Nº 6 2013 > The Internet of Things

The Internet of things — Machines, businesses, people, everything

Alain Louchez, Georgia Tech Research Institute, Atlanta, Georgia, United StatesThe Internet of things — Machines, businesses, people, everything The Internet of things — Machines, businesses, people, everything A token for data encryption on the Internet displays a combination of numbers in Potsdam, GermanyA smart chair on which people can read and watch videos through tablet computers showcased at the fourth China International Internet of Things Expo i
Alain Louchez, Georgia Tech Research Institute, Atlanta, Georgia, United States
A token for data encryption on the Internet displays a combination of numbers in Potsdam, Germany
A smart chair on which people can read and watch videos through tablet computers showcased at the fourth China International Internet of Things Expo in Wuxi, Jiangsu Province in September 2013

By Alain Louchez, Georgia Tech Research Institute, Atlanta, Georgia, United States

Alain Louchez is leading a global initiative at the Georgia Institute of Technology focusing on the development and application of Internet-of-Things technologies.

The intriguing Internet of Things is the centre of a conglomeration of bustling activities, from education, research and standardization to economic planning. While there is no generally accepted definition of ”Internet of Things”, it can be viewed as the ability for things and people to remotely interact through the Internet anywhere, anytime, thanks to the timely convergence of many technologies.

Machines, everyday objects and virtual elements (such as digital pictures) now have the possibility to be identified in the same way as individuals on the Internet of people. As a result, things can be integrated into a vast web of interrelations where they can communicate with each other or with people. Essentially, in the world of the Internet of Things, things are now on par with people.

In most cases, thing-to-thing communications will be found in the business-to-business (B2B) arena and thing-to-person communications in the business-to-consumer (B2C) arena.

ITU defines the Internet of Things as a ”global infrastructure for the information society, enabling advanced services by interconnecting (physical and virtual) things, based on existing and evolving interoperable information and communication technologies.” ITU’s foundational definition, published on 4 July 2012, offers useful insight and a sound springboard for further analysis and research into the Internet of Things. Importantly, ITU points out that the Internet of Things is a ”vision”, not a single technology, and that it has ”technological and societal implications”.

Making the business case

There are many more things than people on Earth — the tally of things that could be part of the Internet of Things varies enormously according to experts. No matter what the exact number is, it is big! For example, according to estimates made by Cisco’s Internet Business Solutions Group, some 25 billion devices will be connected to the Internet by 2015, and 50 billion by 2020. These things include mobile devices, parking meters, thermostats, cardiac monitors, tyres, roads, cars, supermarket shelves, and even cattle.

An earlier study released by Ericsson also predicts that 50 billion devices will be connected to the Internet by 2020, dwarfing the scale and scope of the Internet and mobile worlds as we know them. A study from Cisco on the ”Internet of Everything” makes the business case for a USD 14.4 trillion market, by 2022, for networking basically everything.

Some of these statistics were shared during a session on ”The need for more IP addresses” at the ITU Global Symposium for Regulators, held in Warsaw, Poland in July 2013. IPv6 deployment was seen as crucial for the Internet of Things to become a reality.

The Internet-of-Things galaxy

In the Internet of Things, there are ”stars”, which have generated a lot of interest and research over the last thirty years, confirming its growing importance.

The Internet-of-Things galaxy encompasses ubiquitous computing, radio-frequency identification (RFID), cyber-physical systems, wireless sensor networks, and machine-to-machine (M2M) communications. Other clusters — not covered in this article — such as those centred on pervasive computing, autonomic computing, human-computer interaction, ambient intelligence, and, more generally, on smart objects, systems and technologies are also intrinsically connected to the Internet of Things.

Where did it all start?

Ubiquitous computing

The late Mark Weiser and his associates at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center are credited for their seminal contributions in ubiquitous computing (which Weiser conceived in 1988). Later, he and John Seely Brown advanced the concept of calm technology, which they hoped would ”come to play a central role in a more humanly empowered twenty-first century”. Today’s aspirations of the Internet of Things still echo this thinking.

Weiser, in his famous article in Scientific American in 1991, ”The Computer for the 21st Century”, described what could now be seen as the basic requirements of an Internet of Things architecture (device, network and application domains). ”The technology required for ubiquitous computing comes in three parts: low-power computers that include equally convenient displays, a network that ties them all together and software systems implementing ubiquitous applications”.

Countless laboratories and research groups around the world are focusing on ubiquitous computing. Entire countries have developed programmes based on this concept, for example, ­u‑Japan (following e‑Japan) and u‑Korea.

Radio-frequency identification

Around 1998, Sanjay Sarma and David Brock at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) came up with the idea of putting low-cost RFID tags on everything and linking them to the Internet. While obvious now, at the time, the decision to incorporate the Internet into the architecture was an important leap of faith.

