M2M and the Internet of Things: A guide

M2M and the Internet of Things: A guide

Summary: The Internet of Things will consist primarily of machines talking to one another, with computer-connected humans observing, analysing and acting upon the resulting 'big data' explosion. Here's how the next internet revolution is shaping up.


In its initial phase, all of the internet's IP addresses were assigned to computers of one sort or another. Some of these were servers, and a growing number were clients that mostly consumed (but could sometimes modify) content on those servers.

As the internet — and in due course the worldwide web — 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.

There's many a slip between
a potential brave new technological world and a reality that could improve the quality of life of a significant proportion of humankind.

This 'Internet of Things' (IoT), or more prosaically 'Machine to Machine' (M2M) communication, is well under way — 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.

As the authors of the excellent Trillions: Thriving In The Emerging Information Ecology put it: "The data are no longer in the computers. We have come to see that the computers are in the data".

However, as the aforementioned book discusses at length, there's many a slip between a potential brave new technological world and a reality that could improve the quality of life of a significant proportion of humankind. Whether the Internet of Things comes to pass in a satisfying way will depend critically on how the emerging M2M ecosystem is architected.

The anatomy of M2M

Any new field comes with its own concepts and jargon, so it's useful to map these out as clearly as possible: our taxonomy is outlined below.

A point worth stressing is that 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. 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 (eg. solar powered) devices.

The 'things' in the IoT, or the 'machines' in M2M, are physical entities whose identity, state (or the state of whose surroundings) is 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.

These 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, plentiful and can communicate, either directly with the internet or with internet-connected devices.

Comms (local-area)
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 and Wireless M-Bus. There's no shortage of wired links either, including Ethernet, HomePlug, HomePNA, HomeGrid/G.hn and LonWorks.

Libelium's customisable Waspmote sensor/comms board (left) and the Waspmote Plug & Sense enclosure (right), with connections for sensors, antennas, a solar panel and USB PC connectivity.

Comms (wide-area)
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 NeulNET are also emerging to cater specifically for M2M connectivity. Fixed 'things' in convenient locations could use wired Ethernet or phone lines for wide-area connections.

Some modular sensor platforms, such as Libelium's WaspMote (left), 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 different kinds of sensors, this allows devices to be configured for a range of vertical markets.

Server (on premises)
Some types of M2M installation, 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 (right) will usually also connect to cloud-based storage and services.

Libelium's Meshlium gateway, which includes local storage, and a diagram of a ZigBee sensor network.

 Local scanning device
'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 onwards for processing.

Storage & analytics
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.

User-facing services
Subsets of the data and analyses from the IoT will be available to users or subscribers, presented (hopefully) 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.


Topics: Tapping M2M: The Internet of Things, Cloud, Emerging Tech, Networking


Charles has been in tech publishing since the late 1980s, starting with Reed's Practical Computing, then moving to Ziff-Davis to help launch the UK version of PC Magazine in 1992. ZDNet came looking for a Reviews Editor in 2000, and he's been here ever since.

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  • Excellent article

    A clear, comprehensive and prescient piece on M2M. Nicely done. (Disclaimer: I have no financial interest, just an interested observer).
    Manek Dubash
  • Informative Guide

    An easy to read concise overview of the M2M market and opportunities. Extremely beneficial for professionals who have interest in M2M.
  • No such thing as an H2H internet.

    "A point worth stressing is that data transfer patterns in the M2M-driven Internet of Things will differ fundamentally from those in the classic 'human-to-human' (H2H) internet. "

    There's actually no such thing as an H2H internet.

    Protocols such as TCP/IP don't actually care about whether the ultimate destination connects to a human or not. They just transfer data from one point to another. They are completely agnostic as to whether it's upload/download biased, and they are completely agnostic as to whether there's a human on the other end or not.
    • H2H internet

      In one aspect you are correct, in another you are wrong. Humans require monitors, keyboards, complex operating systems with applications. This is largely why the Internet is somewhat not built for M2M. The Internet you have known until now technically is and was H2H internet. The time is now to consider an adjoining M2M internet with new controls. You are correct TCP/IP is not equipped. The internet was built for war and got many things backwards, yet everything built was necessary. Machines have the capability to get straight to the business and even do calculations in the data itself. I believe it foolish that a merger of man and machine not forecast to make BIG PROBLEMS but you cannot stop proprietors that wish to push their wares. Telecom can help, they may soon if we're lucky.
  • You Miss The Point

    H2H doesn't have anything to do with network protocols. It's an observation of network traffic patterns - completely protocol agnostic - and network topologies.
  • At the heart of it all.

