What Technologies are Used in IoT—Technology Behind Internet of Things
The Internet of Things keeps promising us a smarter future: fridges able to replenish themselves by automatically ordering food at a local grocery store (in-fridge delivery included!), bridges warning the oncoming cars about a frozen surface, or smart gear that monitors your health and delivers real-time data straight to your doctor’s iPhone. While all of this may soon be within the reach of our hands, we still have to be aware of the massive machinery behind the scenes that makes dreams become reality. Without myriads of IoT technologies that surround us, these dreams would never come true.
What is the IoT technology hype all about?
Computer technology has been with us since the middle of the 20th century. Yet, the technology behind the Internet of Things had already been in the making long before the PCs became available to every Tom, Dick and Harry. The science of telemetry (Greek tele = remote, and metron = measure), the earliest forerunner to the IoT, has been used to measure and collect weather data or track wildlife over wire phone lines, radio waves and satellite communications already since the second half of the 19th century. Despite all its technical limitations, it laid ground to the concept of machine-to-machine communication (M2M), which, evolving gradually together with the advancements in connectivity solutions, gave birth to the idea of the Internet of Things as we know it today.
The future ahead of us will involve millions and millions of managed and monitored assets [...]. Now it is up to us, the entire IT/Telecom industry, to help everyone benefit from the Internet of Things by providing secure and reliable solutions, Sławomir Wolf, CEO at AVSystem
The Internet of Things (IoT) is a system of interconnected digital devices, machines, objects, animals or people provided with unique identifiers and the ability to transmit and share data over the network without the need of human-to-human or human-to-computer interaction. Bridging the gap between the physical and virtual worlds, IoT aims at creating smart environments in which individuals as well as whole societies will be able to live in a smarter and more comfortable way. Pompous as it may sound, the IoT has already become part of our daily life and no doubt it will settle there for good. With all this in mind, let us now have a brief look over the machinery behind the IoT world that makes it go round.
What is IoT technology made of? The IoT technology stack
It can prove a hard task if you’d like to find your way through the IoT technological maze given the diversity and sheer numerousness of the technology solutions that surround it. However, for matters of simplicity, we could break down the IoT technology stack into four basic technology layers involved in making the Internet of Things work. These are the following:
- Device hardware
Devices are objects which actually constitute the ‘things’ within the Internet of Things. Acting as an interface between the real and the digital worlds, they may take different sizes, shapes and levels of technological complexity depending on the task they are required to perform within the specific IoT deployment. Whether pinhead sized microphones or heavy construction machines, practically every material object (even the animate ones, like animals or humans) can be turned into a connected device by the addition of necessary instrumentation (by adding sensors or actuators along with the appropriate software) to measure and collect the necessary data. Obviously, sensors, actuators or other telemetry gear can also constitute standalone smart devices by themselves. The only limitation to be encountered here is the actual IoT use case and its hardware requirements (size, ease of deployment and management, reliability, useful lifetime, cost-effectiveness).
- Device software
This is what actually makes the connected devices ‘smart’. Software is responsible for implementing the communication with the Cloud, collecting data, integrating devices as well as performing real-time data analysis within the IoT network. What is more, it is device software that also caters for application level capabilities for users to visualize data and interact with the IoT system.
Having the device hardware and software in place, there must be another layer which will provide the smart objects with ways and means of exchanging information with the rest of the IoT world. While it is true that communications mechanisms are strongly tied to device hardware and software, it is vital to consider them as a separate layer. Communication layer includes both physical connectivity solutions (cellular, satellite, LAN) and specific protocols used in varying IoT environments (ZigBee, Thread, Z-Wave, MQTT, LwM2M). Choosing the relevant communications solution is one of the vital parts in constructing every IoT technology stack. The technology chosen will determine not only the ways in which data is sent to/received from the Cloud, but also how the devices are managed and how they communicate with third party devices. For the purpose of the present article, we will go into the details of some of the present-day communications solutions later in the text.
As mentioned earlier, thanks to the ‘smart’ hardware and the software installed the device is able to ‘sense’ what is going on around it and communicate that to the user via a specific communications channel. An IoT platform is the place where all of these data is gathered, managed, processed, analysed and presented in a user-friendly way. Thus, what makes such a solution especially valuable is not merely its data collection and management capabilities, but rather its ability to analyse and find useful insights from the portions of data provided by the devices via the communications layer. Again, there is quite a number of IoT platforms on the market, with choice depending on the requirements of the specific IoT project and such factors as architecture and IoT technology stack, reliability, customization properties, protocols used, hardware agnosticism, security and cost-effectiveness. It is also worth mentioning that platforms can be either installed on-premise or cloud-based. Coiote IoT Device Management platform is a good example of such a platform as it can be deployed on-site as well as in the cloud. The same applies to another IoT platform by AVSystem—Coiote IoT Data Orchestration.
Connectivity solutions within the IoT technology stack
As many as there are possible real-life applications of the IoT technologies, there is no shortage of connectivity solutions behind them. Depending on the specifications of a given IoT use case, each communications option may offer different service enablement scenarios while having tradeoffs between power consumption, range and bandwidth. For instance, if you’re building a smart home, you may want to have your indoor temperature sensors and heating controller integrated with your smartphone so that you can remotely monitor the temperatures in each room and adjust it in real-time according to the current needs. In such case, the IP-based IPv6 networking protocol called Thread, especially designed for home automation environment, would be the recommended solution.
