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Research reports place bold claims on the long-awaited arrival of the Internet of Things (IoT). Everyone from telecom service providers to chip-making companies, has been raving about connecting the future with their devices. After much hype, in the coming months and years we are set to see more and more actual IoT-enabled devices powering a range of different connected smart applications designed to improve how businesses operate and people live. On the surface of it, the vision of a connected world seems promising. But one question lingers: are the different technologies that IoT relies on really ready to support this new world?
Gartner analysts forecast that the market for IoT devices is poised to explode and will reach nearly 21 billion connected devices by 2020 according to Gartner. Industry reports such as by CCS Insight also estimate that the global wearable technology market will be worth $25 billion by 2020, indicating that the market is set to grow from 84 million units in 2015 to 245 million units in 2019. India is eyeing a share of 5 to 6 per cent in the USD 300 billion global IoT industry in the next five years as reported by Livemint. These enormous figures show that the IoT – in all its different forms – will span every aspect of our lives.
Complex communication technologies are needed
It goes without saying that with IoT we are facing a new era that relies on ubiquitous networks. Yet, as the future connected world takes shape, we need to solve the challenge posed by the web of complex interconnections. The real enabler for IoT is an inherent ability to distribute the monitoring and control of individual machines without a traditional ‘closed’ network.
A big hurdle in the way of achieving the IoT dream is that there is no cross-industry drive to standardise IoT applications and the interfaces that people use to access them at present. There is also an over reliance on the user to manage their IoT applications in a way that brings them the most value. To illustrate, at the moment the smartphone is the key interface for IoT applications. But how is a user supposed to make sense of the IoT data they hold if they need to access hundreds of individual applications covering areas such as fitness, car diagnostics, energy monitoring, home security, irrigation systems and automated shopping? Consider this alongside the dozens of business and industrial applications they use at work – that’s a lot of work for your average smartphone user.
At the moment, IoT data sets may not be huge, but we are already seeing increasing complexity in different interconnected sets of data, in a smart home for example, where temperature sensors might be linked to the freezer to optimise energy consumption. These IoT ecosystems require highly sophisticated systems for communication and management to ensure interoperability and the seamless user experience that people crave.
Analysts Frost and Sullivan have highlighted that this lack of interoperability among devices and objects is a major hurdle for widespread IoT adoption; and arguably initiatives such as the Open Automotive Alliance – to establish standards for the Android platform for communication between mobile devices and vehicles – only address one part of the IoT puzzle. This is a business issue rather than simply a technical one: McKinsey has highlighted that interoperability is required for 40% of potential value across IoT applications. Without interoperability, IoT devices risk becoming technology for technology’s sake.
What should the ecosystem for IoT look like?
In order to create sustainable growth for businesses, the IoT network will require a layered architectural approach. This architecture must look much like the custom-designed industrial control systems of today, but extended with Internet connectivity and cloud functions. This IoT ecosystem needs to comprise intelligent and embedded systems, networked services, infrastructure, applications, security, analytic tools and professional services. The IoT European Research Cluster SRIA has described the significance of these different layers.
“Sensors provide much of the data gathering, actuators act, radios/communications chips provide the underlying connectivity, micro-controllers provide the processing of that data, modules combine the radio, sensor and microcontroller, combine it with storage, and make it “insertable” into a device. Platform software provides the underlying management and billing capabilities of an IoT network, while application software presents all the information gathered in a usable and analysable format for end users. The underlying telecom infrastructure provides the means of transporting the data while a service infrastructure needs to be created for the tasks of designing, installing, monitoring and servicing the IoT deployment.”
The most crucial aspect of all of this is that “companies will compete at one layer of the IoT value chain”. Yet, the biggest value is derived when the different layers interoperate through partnerships, to innovate in the development of new IoT solutions and to help overcome issues that might arise in a web of increasingly complex web of connections.
When it comes to the network layer of smart cities, for example – just like cloud and mobility in the enterprise – IoT is set to challenge and complicate the network infrastructure seen in smart cities. A failure of network communications within an IoT ecosystem could result in anything from a fitness tracker not syncing with a smartphone, to a loss of notification for a health-related event from a patient being monitored remotely.
Only a combination of open, public Internet and hybrid networking can deliver the levels of reliability, security, scalability and flexibility that the IoT requires. Traditional private WANs are simply too slow, inflexible and expensive for the multitude of different IoT applications and connections. On the other hand – while flexible – the public Internet isn’t reliable enough for the most critical IoT use cases, such as new IoT-enabled safety mechanisms in the airline industry. By using the public Internet together with hybrid networks, which combine the flexibility of the Internet with the security and reliability of a WAN, we are able to build a solid foundation for the IoT world.
Furthermore, there needs to be collaboration between the developers that make the different IoT applications, and the companies that provide the connectivity – as well as the policy makers that govern the systems surrounding IoT applications. So, policy makers need to start thinking about IoT traffic differently to traditional data traffic, due to the potentially disastrous consequences of a network failure on electric grids, transport systems, and future healthcare.
With IoT becoming real, its applications across industries are also witnessing a surge. For example, logistics companies are able to control their cargo remotely in real-time and make adjustments seamlessly at every stage of the supply chain. In smart cities, transportation, infrastructure, energy supply, administration and public safety are all connected to create economic efficiencies, save energy and even save lives.
Yet, only through multilayer architectures, new hybrid networking approaches and real cross-industry collaboration underpinning an IoT ecosystem, can enterprises make the most of the new business opportunities that IoT will bring and improve the lives of entire communities and cities with new smart applications. The opportunities are endless, as things that were previously perceived as being completely separate and unconnected, can now come together, share data, and provide people with new, actionable insights.
The author of this article V S Shridhar is Senior Vice President & Head, Internet of Things, Tata
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