    At the heart of all this M2M, or the internet of things, are "Embedded Systems" without which none of it is possible. Now tell me that RIM's acquisition of QNX, a world leader in embedded systems, and their development of the BB10 mobile platform wasn't a very forward looking move on their part. RIM has been positioning themselves to be a leader in M2M for years now.
    • M2M lead

      Somewhat consider how universality is now trumping individual language. As everyone seeks to be the M2M leader, again many new languages are born. One or a few will win and some will perpetuate as a road block to clear communication again. Even the government knows Open Source helps a lot and it will be a winner here too. Diversity has it's own advantage in the natural selection theory of things. If only we could stop the diversity explosions in every little thing we build. This fuels a lack of security so badly.
  • Mess-up of terms?

    Don't you think that M2M and the IoT should be treated as seperate terms? An M2M-connection via Zigbee or other short-range communication protocols does not need any Internet-connection. It may be related to the concept of the Internet of Things. However, these terms should not be used synonymously.
    Dieter Uckelmann
  • Yeah, as soon as full IPv6 gets implimented

    If only all the firbre optic cable were in use. That would allow full IPv6. Then every cow could have its own IP address. With US's medieval version of internet and lack of sound leadership, this is going to take the next 15 to 20 years to roll out. Then 10 years to shake out how to really use it. The current internet infrustructure is not ready for prime time.
  • One word. Skynet.

    Am I the only one who thought that when he read about M-to-M?

    • @ecohistorical: Nope. Sky net was the first thing I thought of as well!

      After skynet, I also thought of the matrix!
      • Skynet

        We are closer to Skynet than you might think. This is why we need a broad discussion on how to protect our assets from machines, people that might tinker with them. Multicasts should have rung some alarm bells from a viral capability standpoint as well. Exponential disease spreading all by a machine is threatening. I believe we can still outsmart machines if we are not foolish as to give them free reign.
  • get it

    M2M is a little difficult to me ,but this article make me get some ideas ,it's nice
  • Many organizations are desperately looking for effective ways to comply

    I agree that "The Internet of Things, powered by Machine-to-Machine communication, is already with us, but remains a massive opportunity.

    Properly implemented, it can retool large parts of the world for better efficiency, security and environmental responsibility — and of course it can generate potentially huge amounts of business for the IT companies that will build and run the systems involved."

    It "can generate potentially huge amounts of business for the IT companies that will build and run the systems involved" and it will be based on Big Data.

    Many organizations are desperately looking for effective ways to comply to new stringent privacy regulations.

    I think that there are several gaps in privacy that need to be filled and now Big Data is adding to this issue.

    A Big Crisis is likely to occur very soon:

    1. A Big Data security crisis is likely to occur and few organizations have the ability to deal with it.
    2. We have little knowledge about data loss or theft in big data environments.
    3. I imagine it is happening today but has not been disclosed to the public.

    I recently read an interesting report from Aberdeen Group that revealed that “Over the last 12 months, tokenization users had 50% fewer security-related incidents(e.g., unauthorized access, data loss or data exposure than tokenization non-users”. The name of the study is “Tokenization Gets Traction”. This type of measurable information about security should be communicated to management. Data tokenization can also add business value and increase creativity by allowing more people to have access to more data in a less risky way than before.

    Ulf Mattsson, CTO Protegrity, +1-203-570-6919.
  • This is the future

    I like the article, very informative. There are many m2m languages that he could have listed. I hope he discusses his thoughts on a merger of man, machine on one set of communication lines. Is this prudent? Will machines come to be a nuisance to humans on their own communication lines?
  • On security

    With security at new lows, violation of encryption looming as a real possibility I think more companies should consider keeping some specific content offline entirely in the interim.