Monday, March 22, 2010

What the Internet of Things is NOT

The “Internet of Things” is a very popular term that many mention but few seem to exactly know what is about. Is one of those buzzwords that are gaining momentum and that walk the line, still uncertain if they will reach the other side. As a good buzzword, the IoT is rather abstract, and aside conceptual definitions, it is very hard to tell exactly what the Internet of Things is. Is because of that that rather than talking about what the IoT is, I will talk about what the IoT is not. With some luck, that will narrow down the scope for a more focused discussion in the future.

The IoT is not ubiquitous/pervasive computing

As if Weiser wouldn't have been referenced enough since he predicted the second wave of computing (4925 times according to Google, and counting), some seem to use interchangeably the IoT and the ubiquitous computing concepts. Although the miniaturization of computing devices and the ubiquitous services derived from their data is probably a requirement for the IoT, pervasive computing is NOT the Internet of Things. Ubiquitous computing doesn't imply the use of objects, nor it requires an Internet infrastructure. The miniaturized devices that Weiser envisioned could represent anything, and provide data for anything. And of course, in 1991, there was little Internet to go around, and although it could have formed part of the ubiquitous computing vision, I don't think it could be argued that global network connectivity was ever a requirement for that vision.

The IoT is not the Internet Protocol

The Internet as we know it can be used globally because clients and servers use the same protocol for communication: the Internet Protocol (IP). It therefore appears logical that the Internet of Things must also run the IP (since is the same Internet, some might say), and that all the new clients to this extended Internet, the “things”, must connect to the same network and therefore run the Internet Protocol as well, right? Wrong. Of course, in a perfect world of limitless power on effortlessly miniaturized wireless devices integrated in everyday things, this would be true. But the reality is that the technologies that have the greatest potential, in terms of size and cost, to empower most of the IoT in the short term, can not run the Internet Protocol because they just don't have enough juice to do it. Examples of this are RFID or Wireless Sensor Networks. Some will argue that there are new low power versions of the IP aiming to running on very constrained devices. Acronyms such as 6LowPAN, ROLL or IPSO will surely be mentioned in those arguments. It is true that the IETF and other standardization bodies are making great efforts to reduce the footprint of IPv6 and related protocols, but they are still IP: a passive RFID tag can not run the IP, nor do many wireless sensor nodes based on the low-end hardware specs, which are precisely the cheapest ones and the most likely to become pervasive. What is more, there are already hundreds of millions of RFID tags and wireless sensor nodes out there, not to mention several billion mobile phones (largely without IP capabilities). Is the IoT going to be an elitist group of only IP-capable devices of which existing old or just cheap devices can not be part?

The IoT is not communication technologies

I was recently at a workshop where NEC Europe described LTE as an enabler for the Internet of Things. Be LTE as it may the next generation of cellular networks (with the permission of HSPA+), I have my reservations in that it has anything to do with enabling the IoT. If is about global connectivity, other older cellular technologies, although slower, also provide the same (or more) pervasive connectivity. In any case, the same reasons given for the IP apply, since Internet over cellular networks is implemented nowadays via IP stacks on the cellular modems. A similar reasoning can be applied to many other technologies that some insist in equalling to the Internet of Things. Technologies such as WiFi, Bluetooth, ZigBee / 802.15.4, 18000-7 come to mind. It is obvious that if things are going to be wirelessly connected to the Internet, they are going to need wireless communication technologies, the same way the “regular” Internet needs WAN and LAN connection technologies (e.g Ethernet) to interconnect millions of computers. However, we can not say that those technologies are the Internet, although they certainly might be part of it.

The IoT is not embedded devices

Words such as RFID or wireless sensor networks (WSN) have often been heard when discussing about he Internet of Things. Indeed, visionaries at the Auto-ID centre and other people working on RFID circa the year 2000 appear to be responsible for coining the term. They envisioned what is today the EPCnetwork, a set of distributed Internet resources that gather, filter, store and discover RFID data. Maybe because the term was never formally defined, because the vision has been extended with new technologies, or maybe just because other disciplines have seen on the Internet of Things an opportunity to attract an increasing interest, the IoT has come to mean much more that just networked RFID systems. Furthermore, too many times has RFID been used to describe what the IoT is without painting the back-end information infrastructures into the picture. If something the IoT is certainly not is a bunch of RFID tags attached to objects an read by random RFID readers. Another technology that has recently become popular when describing the IoT are sensor systems in general, and WSN in particular. This equivalence is even more inaccurate, because while RFID systems have at least certain standardized information architectures to which all the Internet community could refer, global WSN infrastructures have never been standardized and many, many times, not even considered. Some may say, however, that global Internet based sensor standards exist, to which I would reply: yes, but they were not built with “things” in mind (i.e they don't have a standardized way for uniquely identifying things!)