With this multiplicity and diversity of communication standards and protocols in mind, one may raise a question about the actual need for developing new solutions while there are some well-proven Internet protocols that have been in use already for decades. The reason for this is that existing Internet protocols, such as Transmission Control Protocol / Internet Protocol (TCP/IP), are often not effective enough and too power consuming to be able to work efficiently within the emerging IoT technology applications. This section will present a short overview of the major alternative Internet protocols specially dedicated for use by IoT systems.
The overview concerns the most popular IoT radio technologies broken down by radio-frequency range achieved by each of the solutions: short range IoT radio solutions, medium range solutions, and long range Wide Area Networks solutions.
Short range IoT network solutions:
As a well-established short-range connectivity technology, Bluetooth is considered to be the key solution particularly for the future of the wearable electronics market such as wireless headphones or geolocation sensors, especially given its widespread integration with smartphones. Designed with cost-effectiveness and reduced power consumption in mind, the Bluetooth Low-Energy (BLE) protocol requires very little power from the device. Yet, this comes with a compromise: when transferring frequently higher amounts of data, BLE may not be the most effective solution.
Being among the first IoT applications ever implemented, Radio-frequency identification (RFID) offers positioning solutions for IoT applications, especially in supply chain management and logistics, which require the ability of determining the object position inside buildings. The future of RFID technology clearly goes far beyond the simple localisation services, with possible applications ranging from tracking hospital patients to improving efficiency in healthcare to providing real-time merchandise location data to minimize out-of-stock situations for retail stores.
Medium range solutions:
Developed based on IEEE 802.11, it remains the most widespread and generally known wireless communications protocol. Its broad usage across the IoT world is mainly limited by higher-than-average power consumption resulting from the need of retaining high signal strength and fast data transfer for better connectivity and reliability. As a key technology in the development of IoT, WiFi provides a wide-ranging ground to staggering number of IoT solutions, yet it also needs to be managed and used in terms of marketing to yield profits to service providers and users alike. A fine example of a WiFi management platform that offers a value-added service empowering public WiFi access points is Linkify. As one of AVSystem’s cutting-edge solutions, Linkify allows for practically limitless guest WiFi customization and marketing options.
This popular wireless mesh networking standard finds its most frequent applications in traffic management systems, household electronics, and machine industry. Built on top of the IEEE 802.15.4 standard, Zigbee supports low data exchange rates, low power operation, security, and reliability.
Designed specifically for smart home products, Thread employs IPv6 connectivity to enable connected devices to communicate between one another, access services in the cloud, or interact with the user via Thread mobile applications. The critics of Thread have pointed out that given the market saturation, yet another wireless communication protocol leads to further fragmentation within the IoT technology stack.
Long Range Wide Area Networks (WAN) solutions:
A product of existing 3GPP technologies, Narrowband IoT is a brand-new radio technology standard that ensures extremely low power consumption (10 years of battery power operation) and provides connectivity with signal strength approx. 23 dB lower than in the case of 2G. What is more, it uses existing network infrastructure, which ensures not only global coverage in LTE networks, but also guaranteed signal quality. In many cases, this fact allows for implementing NB-IoT instead of solutions that required the construction of local networks, such as LoRa or Sigfox.
- LTE-Cat M1
LTE Cat M1 is a low‑power wide‑area (LPWA) connectivity standard that connects IoT and M2M devices with medium data rate requirements. It supports longer battery lifecycles and offers enhanced in‑building range as compared to cellular technologies such as 2G, 3G, or LTE Cat 1.
Being compatible with the existing LTE network, CATM1 doesn’t require the carriers to build new infrastructure to implement it. As compared to NB-IoT, LTE Cat M1 proves to be perfect for mobile use cases, as its handling of hand-over between cell sites is significantly better and is very similar to high speed LTE.
LoRaWAN is a low-power Long Range Wide-Area Networking protocol optimized for low-power consumption and supporting large networks with millions of devices. Aiming at wide-area network (WAN) applications, LoRaWAN is designed to furnish low-power WANs with features required to support low-cost, mobile and secure bi-directional communication within IoT, M2M, smart city, and industrial applications.
The concept behind Sigfox is to provide an effective connectivity solution for low-power M2M applications requiring low levels of data transfer for which the WiFi range is too short, and cellular range is too expensive and too power-hungry. Sigfox employs UNB, a technology that enables it to handle low data-transfer speeds of 10 to 1,000 bits per second. Consuming up to 100 times less energy compared to cellular communication solutions, it delivers a typical stand-by time of 20 years for a 2.5Ah battery. Offering a robust, energy-efficient and scalable network able to support communication between thousands of thousands of battery-operated devices across areas of several square kilometres, Sigfox proves suitable for various M2M applications, including smart street lighting, intelligent meters, patient monitors, security devices, and environmental sensors. Sigfox is currently employed in a growing number of IoT technology solutions such as AVSystem’s Coiote IoT Data Orchestration, to name only one.
As IoT technology has already made itself comfortable in our homes, public spaces, offices and factories, and given the breakneck pace of its development, it seems that the hackneyed IoT phrase ‘anything that can be connected will be connected’ is ever closer to becoming our daily reality. Therefore, the real question shouldn’t be about when this will happen, but rather how the connections should be made to achieve the highest possible efficiency while retaining key features like security and cost-effectiveness. With this approach in mind, a deployment envisaging a great number of low-power, low-bandwidth devices would require the use of LwM2M, a lightweight protocol designed especially for the management of such resource-constrained machines. Therefore, seen from such practical perspective, the question of success in case of given IoT applications seems to boil down to the choice of appropriate IoT technology from the vast array of existing solutions.