What is Internet of Things (IoT)? – Everything you Need to Know

As a leading technology rapidly invading each of the spheres of our lives, the Internet of Things doesn’t seem to need any introduction. Yet, from up close, it becomes apparent that there is a bunch more to it than just the stereotypical intelligent coffee maker and the oversimplified vision of a smart city empowering our day-to-day experience. This brief overview will guide you through the intricacies of the Internet of Things and, hopefully, will help in turning the smart into the profitable.

In the recent years, the hype around the Internet of Things has been nothing if not increasing. A constant wave of news about smart cars, smart buildings and a great deal of other intelligent devices (smart dental floss dispensers included) crashing against our brains does little to help us in understanding the essence of the concept itself. While it doesn’t seem critical for ordinary IoT users to know every fact from the history of the Internet of Things by heart, from the business perspective, getting to know the story and benefits behind the Internet of Things can be a real game changer. Therefore, it is really essential that the question of ‘what is IoT?’ be asked again and again, as the term itself is undergoing a ceaseless evolution of meaning along with the technological advancement that is fuelling it.

With all that said, what is Internet of Things then? Over the last decade, it has seen an impressively rapid, if not rampant, growth. Experts predict that by 2020 more than half of new businesses will incorporate some element of the Internet of Things technology, as the IoT uses previously considered impracticable will become increasingly viable. Merging the physical and digital worlds to produce a smart reality where ‘things’ are interacting and sharing data without the necessity of human intervention, the Internet of Things teams smart devices up to create connected systems that are smarter than the sum of their individual parts. It aims to build a smart reality that provides real-time analytics, useful projections, and tangible value from the data provided.

 

But the Internet of Things is not just a load of technologies and hardware put together by means of connectivity solutions to interact, share information and provide useful insights for its users. IoT redefines the way we envision practically every aspect of our everyday experience, businesses and societies, allowing us to unleash the full potential of the technology we have created and push the bounds of creativity and innovation. As such, it requires an in-detail look in order to be able to decide what’s actually in it for you and your business.

 

IoT history: how it all began?

Although the Internet of Things has not been around for more than two decades, one could quite safely claim that there was a man who foresaw the rise of IoT almost a hundred years before its arrival. This man was Nikola Tesla, a famed Serbian visionary, who stated back in 1926 that

‘...when wireless is perfectly applied the whole earth will be converted into a huge brain [...] and the instruments through which we shall be able to do this will be amazingly simple compared with our present telephone. A man will be able to carry one in his vest pocket.’

Even if we put Tesla’s grand ideas aside and have a closer look at the timeline of the communications technology, it becomes apparent that the concept of machine-to-machine communication on which IoT is founded has been alive and kicking practically since the invention of the telegraph. Simple as they were, telemetric devices from the second half of the 19th century could collect and transmit portions of data about wildlife or weather over wired transmission circuits, as in the case of a 1874 system of snow-depth sensors installed on Mont Blanc that were able to transmit real-time information straight to Paris, to name just one example.

Fast-forwarding a hundred years, a bunch of coke-thirsty Carnegie Mellon University programmers were forced to make a virtue of necessity when faced with the problem of a quickly emptying refrigerated Coca-Cola vending machine located on the campus. In order to know whether their favourite drink was still available and properly chilled, they devised a system of sensors that tracked the status of each column of glass soda bottles and sent the information over the ARPANET, the predecessor to the today’s Internet, which then could be viewed by anyone having access to an ARPANET-connected computer. Thus, their desire to avoid making unnecessary trips to the machine led them to construct probably the first smart appliance on the planet, and all this in the times when the Internet of Things still seemed a far-off fantasy.

It wasn’t very long after Tim Berners-Lee proposed the World Wide Web in 1989 that the first home appliance was connected to the newly-founded Internet. John Romkey’s smart toaster could be turned on and off over the Internet, and while it offered next to nothing in terms of other functionalities, it is considered to be the first IoT device in strict terms.

In 1999, Kevin Ashton coined the phrase ‘Internet of Things’ in his presentation about the RFID technology, which coincided with the time around which the IoT revolution really began to gain momentum. From that moment onwards, technology institutions, businesses and societies alike have been gradually turning their minds towards the idea of IoT and started to seek ways of putting this new vision into practice.

The rise of connectivity standards such as Bluetooth or WiFi, along with the rapid spread of smart hardware (think of the ubiquitous smartphone!) and growth in cloud computing greatly fuelled the development of the Internet of Things technology. By 2008, there were more devices connected to the Internet than there were people inhabiting the Earth, and the estimates for the next couple of years leave no doubts about what future has in store for the Internet of Things scene: the IoT market is projected to grow to $8.9T in 2020, with the connected devices topping at mind-boggling 30.3 billion worldwide.

What is Internet of Things story? IoT history in a nutshell:

IoT history in a nutshell

 

IoT in action: how it works

However, to be able to answer fully to the question ‘what is Internet of Things?’, not only do we need to explore its inception, it is crucial that we go beyond the ordinary IoT user experience and get a glimpse behind the IoT scenes to know how the system actually works. In order to do that, we should get to know the four basic elements that make up the Internet of Things environment and set it in motion as well as the governing pattern of operation behind every IoT system.

