computers have gotten much smaller and much less expensive over the past couple of decades. Today, we are carrying devices in our hands that we call cell phones, but these mobile computing devices are more powerful today than the desktop computers of yesterday. Computer microchips are becoming a low-cost commodity making it more feasible to embed computing hardware into just about anything. We see computers now in our kids’ toys, we see computers in our home appliances and controls, we see computing devices within our cars and public transportation systems, and we are seeing a rise in the use of embedded devices inside our businesses on the shop floor and up and down our business supply chains.
What’s driving our need to add embedded devices into everything? I believe we love the data! Not only do we love the data, we are getting better and better at managing and analyzing this data as well. We are getting so advanced today with our analytics that we can even predict human behavior based on patterns of the past … or present. This is what it is all about … the data! Our biggest and wealthiest organizations on this planet are the major collectors and users of this data, including Google, Apple, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, Walmart and more.
Hardware and Software
Without the success of open-source software development, the growth of the Internet of Things would likely remain constrained due to the likely greed of the proprietary software owner(s). Open-source software platforms have become the norm today, and its success is due largely to the nature of the collaborative development of this software by internet-connected developers all around the world. Developers that simply want to advance their skill or to possibly develop a name for themselves have led to the successful development of Apache, MySQL, PHP, Python, C++, NodeJS, WordPress, Drupal and more. These platforms have become industry standards onto which Apple’s MAC and Google’s Chrome platforms have been deployed.
Unless you are an IT professional, it might be difficult to pay attention and to understand what is happening in the world of cloud computing. “Cloud Computing” is simply a successful marketing term for computing platforms which are accessible via the internet. This isn’t really anything new. Internet connected computers have been around now for decades. So, what is the hype? Cloud computers today are becoming more of a commodity. Businesses like Amazon, Microsoft, Google, and more are organizing today around concept of simplifying the set-up and access to advanced computing platforms, and cheaply. This concept is being marketed as Infrastructure-As-A-Service (IaaS). These same companies pre-load theses computing platforms with software solutions that satisfy personal and business productivity goals and these more intelligent platforms are coined Platform-As-A-Service (PaaS). These IaaS and PaaS systems can be configured today with the push of a few buttons and spun-up for temporary and semi-permanent solutions. The hosting costs for spinning up a small LINUX server today is only a few to tens of dollars per month. Even advanced computing platforms needed to support enterprise class solutions are available via the “cloud”.
It is important here to give credit where credit is due. The growth of the Internet of Things is going to be dependent on the availability of very low cost and very small computing hardware. Well, let’s introduce the Raspberry Pi. The Raspberry Pi Foundation is a charitable organization registered in the United Kingdom. The Raspberry Pi Foundation is championing another collaborative development effort around the world, and thus they are leading a new “maker movement”. More and more people today are exploring the creation of intelligent devices with a computing platform called the Raspberry Pi. The Raspberry Pi today is a full LINUX computing server whose footprint is the size of a credit card and its cost is under $35. Don’t under estimate this “maker movement”. Increasingly, men, women, and their children are exploring all sorts of possibilities for connecting sensors, switches, buzzers, LEDs, and more to a computer and these computers are internet connected. This maker movement is going to contribute to the growth of the Internet of Things, and I personally think the Gartner estimate of 50 billion devices by 2020 is low.
Raspberry Pi right now might be my personal favorite, but I would be remiss if I didn’t at least briefly mention the availability of the Adafruit Arduino and the Espressif Systems ESP8266. Both of these platforms are micro-controllers capable of being programmed to complete simple tasks like monitoring a sensor or controlling a switch and they are WiFi enabled. The ESP8266 is now available at a cost less than $10.00. The ESP8266 isn’t much bigger than my thumb. These two platforms are perfect examples of just how accessible this hardware has become, a sign of what is still about to come.
