Internet of Things or IoT is the buzzword these days. The giants like Microsoft, IBM, Intel, Cisco, GE and Bosch are not only investing heavily on internal R&D, they are also leading the thought leadership at all major forums. In 2010, The Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao calls the IoT a key industry for China. Each company has adopted their unique strategies to take commercialize their IoT offerings. However, there are others who are sceptical about the buzz and calling it just another fad. Their argument is that IoT is just an old wine in the new bottle. This is because the concept of IoT is not at all new. In 1990, John Romkey from Blue Forest Research connected and controlled his toaster with the internet. The SCADA dates back to 1950s and the research on M2M started way back in 1977. By 2000s, the cellular M2M systems had entered the market. SCADA has already established its position in the manufacturing industry. The SCADA and M2M systems are building blocks of IoT providing the end-point connectivity to the ‘Things’. The term “Internet of Things” was first coined by a British visionary, Kevin Ashton in a presentation to P&G. He was trying to link P&G’s supply chain to RFID, the then hot buzzword. The framework of IoT is built on the emerging technologies like big data analytics, cloud computing and mobile apps. The penetration of IoT is linked to the growth of hand-held devices, smart sensors and embedded electronics. Cisco is estimating that more than 50 billion devices or ‘things’ will be connected to the internet by 2020. Gartner has pegged this number at 25 Billion. The numbers are staggering and more so are the challenges in mass IoT adoption. There are genuine concerns on the IoT security considering the recent cyber attacks. Other glaring problems include network coverage, power requirements and sensor maintenance. Surely, it is not easy to power so many sensors, connect them to internet and then maintain to keep them working. But beyond the hysteria and suspicion, the internet of things is slowly getting into the groove. The reason is that IoT is not an isolated trend. There are eight critical trends that are compounding each other and driving the growth IoT.
- Cloud Computing – SCADA and M2M work on private networks but IoT works on the web. The cloud computing allows a company to avail ad-hoc network infrastructure without investing on the capex to set-up and maintain data centers. IoT applications run on the cloud platforms and offers a safe, homogenous and scalable data warehouse with instant access through any device from anywhere in the world. IoT has far surpassed the traditional SCADA and M2M platforms in utility, speed, access and scalability.
- Data Analytics – SCADA and all previous M2M systems acquired data with the intention to monitor and control. Big Data analytics has changed this paradigm completely by focusing on discovery and exploration of new intelligence. Since we have acquired the capability to process large amounts of data, there is a corresponding need for larger and larger source of data. IoT being an information framework uses this opportunity to provide that large data source for analytical engines to run. The knowledge acquired from IoT along with the business process data from ERP is creating new avenues for creativity, innovation and growth for the companies
- Hand-held devices – The Toyota Production System (TPS) led the way for shop-floor displays or andons. The SCADA and other M2M systems accumulated data for visualization at a local control centre (DCS or Andon). With the invention of touch-screen and mobile apps, mobile phones have evolved from communication devices to information exchange platforms. With their growing penetration, they have emerged as single most convenient access point for all the information we ever need. Since IoT brings visualization and control to smartphones, it has created an opportunity for common people to control their entire lifestyle through these amazing devices.
- Real-time intelligence– The SCADA and M2M brought the concept of real-time information. But the real-time data has two issues. First, it requires constant monitoring and second, in its current format, it is highly complex and cumbersome to analyze. The IoT is developed alongside Artificial Intelligence that brings us machine intelligence to use real-time information for both automated control as well as analytics. Increasingly, robots and other smart automation technologies are being adopted in manufacturing industry that are connected to at least one large network.
- Low cost hardware – The previous generation systems were built on expensive sensors and actuators. With continual miniaturization of semiconductors technology, the cost and the form factors are shrinking rapidly. The modern sensors have many more features packed in a much smaller wafer available at a fraction of the earlier price. Today, a 1mm3 IC contains a computer, a memory, a battery, a sensor and a radio. As a result, even the most ordinary devices are now embedded with numerous sensors and a communication hardware that connect to at least one network.
- Decision-making and business strategy – Since the emergence of ERP and business intelligence (BI), companies around the world now have access to their process data that they are using for their decision-making. As the supply chains became more and more complex, the visibility and accuracy of this process data diminished. This has resulted in a desperate demand of more and more grass-root level, real-time information that IoT promises to access.
- IPv6 – The IPv 4 used a 32 bit addressing that limits the address space to 4.3 Billion (2^32) assignable nodes. With the existing millions of devices connected with the internet, this number fell short of IoT requirements. In 2011, IPv6 overcomes this problem by defining a 128 bit addressing that offers an humungous address space of 3.4 Undecillon (3.4×10^38) that is enough to map every single star in our observable universe. But in addition to address spaces, IPv6 also brings in many other important benefits like faster router processing and multi-casting.
- Globalization of supply chain –China grew into the global manufacturing hub, India developed into a global IT and Engineering hub and Africa grew as the new global market. Due to global trends, the product supply chains have become global and extremely complex. For a product manager based out of US or Europe, it is both critical and extremely difficult to manage the batch production in China and the corresponding software release in India. Along with its enablers, IoT as a concept and technology fits right into this requirement.
On one hand, I agree with most of the concerns raised by the critics about IoT. The challenges are huge and there are no easy solutions to the problems. But on the other hand, I truly believe that IoT is not just a passing fad. It is here to stay and transform our work and lives forever. Though technological advancements are nurturing IoT, it is not another technology push. It is being driven by real changes in peoples’ needs, behaviours and expectations in their day-to-day lives.