In 1999, the Uniform Code Council, the European Article Number International (EAN International), Procter & Gamble and Gillette agreed to establish the Auto-ID Center at MIT, where the research team included (in addition to Sarma and Brock) Daniel Engels, Kai-Yeung Siu and Kevin Ashton, who coined the expression ”Internet of Things”. One of the goals of the Auto-ID Center was to develop automatic identification technology, the Electronic Product Code (EPC), to replace the Universal Product Code (UPC) bar code.

At the end of October 2003, the Auto-ID Center was replaced by the Auto-ID Labs, and EPCglobal. Auto-ID Labs is a network of seven universities located on four different continents. And EPCglobal was a joint venture between GS1 (formerly EAN International) and GS1 US (formerly the Uniform Code Council). EPCglobal develops standards and manages the EPC network.

While the Internet of Things includes a broad range of interfaces beyond RFID, many people still consider that it is inherently RFID-based and oriented towards the retail and supply chain. In November 2012, Sarma announced the launch of the ”Cloud of Things” initiative at MIT, expanding the RFID-based research to integrate cloud computing and big data.

Cyber-physical systems

The concepts of cyber-physical systems and the Internet of Things are undeniably intertwined. Around 2006, Helen Gill of the United States National Science Foundation (NSF) suggested that ”Cyber-physical systems are physical, biological, and engineered systems whose operations are integrated, monitored, and/or controlled by a computational core. Components are networked at every scale”. Her vision was that ”Computing is ‘deeply embedded’ into every physical component, possibly even into materials. The computational core is an embedded system, usually demands real-time response, and is most often distributed.”

This new concept, fully embraced by a host of United States federal agencies including the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), has quickly led to related research projects and educational initiatives. For example, the first NSF-sponsored Summer School on Cyber-Physical Systems was held at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, Georgia, in June 2009.

Like ubiquitous computing, which was used as a technological guide in Japan and the Republic of Korea, cyber-physical systems are referred to in Germany to explain the country’s move to smart production. According to economic development agency Germany Trade & Invest (GTAI), smart industry or ”industry 4.0” is the technological evolution from embedded systems to cyber-physical systems. GTAI says that industry 4.0 represents what will be the fourth industrial revolution on the way to an Internet of Things, data and services.

Wireless sensor networks

Wireless sensor networks are a fundamental constituent of the Internet of Things. This domain has strong scientific, technological and industry backing, and the link with the Internet of Things is immediate.

As a case in point, the University of California at Berkeley houses an Open Source Wireless Sensor Networks (OpenWSN) project founded in 2010, with the aim of implementing the Internet of Things. OpenWSN serves as a repository for open-source implementations of protocol stacks based on Internet of things standards, using a variety of software and hardware platforms.

The extension of sensor networks to the very small and molecular levels is being investigated around the world. This type of research — such as the groundbreaking work of Kris Pister at the University of California at Berkeley on smart dust (a collection of countless tiny micro-electromechanical systems) and Ian Akyildiz at the Georgia Institute of Technology on the Internet of nano-things — provides a window into the future shape of the Internet of Things.

Machine-to-machine communications

M2M is probably the earliest manifestation of the Internet of Things.

An international partnership of major standards-developing organizations — known as oneM2M — defines an M2M solution as a ”combination of devices, software and services that operate with little or no human interaction”.

Pioneering data transmission technologies, such as basic telemetry and industrial control systems can legitimately be seen as M2M precursors. Telemetry services provided by Mobitex, a low-speed, short-message, wireless packet-switched data network, developed in the beginning of the 1980s by Televerket of Sweden (the predecessor of Telia Sonera) and later on in partnership with Ericsson, is one of the first technologies to address directly the needs of the nascent M2M market.

Over the years, M2M has evolved towards advanced remote monitoring and control. Recently, M2M has begun to offer enabling platforms, integrating mobile and/or fixed, wired and/or wireless networking architectures (such as wireless personal area networks), and cellular and satellite (including global positioning system) services. By its very nature, M2M deals with thing-to-thing interaction and is grounded in the business-to-business market. It is a critical enabler of the Internet of Things.

An idea whose time has come?

The global interest for the Internet of Things has grown exponentially in the last five years. Scholarly journals exclusively focusing on this topic have been launched, highly visible world forums, congresses and summits are organized to address it while media around the world regularly discuss implications of its arrival and the ensuing societal transformation.

An example of the importance of the Internet of Things as both a transformative force and growth engine is its incorporation into China’s five-year plan (2011–2015) as a national strategic priority. The plan recognizes the Internet of Things as a major direction of China's new generation of information technology innovation and development. Many Chinese universities now offer a bachelor’s degree in the field of Internet of Things engineering. Building smart cities is another area where China would rely on Internet of Things applications to make infrastructure and services more interconnected and efficient. As of January 2013, more than 40 Chinese municipalities had expressed their plans to build smart cities in this way.