This past summer, I personally witnessed the introduction of two amazing new Kickstarter campaigns that are going to contribute to the growth of the Internet of Things, and I personally invested in both. One is called Omega2. The Omega2 is being introduced as a $5 Linux computer with Wi-Fi and specially made for IoT. This wouldn’t happen without the maker movement and our insatiable appetites to innovate around the world. The Omega2 is being packaged as a PaaS complete with operating system, programming environments, and Wi-Fi connectivity pre-loaded and ready out of the box. The Omega2 will be configured with 15 GPIO (general purpose input/output) pins for connection to external components.6
Another exciting new Kickstarter project is developing a new product called ReSpeaker. The development of ReSpeaker is being inspired by the huge success of Amazon’s Alexa whereby we are adding voice-activated control to just about everything within our homes. Well ReSpeaker is being introduced at a cost as low as $39 and it is being specially developed to integrate conveniently with Arduino and Linux (thus Raspberry Pi and now Omega2). Do you see a pattern? “Makers” all over the world are important players here with the growth of the Internet of Things and much of this success is building on the open-source success of Linux and related software platforms like PHP, Python, and NodeJS. At the time of this writing, I am still awaiting shipment of both new Kickstarter devices that were due for shipment last November/December. I can’t wait!7
Networking and Communication
Internet protocol is a complex subject all by itself. At the root of internet communication is the requirement that all connected devices need an address. It is kind of tough to deliver a package to the right door if you don’t have the proper address. Currently our internet was built on the Internet Protocol Version 4 (IPv4) and we are running out of addresses. IPv4 is a 32-bit address and it contains a total of 4,294,967,296 addresses. If Gartner’s claim that we have over 6.4 billion devices connected to the internet today, then we are out of IP addresses on the IPv4 system. The world has now introduced a new Internet Protocol Version 6 (IPv6) and this is a 128-bit address that contains 340,282,366,920,938,463,463,374,607,431,768,211,456 addresses.9
The process of connecting devices to one another for the purpose of data exchange is called networking. Networks can be configured as small private networks as within our homes and offices. These small private networks are a form of local area network or LAN. The internet itself is a form of wide area network or WAN as it allows the interconnection of devices across multiple geographic regions. Wide area networks can also be configured and secured for private use and just about all larger businesses today manage their own WAN. Computers talk to one another via multiple forms of Transmission Control Protocol or TCP. Websites themselves are delivered from a host server to your personal (or client) computer via Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) on TCP port 80 and secure websites are commonly delivered via HTTPS on TCP port 443. Other popular forms of transmission are File Transfer Protocol (FTP) and Secure Shell (SSH), typically on TCP ports 21 and 22, respectively.
There are a host of communication technologies that are available to enable connection of devices to one another and to the internet. The most popular communication technologies are Ethernet, WiFi, Bluetooth, Cellular, and Zigbee. These technologies offer advantages and disadvantages over one another as some are perfect for smaller local area networks while others are intended to support larger wide area networks. Some are intended for fast transmission of large quantities of data while others are intended for transmission of small quantities of data. Other emerging communication technologies include Z-Wave, 6LowPAN, Thread, NFC, Sigfox, Neul, and LoRaWAN. All of these communication technologies are being created to suit special case scenarios where range, data requirements, security, and power demands dictate the perfect type of device to support the application.8
Internet security is a huge topic and its importance is getting a whole lot of attention today as we are finding that there is insatiable consumption and exchange of personal information by all of us via the internet. Internet security starts today with a full understanding that all computerized devices are configured to communicate via their TCP ports and software firewalls can be configured to “Allow” or to “Deny” both “Inbound” and “Outbound” communication to/from any and all of the TCP ports available on the device. Not only can TCP communication be allowed or denied, communication can be configured to be “Open to the World” or it can be configured to be open only to one, a few, or many specially identified IP addresses. The process of “granting” permission is often strategically done to establish a specific “Trust” relationship.
