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The internet of things: an overview

Despite security and other concerns, there are many benefits associated with embracing the internet of things

The internet of things (IoT) is a computing concept that describes a scenario where everyday physical objects are connected to the internet and can identify themselves to other devices or processes, via an IP address.

The IoT is significant because an object that can represent itself digitally becomes something greater than the object by itself. No longer does the object just relate to the process; it now connects to surrounding objects and database data, permitting “big data” analytics and insights. 

In particular, “things” might communicate autonomously with other things and other devices, such as sensors in manufacturing environments or an activity tracker with a smartphone. 

IoT has evolved from the convergence of wireless technologies, micro-electromechanical systems, microservices and the internet. 

This convergence has torn down the walls between operational technology and information technology, allowing unstructured machine-generated data to be analysed for insights that will drive improvements. 

Consumer IoT took another revolutionary path, either by becoming connected – for example, speed sensors on a bike – or being newly invented. In other instances, such as in healthcare, things have been there but not widely used, such as patient health status.

IoT: countless use cases

There are countless use cases where IoT can be deployed, such as in manufacturing, vehicles and even future cases such as smart cities and energy.

Manufacturing, as an example, has been operating shop floor equipment for decades with sensors that control machine processes, but these sensors have been relatively dumb, have not been IP enabled nor have they been able to communicate beyond their local process. 

This situation is changing; manufacturing equipment is now being produced with sensors that are IP-enabled, can communicate with each other, collect and disseminate data in real-time. 

There are many benefits to the manufacturer such as: control of product rotation, automate restocking processes, production line monitoring, quality assurance real-time alerts etc.

A smart city is defined as a city that monitors and integrates conditions of its entire critical infrastructure, such as roads, bridges, tunnels, rail, airports, seaports, water, power and major buildings. 

With the use of IoT technology, the city planners can better optimise their resources, plan preventive maintenance, monitor security and control emergency response, through advanced monitoring systems and built-in smart sensors with data collected and evaluated in real-time.

Increasingly, there will be a focus on energy consumption behaviour. Because of the volatile nature, such supply demands an intelligent and flexible electrical grid which is able to react to power fluctuations by controlling electrical energy sources, either generated or stored, and by suitable configuration.

A network of intelligent devices and grid infrastructure will be largely based on IoT concepts. The smart grid will be implemented on a type of “internet” in which every energy packet is managed in a similar fashion to a data packet, across routers and gateways that can autonomously decide the best pathway for the packet to reach its destination, based on standard and interoperable transceivers, gateways and protocols.

The connection vehicles to the internet gives the context the internet vehicles (IoV) connected to the concept internet energy (IoE) that will represent the future trends for smart transportation and mobility applications. Creating new mobile consumer-centric transactions and services will deliver new mobile ecosystems based on trust, security, mobility and convenience.

IoT can play a role in health care with smart devices used for many cases. The elderly or disabled could live independently with fall detection devices and/or physical activity monitoring through body sensors; patient surveillance sensors for hospitals or care homes, smart sensors to control conditions in medical storage units and devices to monitor ultraviolet radiation on people.

How things can communicate

From the operational perspective, smart devices can communicate via several models, such as device-to-device This is where two or more devices can directly communicate with each other through various network protocols, including internet protocol (IP), Bluetooth, Z-Wave or ZigBee. This type of protocol is typically used with low data rate requirements such as light bulbs, light switches and door locks.

Another way of communicating is by device-to-cloud. An IoT device connects directly to an internet cloud service to exchange data. It typically uses wired Ethernet of Wi-Fi connections between the device and the IP network. This type of connection is used by Smart TVs.

Device-to-gateway is a method where the device connects through an application-layer gateway as a conduit to reaching a cloud service. The gateway provides security and other functionality such as protocol translation. A typical use is a smartphone running an app to communicate with a device, such as a fitness band, and relay data to a cloud service.

Finally, back-end data sharing refers to a communications architecture that enables users to export and analyse smart object data from a cloud service in combination with data from other sources. The back-end sharing architecture allows the data collected from a single IoT device data streams to be aggregated and analysed.

Smart devices have used internet protocol, IPv4, that is running low on available IP addresses. This is being replaced by IPv6 that will provide sufficient IP address possibilities for the foreseeable future.

