The Internet of Things: A Primer for the Curious
Like it or not, Internet of Things (IoT) is upon us. There are a number of factors that will impact its adoption rate, and the inevitable privacy (or lack of) discussions will likely happen sooner than later. This is going to change the world as we know it, in many cases for the better. But we will need to keep an eye on the extent to which it invades our personal lives if it is going to be the positive force it has the potential to be.
If the second wave of the Internet was the introduction of ubiquitous mobile devices, the Internet of Things (IoT), or Internet of Everything, is the third. It introduces billions of new sensors and devices to an already crowded global network. According to a recent study by IDC, the worldwide IoT install base will see a compound annual growth rate of 17.5 percent from 2013 to 2020.
A technical discussion about the IoT is limited because there is a standards war afoot that would make an in-depth discussion too cumbersome at this time. Instead we will look at what the IoT is; some key vertical markets where it can affect the most short-term change; the impact on existing networks; and some business, cultural, and ethical considerations.
The Internet of Things Defined
Few people, even those in the information technology business, realize that we are quickly running out of Internet Protocol Version 4 (IPv4) addresses. The exact date when that happens is up for debate, but it is coming soon, with the number of Internet-connected devices exceeding the number of people on the planet.
Why do I bring this up in a white paper about the IoT? Because the IoT would not be possible without an almost limitless supply of addresses. It would be like a contractor building houses for which there are no more street addresses. Since IPv6 provides enough addresses (340 undecilion or 3.4X1038) to cover every square inch of the planet, including the ocean floor, we now have enough addresses to justify a discussion of the IoT.
Maybe you've heard of Machine-to-Machine (M2M) technology, which is the ability of machines to speak to each other and perform actions based on those conversations without human involvement. Think of your power utility monitoring your thermostat and adjusting the temperature based on its setting. If you can picture that concept, you have a good basis for a discussion of the IoT.
To give you an idea of how fast this technology is accelerating, in 2012, I had a discussion with an executive at the largest wireless provider in America. We discussed M2M at length, and a subsequent Internet search provided just a few results of companies involved in development projects. A year later, the CEO of a large networking manufacturer introduced the IoT to his channel partners at their annual summit. Today, just two years later, the number of companies involved in developing IoT applications has increased exponentially. And if discussion boards are the real indicator of activity in a particular industry, the IoT is ready to explode.
According to Wikipedia, "The Internet of Things (IoT) is the network of physical objects or 'things' embedded with electronics, software, sensors and connectivity to enable it to achieve greater value and service by exchanging data with the manufacturer, operator, and/or other connected devices." While that may seem broadly defined, it's accurate. The IoT will mean different things to different people. And once you accept this definition, you can see that there are almost limitless applications. Our homes, our businesses, our cars, our appliances, even our bodies themselves are potentially going to be connected to the Internet.
The purpose of this white paper is to provide a look at the present, a view into the future, and to consider the potential benefits and hazards of the IoT. If you come away with as many questions as answers, then this paper will have achieved its goals. Much of what is needed to make the IoT truly viable (e.g., technical standards) is still in development, and there is bound to be much contention before everything reaches a stable state where even early adopters are comfortable deploying a particular application into production.