Elsewhere, the European Union provides another example. In June 2010, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on the Internet of Things with many associated points and action items, including ”the view that the development of the Internet of Things and related applications will have a major impact on the daily lives of Europeans and their habits in the years ahead, leading to a broad range of economic and social changes.”

Snapshot of standardization activities

Standardization activities are fuelling the current global conversation about the Internet of Things. ITU plays a pivotal global role in standardization in this area. It does so through its Joint Coordination Activity on Internet of Things (JCA-IoT), Internet of Things Global Standards Initiative (IoT GSI) and Focus Group on M2M Service Layer. JCA-IoT facilitates multilateral cooperation with other standards-developing organizations and ensures that work is not duplicated. IoT-GSI acts as an umbrella for Internet of Things standards-development worldwide. In addition, in September 2010, in Beijing, China, the Global Standards Collaboration created an M2M standardization task force (GSC MSTF) to promote harmonization.

Other major international standards bodies also have standardization initiatives on the Internet of Things. These include the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), and the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), which cooperates closely with the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), ISO and IEC.

IETF's work has led to a protocol stack that can support the implementation of an interoperable Internet of Things. Related IETF protocols include IPv6 over Low-Power Wireless Personal Area Networks, IPv6 Protocol for Low-Power and Lossy Networks and the Constrained Application Protocol.

Of course, there is the foundational work across many standards committees at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) without which the Internet of Things could not be as effective.

There are also important national projects within standards-developing organizations in Canada, China, Europe, India, Japan, the Republic of Korea and the United States. Some of their M2M standardization work is being transferred to oneM2M, which was launched in July 2012.

The Internet of things is discussed and researched by many other groups producing guidelines, protocols and standards that can speed up its expansion. Examples range from the Bluetooth Special Interest Group, Broadband Forum, CDMA Development Group, Connected Device Forum, Coordination and Support Action for Global RFID-related Activities and Standardization, CTIA, GS1 (supply chain standards), IPSO Alliance, Dash7 Alliance, Dynamic Spectrum Alliance, EnOcean Alliance, GSMA, HART Communication Foundation, Home Gateway Initiative, IEEE Standards Association, International Society of Automation, IPv6 Forum, Modbus Organization, Near Field Communication Forum, Object Management Group, Open Geospatial Consortium, Open Mobile Alliance, OPC Foundation, Wave2M, Weightless Special Interest Group, ZigBee Alliance to Z-Wave Alliance.

Similar entities concentrating on vertical or regional markets are also part and parcel of the standards discussion concerning the Internet of Things. These include such bodies as the Continua Health Alliance, American Telemedicine Association, European Research Cluster on the Internet of Things, European Internet of Things Architecture, European Internet of Things Initiative, and various research and standards groups with an emphasis on intelligent transport systems, smart grid, smart manufacturing, supply chain, and so on.

The open-source movement too produces significant standards and protocols on the Internet of things through, for example, the Contiki community, Eclipse M2M Working Group, Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS), TinyOS Alliance, the emerging Open Source Internet of Things in California (United States) and Open Source Solution for the Internet of Things into the Cloud (in Europe), as well as a host of open source hardware platforms (for example, Arduino).

Meanwhile, standards-based messaging and networking technologies, such as message queue telemetry transport (MQTT), advanced message queuing protocol (AMQP), data-distribution service (DDS), and the weightless ”white space” networking specifications are generating interest regarding their ability to become the standard for M2M and the Internet of Things.

But that is not all the flurry of activity — think of all the trade groups that were created recently in the Internet of Things and M2M arenas, and the steadfast advocacy work of the Internet of Things Council. There are also corporate initiatives exploring promising avenues such as ”central nervous system of the Earth”, ”digital life”, ”industrial Internet”, ”Internet of everything”, ”Internet of things and services”, ”Internet of things and sensors and actuators”, ”smarter planet” and ”social web of things”.

Looking ahead

This brief overview does not delve into crucial aspects of the Internet of Things such as security, privacy and trust. These topics are being explored, for instance, in the European Commission under its Digital Agenda for Europe, the United States Federal Trade Commission and, more generally, by ITU (under the ICT Security Standards Roadmap). Big data and cloud computing are also related to the Internet of Things, but these links are not examined here.

Nevertheless, the existence of many interwoven ecosystems with kindred goals and challenges attests to the importance of the societal shift that the Internet of Things is bringing about. It induces a massive transformation that must be thoroughly understood, planned, and seamlessly and efficiently integrated into the socio-economic fabric for the benefit of humanity.



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