While internet security starts with a strong policy for opening and closing ports as well as granting special access privileges, effective cyber security policies go much further. Open data transmissions can be “sniffed” and read by 3rd party machines. This open exchange of data could contain personal information and/or passwords which could and is being used maliciously today by hackers and internet thieves around the world. There is a growing movement toward converting all internet transmission to an encrypted or secure protocol. We are seeing a growing use of HTTPS, SSH, SFTP and other secure protocols around the internet, and the world of IoT is certainly going to need to make use of these standards.
The IoT Security Foundation (IoTSF) has been established to promote standards for deployment and use of IoT devices. The main purpose of the IoTSF is to minimize vulnerabilities in IoT devices that are being exploited with malicious intent. It is one thing to connect our thermostat to the internet and you would likely not consider the data that this device is collecting and transmitting to be sensitive. But today, we are connecting medical equipment, credit card machines, our cell phones, FitBits, and more; and, these devices are certainly putting the transmission of our personal information at risk.
Internet of Things Applications Across Industries
This paper is titled “What is the Internet of Things?” and this question is answered within the sub-title. It is “The Connection of Every Thing”! The Internet of Things is literally everywhere, spanning all industries on this earth. Right from the Wikipedia page, IoT applications are included in industries including media, environmental monitoring, infrastructure management, manufacturing, energy management, medical and healthcare, building and home automation, transportation, metropolitan scale deployments, and consumer applications.1
In the next phase of my studies, or chapter(s) of this writing, I am going to explore Enterprise IoT, Industry 4.0, and concepts for use of IoT in business logistics and supply chain management. Some of the more advanced applications of IoT include robotics and autonomous vehicles, smart buildings, smart cities, smart energy, smart health systems, smart supply chains, and brilliant manufacturing.11 I can’t help but wonder just how long it will take before we consume all the IP addresses available with IPv6. I wonder if 340,282,366,920,938,463,463,374,607,431,768,211,456 addresses will be enough.
- “Internet of Things”. org. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internet_of_things on February 11, 2017.
- Van Der Meulen, Rob. (November 2915). “Gartner Says 6.4 Billion Connected ‘Things’ Will Be in Use in 2016, Up 30 Percent from 2015”. gartner.com. Retrieved from http://www.gartner.com/newsroom/id/3165317 on February 11, 2017.
- Palmquist, Diane and Leal, Tyson. (January 2016). “IoT in the Supply Chain”. inboundlogistics.com. Retrieved from http://www.inboundlogistics.com/cms/article/iot-in-the-supply-chain/ on October 21, 2016.
- “IoT Platform for Smart Supply Chain Solutions”. kaaproject.org. Retrieved from http://www.kaaproject.org/logistics/ on October 21, 2016.
- “Create Your Own Internet of Things (IoT) Device”. coursera.org. Retrieved from https://www.coursera.org/specializations/iot on October 14, 2016.
- “Omega2: $5 Linux Computer with Wi-Fi, Made for IoT”. kickstarter.com. Retrieved from https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/onion/omega2-5-iot-computer-with-wi-fi-powered-by-linux on February 11, 2017.
- “ReSpeaker – Add Voice Control Extension to Anything You Like”. kickstarter.com. Retrieved from https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/seeed/respeaker-an-open-modular-voice-interface-to-hack on February 11, 2017.
- RS Components. (April 2015). “11 Internet of Things (IoT) Protocols You Need to Know About”. RS-online.com. Retrieved from https://www.rs-online.com/designspark/eleven-internet-of-things-iot-protocols-you-need-to-know-about on February 12, 2017.
- “Reserved IP Addresses”. org. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reserved_IP_addresses on February 12, 2017.
- “Welcome to the IoT Security Foundation”. IOTSecurityFoundation.org. Retrieved from https://iotsecurityfoundation.org/ on February 12, 2017.
- Slama, Dirk; Puhlmann, Frank; Morrish, Jim; and Bhatnagar, Rishi M. (2016). Enterprise IoT. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media Inc.