As the Internet developed, more kinds of (increasingly mobile) computing devices became connected, and Web servers delivered ever-richer content with which they could interact. Although this first Internet/Web revolution changed the world profoundly, the next disruptive development, in which the majority of Internet traffic will be generated by “things” rather than by human-operated computers, has the potential to change it even more.
This “Internet of Things” (IoT), “Machine to Machine” (M2M) communication, is well underway—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.
Data transfer patterns in the M2M-driven Internet of Things will differ fundamentally from those in the classic “human-to-human” (H2H) Internet. M2M communications will feature orders of magnitude more nodes than H2H, most of which will create low-bandwidth, upload-biased traffic. H2H internet traffic is rather download-biased with high bandwidth. Many M2M applications will need to deliver and process information in real time, or near-real-time, and many nodes will have to be extremely low-power or self-powered (e.g., solar-powered) devices.
The “things” in the IoT, or the “machines” in M2M, are physical entities whose identity and state (or the state of whose surroundings) are 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.
Sensors 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 and plentiful and can communicate, either directly
with the Internet or with Internet-connected devices.
Local communication: 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, commodity remote control and sensing communication 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, LTE, or WiMAX for example) and satellite connections. New wireless networks, such as the ultra-narrowband SIGFOX and the TV white-space Zero-G, are also emerging to cater specifically to M2M connectivity. Fixed “things” in convenient locations could use wired Ethernet or phone lines for wide-area connections. Some modular sensor platforms, 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 kinds of sensors, this allows devices to be configured for a range of vertical markets.
Some types of M2M installations, such as a smart home or office, will use a local
server to collect and analyse data—both in real time and episodically—from assets on
the local area network. These on-premise servers or simpler gateways will usually also connect to cloud-based storage and services.
“Things” with short-range sensors will often be located in a restricted area but not permanently connected to a local area network (RFID-tagged livestock on a farm
or credit-card-toting shoppers in a mall, for example). In this case, local scanning
devices will be required to extract data and transmit it onward for processing.
If you think today’s Internet generates a lot of data, the Internet of Things will be another matter entirely. That will require massive, scalable storage and processing capacity, which will almost invariably reside in the cloud—except for specific localised or security-sensitive cases. Service providers will obviously have access here, not only to curate the data and tweak the analytics, but also for line-of-business processes, such as customer relations, billing, technical support, and so on.
Subsets of the data and analyses from the IoT will be available to users or subscribers, presented via easily accessible and navigable interfaces on a full spectrum of secure client devices. M2M and the Internet of Things has huge potential, but currently comprises a heterogeneous collection of established and emerging, often competing, technologies and standards (although moves are afoot here). This is because the concept applies to, and has grown from, a wide range of market sectors.
(from “The tech behind M2M and the Internet of Things” by Charles McLellan in “The Executive’s Guide to the Internet of Things” Tech Republic, ZDNet, 2013)