Everyone from telecom service providers to chip-making companies, has been raving about connecting the future with Internet of Things (IoT) devices. On the surface of it, the vision of a connected world seems promising. But there’s one question: are the different technologies that IoT relies on ready to support this new world?
Gartner analysts forecast that 6.4 billion connected ‘things’ will be in use worldwide in 2016, up 30% from 2015, and reaching close to 21 billion by 2020. Industry reports suggest that the global wearable technology market will reach $5.8 billion in 2018, from $750 million in 2012. This indicates a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 40.8% from 2012 to 2018. India is eyeing a share of 5-6% in the $300-billion global IoT industry in the next five years.
Complex tech 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 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 an over-reliance on the user to manage IoT applications in a way that brings him the most value. At the moment the smartphone is the key interface for IoT applications. But how are users meant 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?
IoT ecosystems require highly sophisticated systems for communication and management to ensure interoperability and the seamless user experience that people crave. Frost and Sullivan analysts 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.
Ecosystem for IoT
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 as follows:
“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 inter-operate through partnerships, to innovate in the development of new IoT solutions and to help overcome issues that might arise in a 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. 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 developers that make different IoT applications, and companies that provide the connectivity—as well as policymakers who govern the systems surrounding IoT applications. So, policymakers need to start thinking about IoT traffic differently from traditional data traffic, due to the potentially disastrous consequences of a network failure on electric grids, transport systems, and 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.
—By VS Shridhar
The writer is senior vice-president and head, Internet of Things, Tata Communications.