The IoT is not the applications

I recently read an article by The Hammersmith Group in which they talk about plants asking to be watered using wireless sensors, wine racks that know which bottles are stored and medicine bottles that issue warning if the medicines are not taken on time. They titled this article “The Internet of things: Networked objects and smart devices”. What we see here is another common misuse of the Internet of Things, very related with the pervasive computing issue described above. Think about somebody using Facebook or Google at the beginning of the 90's to describe what the Internet is. But is worse, because although I'm sure that we agree that Google is not the Internet, at least is well accepted that is an Internet-wide service. All these applications that many are describing as the IoT are just small services on an Internet-like scale. So, not only is absurd to use Internet application and services to describe the Internet itself, but it is even more illogical to refer to small applications that would have no real impact on a global Internet


David Ryan said...

I disagree with some of your negated definitions. I think by definition "Internet" means that it is compatible with IP. I'd say that many wireless sensor networks and RFID solutions do not fit with the IoT.

I'd define an IoT device as being anything that can be routed to/accessed via IP address. IoT is broadening the reach of the Internet to embedded devices.

My 2c worth.

Toplus said...

Hi David,

Thank you for your input. I think that we agree in that the IoT must be part (or be an extension to) the current Internet. However, I don't agree that all IoT devices should be connected via IP. Let's recall that the term "Internet of Things" used to refer, not so long ago, to networked RFID systems. In those systems (the EPC Network), while the networked components (i.e from readers up) are connected to the Internet via IP, the "thing" components (i.e the tags) are connected using the readers as bridges to the Internet. While definitely the meaning of the IoT has been broadened, I don't think it has changed as to exclude what previously used to be called the IoT.

As I was trying to point out in the post, I believe that requiring IP for all things would jeopardize the IoT realization for the same reason that requiring active RFID (as opposed to passive) would jeopardize the RFID adoption: is just too expensive for a global deployment. From an IoT point of view, I don't think that a non-global deployment makes much sense.

razvan784 said...

The "full" Internet is the computers and routers communicating through wires and fiber and radio using IP. So it is both the communication technologies, the hardware and the protocols. Protocols include TCP/IP and application-level protocols. There's no Internet with only TCP/IP and nothing running on top of it, because TCP is transport, it's not self-initiating communication. So yeah maybe the IoT uses (will use?) different devices and protocols but then the IoT is *embedded devices* *communicating* through some protocols which are interfaceable to the Internet and running some useful *applications*. What else would it be if not some devices communicating in order to run some functional application? An immaterial concept described using words written on a piece of paper/screen?

Precyse Technologies said...

I wanted to share with you an excellent article I recently ran into by Mckinsey’s business Technology office. The story’s title is “the Internet of Things” and it is closely related to what Precyse is doing today and our vision of a world of made-smart, interconnected assets. Today, more and more objects are becoming embedded with sensor enabled wireless communication devices – a “cell phone” for assets – gaining the ability to communicate. The resulting information networks promise to create new business models, improve business processes, and reduce costs and risks. “In most organizations, information travels along familiar routes. Proprietary information is lodged in databases and analyzed in reports and then rises up the management chain. Information also originates externally—gathered from public sources, harvested from the Internet, or purchased from information suppliers. But the predictable pathways of information are changing: the physical world itself is becoming a type of information system. In what’s called the Internet of Things, sensors and actuators embedded in physical objects—from roadways to pacemakers—are linked through wired and wireless networks, often using the same Internet Protocol (IP) that connects the Internet. These networks churn out huge volumes of data that flow to computers for analysis. When objects can both sense the environment and communicate, they become tools for understanding complexity and responding to it swiftly. What’s revolutionary in all this is that these physical information systems are now beginning to be deployed, and some of them even work largely without human intervention.”

Precyse is delivering customers with asset network solutions today. Very much like the internet in its early days, these are typically closed-loop asset networks that enables high value assets, like engines or transmissions on an automotive manufacturing line, to communicate their location and status along the process, providing manufacturers with Real Time supply chain Visibility and the ability to exercise proactive, real time management. We see these asset networks expanding all the time, first from the OEM to the supplier, then to ports, vessels and eventually into a global information network that allows assets to communicate with computers and people – adding Anything to the familiar Anywhere, Anytime global communication backbone, making the internet of things a reality. Please feel free to contribute – we are always on the lookout for new ideas or cooperation to shape the future of the internet of things. Post your comments below or get in touch with us today! You can read the full story by Mckinsey here:

Florian Michahelles said...

Hi Tomas,
thank you very much for your nice blog - I like the discussion you've created...

I would still like to add social networks making sense of user's preferences and relationship to each other, a very important component to also expand the IoT beyond business corporations to everyday users. Concerning enablers, there is no way around mobile technologies, especially mobile phones, our daily companions. Yes, mobile phones are NOT the IoT but a major gateway to services and urban sensing.
What I actually would like to emphasize most are the business aspects. more


Dear Myself said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dear Myself said...

I like this post. The mentioned five "what the IoT is not" are seems to be actually fundamental technologies to enable IoT when they come together. Also, as mentioned in the article, what we really need for realizing IoT is the back-end information infrastructure on top of ubiquitous computing, embedded systems, Internet, communicaiton protocols, and various types of application supports. I think the back-end infrastructure will require new or at least extended global identification and architecture to realize Internet of things if we agree that current EPCglobal is not an "enough" infrastructure to connect all around us.

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