What is this “Internet of Things” thing, anyway?

I’m going to start the odd bit of blogging aside from the weekly Tips that will carry on making their way onto this blog. Here is the first in a short series looking at the Internet of Things.

The term “Internet of Things” (or IoT) has achieved buzzword fever pitch in 2014, thanks in part to a slew of product announcements at the Consumer Electronics Show in January. Combined with high-profile acquisitions (such as Google’s purchase of smart home technology company, Nest), there have been many news stories which associated the subject of the piece with the Internet of Things.

imageEven people who work in the IoT world sometime struggle to articulate what it actually is. There are several ways of looking at IoT, however, and some of the scenarios are only being developed now and will become both significant and disruptive in ways that we probably don’t yet understand. There are, in fact, numerous types of “Internet of Things” application.

The consumer market provides plenty of examples of devices measuring and reporting data back to some kind of service that allows users to use that data for some purpose that would otherwise be difficult or impossible without this technology. “Wearable technology” is a category that typifies this approach.

Industrial Internet of Things applications have often existed for years, just under different names – M2M, SCADA, telemetry of numerous sorts – though are being combined in new ways and with new variants of technology, to open up new scenarios such as telematics. Industrial uses could mean using IoT technology to control a manufacturing process, to monitor complex machines in the field, extending even to remotely monitoring cars for the purposes of insurance, road tolling, safety and performance improvements.

Finally, companies will find a way to use IoT technology inside their own environments, offering up data that is consolidated from other systems and collected using sensors, to be combined with customer relationship management systems, building control systems and a host of other uses.

The interesting thing is, the majority of these examples won’t connect the many things to the Internet at all – maybe the devices and sensors at the very edge of the system will be individually addressable, but they almost certainly won’t be directly connected to the internet. Other groups have tried to establish alternative definitions – some talk or a “Sensor mesh” or a “Network of sensors", and Cisco, for example, talks about the “Internet of Everything” (and has some other, intriguing ideas such as Fog Computing… it’s like Cloud Computing but nearer the ground). It looks like the term IoT has stuck, at least until we stop talking about it as if it’s something special or something different, rather than just the normal way that these things work.

The definitive definition of the Internet of Things

The term “Internet of Things” was coined in 1999 by Kevin Ashton, from Proctor & Gamble, then at MIT. He later wrote, in 2009:

“Nearly all of the data available on the Internet were first captured and created by human beings—by typing, pressing a record button, taking a digital picture or scanning a bar code. The problem is, people have limited time, attention and accuracy—all of which means they are not very good at capturing data about things in the real world. If we had computers that knew everything there was to know about things—using data they gathered without any help from us—we would be able to track and count everything, and greatly reduce waste, loss and cost. We would know when things needed replacing, repairing or recalling, and whether they were fresh or past their best.

The Internet of Things has the potential to change the world, just as the Internet did. Maybe even more so.”

Analysts express differing views as to the exact scale (IDC reckons 212 billion devices with a market value of nearly $9trillion in only 6 years), but all estimates of the future size of the Internet of Things business are extraordinarily large. If even the lower end forecasts are out by a factor of 10, there will still be billions of connected devices within a few years, and the reason those devices are connected is because they have something to communicate.

What’s Microsoft got to say about this Internet of Things? Well, there are lots of things out there which read data and send it for further processing, and those things are probably not going to be running anything like a Windows OS. There are going to be devices which these sensors talk to, which collect the information and process it to some degree (validating it, packaging it for onward delivery, maybe issuing commands back to the sensors on the basis of what the data says). These devices may well be running a more functional OS, something akin to Windows Embedded and forming part of what we could call an Intelligent System. Then there’s the cloud platform that will tie everything together – boy do we have one of those… called Windows Azure. 

Next time, I’ll explore a few thoughts developed by some Microsoft experts and collected by talking with partner companies active in this area.

For further reading in the meantime, check out a couple of articles on the MSDN Magazine site (here and here), which shows some practical examples of how to use the Azure Service Bus to build an IoT application.

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