Kevin Ashton, a British technology pioneer who co-founded the Auto-ID Center at MIT, which created a global standard system for RFID and other sensors, coined the phrase "Internet of Things" back in 1999. His Internet of Things (IoT) is a system where the Internet is connected to the physical world via ubiquitous sensors. And sensors can be any device that gathers data and reports that data to a data collection facility such as a data warehouse, a database, or log server.
IoT isn't just a fancy buzzword that describes how your refrigerator can let you know when you need to replace your spoiling milk or your rotting vegetables (although it can), it is so much more. How much more is only left to your imagination and to your budget. You can do as little or as much with IoT as you want. For example, if you operate food distribution business, you could install sensors in your trucks that send temperature, humidity, and dock-to-dock travel times back to your home office for analysis. You can also more accurately track the exact expense required to deliver each food product or container to the customer.
The Internet of Things is not just about gathering of data but also about the analysis and use of data.
My best example of gathering and analysis of IoT data is the first instance of such a system: The Coke Machine at Carnegie-Mellon University's Computer Science department, also known as the Internet Coke Machine.
One of the computer science students in 1982, David Nichols, had the original idea to poll the Coke machine so that he didn't waste a trip to the machine to find it empty. He and a group of fellow students (Mike Kazar (Server Software), David Nichols (Documentation and User Software), John Zsarnay (Hardware), Ivor Durham (Finger interface) together to create this now famous connected vending machine.
From their labs, they could check the status of the sodas in the vending machine. I'm pretty sure they didn't realize the international effect this would someday have when they devised their plan. Nor did they realize that anyone beyond themselves would care*.
It doesn't matter that they were trying to save steps or that they were only trying to monitor the status of their favorite bubbly beverages**. But what really matters is that they did it. And they used the data. Their little experiment changed the way we look at "things" and the data that they can produce.
But serious IoT is coming to the world in a big way and has far reaching implications for big data, security, and cloud computing.
So called "big" data is a buzzword that seems to eminate from the most unusual places these days. Mostly from the mouths and fingertips of people who haven't a clue of what it means. What IoT means for big data is that the data from all these "things" has to be stored and analyzed. That is big data. If you look at some of the projections for the next few years, you'll have an idea of what I mean.
Internet-connected cars, sensors on raw food products, sensors on packages of all kinds, data streaming in from the unlikeliest of places: restrooms, kitchens, televisions, personal mobile devices, cars, gasoline pumps, car washes, refigerators, vending machines, and SCADA systems for example will generate a lot of data (big data).
Lots of devices chattering away to centralized databases also means that someone needs to watch the machine-to-machine (M2M) communications. Security is a major issue with IoT. However, several companies including Wind River have made great advances in IoT and M2M security.
Unfortunately, security for IoT is multilayered and expensive to implement. Strong security must exist in the three vulnerable layers: physical, network, and data. By physical, I mean the device itself must be secured with locks, tamper-proof housings, alarms, or out-of-reach placement. Physical security is a primary problem with IoT. Devices that are easily stolen or broken into pose the biggest threats.
Network communications must be secured by VPN or other form of encryption. Man-in-the-middle attacks are common for such devices and manufacturers need to make it difficult for would be attackers.
Data security poses a problem as well. First, there's "data at rest" that's stored locally on the device. Compromise of this information could proved detrimental to the rest of the network because it could reveal other device locations, network topology, server names, and even usernames and passwords. All data at rest should be encrypted to prevent this type of breach.
Second, there's "data on the move" or "data in motion" which is covered in part by encrypted communications but what happens to the data after it lands on a target device, such as a data center server is also important. And the transfer of that data across a network should also be encrypted.
Encrypted devices, encrypted communications over the entire data path, and hardened physical devices make it very difficult to extract value from any recovered information. In fact, the purpose of this multilayered security is to make it far more expensive to glean usable data than the data itself would yield to the criminal or malicious hacker.
You might wonder how cloud computing fits into the IoT world because in the years before cloud computing we did just fine by having our devices report directly to a home server. Nowadays there's so much more data to deal with from disparate sources that cloud computing can play a significant role in IoT scenarios.
For example, if you have a chain of restaurants spread out over a wide geographic area or worldwide, then your data streams in on a continuous basis. There's never a good time for taking your services offline for maintenance. This is where cloud computing comes to the rescue.
Your 'things' can collect data 100 percent of the time with no breaks in service. If you purchase cloud storage, you can filter the data for extracted offload at your convenience. To me, IoT and cloud computing are the perfect technology marriage.
You won't have to keep your ear too close to the ground in 2014 to hear about IoT. If you do, you're just not listening. IoT isn't a marketing term or tech buzzword, it's a real thing. You should learn about it and how it can help your company learn more about itself. Seriously.
If you're losing money on a particular part of your business, then IoT might resolve it for you with better controls, better tracking, and better reporting. Should security, big data, and the cloud computing connection prove to be too overwhelming for you, connect up with a company that knows something about IoT. And if you still don't know where to start, just ask me by using the Author Contact Form.
What do you think about IoT and what it can do for your company? Talk back and let me know.
*If you care, you can read the recollected story from David Nichols and others.
**Admittedly, it would have been cool to do this with a Coke machine but it would have been far more enticing to me, if they'd also hooked up the snack machine to check the availability of Rice Krispies treats or gum. I love gum. I'm a gum freak. You've never seen anyone chew gum like I chew gum. I hope no one ever places gum on the list of endangered things. I might go unhappily extinct.