The security, privacy, legal and regulatory implications of IoT

IoT is highlighting a number of security, privacy and regulatory concerns, many of which existed prior to the growth of IoT. A selection of top concerns relating to smart devices include the following:

  • Privacy – the clear majority of devices collect personal information through the device, the cloud or the device’s mobile application.
  • Insufficient authentication/authorisation – either no passwords or weak and simple passwords.
  • Transport encryption – the majority of devices use unencrypted network services.
  • Web interface vulnerabilities – persistent cross-site scripting, poor session management and weak default credentials.
  • Insecure software – a majority of device software updates not encrypted during download.
  • Lack of control and information asymmetry – the generation, storage and sharing of IoT pushed data over which the user has no control and where many IoT devices do not contain an obvious point where the user can give consent.
  • Extrapolation of inferences from data and repurposing of original processing – disclosure of information to third parties and the regeneration of data for new purposes.
  • Limitations on the possibility of remaining anonymous – wearing IoT devices that are close to the data subjects result in a range of identifiers being available.

Notwithstanding the above concerns, there are many benefits associated with embracing a connected world. 

Some of the major opportunities are: sensor-driven decision analytics, process optimisation, instantaneous control and response to complex autonomous systems, tracking buying behaviour for real-time marketing, energy distribution, utilisation and reporting, smart home devices and health care monitoring.

A business must take advantage of useful analytical IoT data for actionable insights to stay ahead of the curve by predicting business trends, reduce operational failures and ensure smooth operations.

With the plethora of IoT devices coming onstream, the business must develop a holistic approach to IoT management, including IoT security, to ensure that IoT is both an enabler and secure.

Business transformation is incorporating IoT and cloud computing is becoming the foundation for IoT data management, hosted by service providers, to reduce the complexities associated with large and diverse data collection pools.

Businesses need to embrace IoT if they want to stay competitive and not fall behind.

Read more about IoT security

Read more on Internet of Things (IoT)

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An interesting summary, however I think it misses a fundamental point that seems to be being missed by all those who are not really engaged in the business of IoT.

Anyway, whatever it is, happens because those deploying it are going to make money from it. If it takes investment, then the amount they make has to be more than they invested.

IoT is not about devices, IP networks, sensor arrays or gateways, its about solving business problems or creating new, disruptive business models. M2M was about sensors, reading data remotely from a pump to determine whether its bearings were about to fail, that is not IoT.

IoT is the application of IT (Information Technology) to establish either cost savings or revenue creation through leveraging OT.

It is liken to the human brain. The conscious, subconscious and unconscious brain. The voice in your head is the conscious, the now. The recall of your birthday or age is the subconscious, until I mentioned it the data was not present, but it rapidly appeared without much effort. The unconscious, well if I ask you to recall the name of your favourite restaurant from last years vacation, it would take a bit of searching. It would likely involve the wine, the menu, the food, the location, the people with you, the weather, in fact a lot of additional data points.

The conscious is the device, its working the now. The gateway is likely the subconscious and the cloud is the unconscious. Over time, holidays, etc. the analytics will work on the long term data, your favourite will change.

Its the same with IoT, the driver is the business, the typical path a CEO will take is to talk to IT about whether IoT can build a business, or reduce cost.

No longer will you buy a forklift truck, it will be like photocopier, you will pay per use. Forklift truck companies will lease the vehicle and forklift truck salesman will have a very different business model to sell. Another favourite of mine is SteadyServ, who leverage analytics to ensure the bar does not run out of beer.

Many talk, write, whatever about IoT and focus on the devices, yet the driver is the business need and not the devices. Street lights that save electricity by turning off when nothing is moving, yet, unlike those office lights where you have to wave your arms to show you are still here, the fact they are all connected together means they can determine you have no suddenly vanished. The street lights can monitor parking spaces, traffic flow, air quality. The latter may let traffic systems redirect traffic away from schools when the air quality is poor.

Instrumenting machines in manufacturing is last century, it was known as M2M and was about machines providing insight. The IoT world is about establishing business value through leveraging the advances in IT over the past decade and applying them to a business that includes remote devices. In every case its about securing a significantly positive RoI or Outcome, not the technology being used.