The Internet of Things - what the heck is it anyway?

Having held-off for months, Neil McNaughton decides it’s now or never for his attempt to understand the Internet of Things. With a little help (and amusement) from Wikipedia he enumerates some of the plethoric ’standards’ and ‘initiatives’ to conclude that the answer is probably a lemon.

Sometimes Wikipedia really comes up with some good stuff. I have been collecting references and items in preparation for a piece on the ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT) for months now, but have held back as it all sounded how should I say, a bit nebulous.

I will spare you the pain of yet another longwinded description of how ‘things’ are going to ‘connect’ and change our lives, because I am sure that you have heard enough of this stuff already from vendors, the popular press (not that we are not popular) and folks propping up the bar.

Having said that, for those fresh back from a trip to Mars, the IoT is, to quote Wikipedia (but not the good bit), ‘the interconnection of uniquely identifiable embedded computing devices within the existing Internet infrastructure. Typically, IoT is expected to offer connectivity of devices, systems, and services that goes beyond machine-to-machine communications (M2M).’ Of course the IoT has to ‘go beyond’ M2M otherwise it would be something that already existed and of no interest to the marketing department. Quite how it ‘goes beyond’ is unclear.

So what is the IoT really? On the one hand there is the ‘consumer’ IoT, with its poster child ‘Nest’. Nest allows you to play at being a process controller in your own home, switching lights and heating on and off from your smart phone. Having said that, if the endpoint is you, stroking your iPhone’s screen, then this is not really an internet of things.

If I might be allowed a philosophical digression, defining the IoT involves an inversion of Berkeley’s subjective idealism. Bishop Berkeley reflecting on what ‘reality’ really is wondered what happened to the tree in his college quad when he looked away. This led him to speculate that a ‘thing’ only exists when it is observed. I propose that the real IoT only exists when it is not observed!

The other IoT, the non-consumer variety has been variously called the ‘industrial internet’ and ‘Industry 4.0.’ Such systems are neither far-fetched nor new. Automation, control systems, plants have lots of stuff that operates un-observed and autonomously. For them to be a part of the new IoT though, they have to be connected and interacting via the internet—as opposed to being on a local area or process control network. To make things more interesting, this should/has to (according to your viewpoint) work across multiple vendor’s systems.

Now we have heard this one before. Vendors already provide proprietary systems for doing this so their involvement in initiatives that set out to remove the advantage that this bestows needs to be taken with a large pinch of salt.

Most examples of the IoT today are little more than rebranding exercises. If you google IoT and conferences you come up with M2M conferences. OSIsoft has re-baptized its annual PI System hackathon as the ‘Internet of Things hackathon’. GE came out with its Industrial Internet with no apparent change in its product line-up. Kongsberg Maritime has supplied offshore fleet operator Floatel with onshore to offshore satellite data communications from Attunity using guess what, Microsoft’s ‘Internet of your things’. Connectivity between SAP Hana and SK Solutions sensors on cranes and construction vehicles has been re-buzzed into SAP’s own IoT. Schneider Electric’s recent deal with ioBridge has brought us the ‘internet of small things!’ And Intel has announced the IoT Gateway.

The IoT has begotten more initiatives and organizations than you can imagine. While some seem to attempt to consolidate or evolve existing interoperability protocols to provide a working IoT, others, notably the Open Group’s Industrial Internet consortium’s declared intent is to ‘define and develop a reference architecture [...] for interoperability.’ A noble if nebulous goal.

Next up we have the NIST-backed Ontolog’s contribution, an IoT ‘Summit’ working towards ‘smart networked systems and societies.’ Several IoT initiatives address the ‘smart grid,’ the connection of devices in the home to a utility’s computers with some credible usages (fine grained use of off peak power) and some less so (selling electricity you generate driving your Prius around town back to the utility). Nest by the way was acquired by Google last year and has its own IoT protocol, Thread. Other competing groups include AllSeen/AllJoyn (LG, Sony, Cisco and many more including Microsoft—interesting because the AllSeen Alliance is a Linux Foundation project). And yet another—the Open Interconnect Consortium and its IoTivity protocol—another Linux Foundation grouping with a real protocol and backing from Cisco, GE (again) and Intel. And another one, the IPSO Aliance. In fact there are even more. If you are interested read Martin Warwick’s insightful piece on TelecomTV.

To get back to Wikipedia, I always check the ‘talk’ tab behind the main article. Here on the IoT talk page an anonymous contributor asks, ‘Does every marketing cliché/buzzword need its own Wiki page? […] for heaven’s sake delete this crap please!

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