The four indispensable elements of the Internet of Things are:

    • Things – this layer includes practically any objects we can imagine. Starting from specialised fit-for-purpose sensors, microcontrollers, and actuators, through everyday utility objects such as the iconic coffee makers or smart cars, and ending with such unusual applications as trees or oysters, everything nowadays can be connected to the Internet and thus become part of the IoT. The tasks of smart things include not only simple collection of data but, above all, ‘talking’/communicating with one another and the remote server or cloud (depending on the technology used) and performing actions based on the commands received.
    • Connectivity (or, the Internet) – if the connected devices are meant to ‘talk’ about what they sense or where they are, they must be given a language in which they can do that and a channel via which they can transmit their ‘utterances’. All of this is provided by the connectivity component of IoT. While the ‘language’ is represented by the specific Internet of Things protocols used in a given deployment, the communication channel is ensured by the well-known connectivity solutions such as Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, or less-known technologies including Long Range Wide Area Networks (with the leading standards such as Sigfox or Narrowband IoT). The application of a given solution largely depends on the requirements and limitations of the specific IoT project.
    • Software – this is the part of IoT that is usually hidden from the eyes of the regular IoT end user, but don’t be mistaken: although it stands a little aside from the main stage, it in fact is the real field of IoT action. Software is what gives the Things the ability to ‘think’ and act. Thanks to it, the data gathered by the smart objects can be structured, analysed, and managed. Based on that, the software decides if any actions should be taken or if the user should be notified.
    • Application – simple as it may sound, this is the part where the end user steps in and takes control. Thanks to the application layer, the collected and analysed data are visualised and the user is given useful insights into the workings of the whole system. What is more, he is able to influence the way the devices are managed and is alerted whenever there is need for human action, which usually happens when the self-management capabilities of the system are exhausted.

IoT possibilities: sky is the limit

Over the past two decades, the Internet of Things has in fact become a blanket term for such a vast number of solutions, projects, and technologies that it is now hardly possible to enumerate all of them and describe each in reasonable detail. This endless river of technological solutions has become the driving force behind the IoT projects in many different spheres of life, including but not limited to health services, industrial applications, consumer applications and entertainment. The concrete features of the IoT deployment used in a given project depend on its specific requirements and limitations, but keeping in mind the relentless pace of development of the Internet of Things technology, it can be assumed that the list of possibilities for practical IoT applications is nearly boundless.

As bright as the future ahead of the Internet of Things seems, the industry faces one great challenge, which is fragmentation, or, in other words, lack of standardization. We could name the inherent heterogenetic nature of connected things as one of the reasons for this situation, but that doesn’t really provide a strong justification for the lack of an overarching standard in today’s Internet of Things market. A comparison with the standardization efforts made in smartphone technologies makes it clear that they have led to the latter’s massive popularity, lower costs, and a huge variety of available applications. If the different IoT environments gradually achieve higher levels of interoperability and overcome the problem of security (discussed in detail later in the article), there will be virtually no more serious technology hoops to jump through.

IoT applications: putting IoT to work

Coming back to the question of practical IoT applications, one among many areas of business to profit vastly from the solutions provided by the Internet of Things is the sector of the so-called resource-constrained devices. This category includes any small-sized, low-power and (often) battery-operated devices such as sensors or actuators employed in enterprises where improved resilience, robustness of communication and decreased energy consumption are key to success.

The specific needs of these kinds of projects have to be answered in order to render a given IoT deployment viable at an affordable cost while providing all the required functionalities along with first class security. In terms of connectivity solutions, the communications industry has responded to the above-mentioned demands by expanding its low-end offer with a range of low-power wide-area networks (LPWANs) such as Sigfox, NB-IoT or LTE Cat M1, which aim at providing better coverage deep within buildings.

Now we have an overview of connectivity solutions to choose from, but what about solutions to enable the actual machine-to-machine communication? As for that, there is quite a number of IoT protocols especially designed for the management of resource-constrained devices, out of which OMA SpecWorks’ LwM2M could be taken as a fine example. Developed with the industry’s intrinsic limitations in mind, the Lightweight M2M protocol offers a simple and efficient stack of technology to reduce power and data consumption.

This, in turn, could be viewed as one of the reasons for its popularity among the Internet of Things platform providers. LwM2M provides the basis for AVSystem’s Coiote IoT Device Management platform, to name just one instance among many other implementations by various IoT providers.

Apart from resource-constrained devices, the IoT tech finds its applications in environment-friendly projects. Respecting no other barriers apart from human ingenuity itself, the Internet of Things has recently expanded towards plant life and now also includes smart trees. Cargo Tracck, a Brazil-based location services company is cooperating with the Brazilian environmental protection institutions and carriers to thwart deforestation in the Amazon by means of installing tracking devices in individual trees. With the use of specially designed machine-to-machine radio modules, the operator is capable of detecting if trees have been chopped down and transported.

The uniqueness of this IoT approach lies in the fact that it requires the use of monitoring devices in the very depths of the rainforest, an area where traditional cellular networks offer hardly any or no connectivity at all. The Brazilian system’s great advantage is that, in case the trees are kept safe and sound, the monitoring devices won’t ever have to transmit any data whatsoever.

IoT security: Internet of Things or Internet of thugs?

It should not come as a surprise that the swift advancements in IoT exposes the whole environment to substantial risks of security threats and data breaches. Yet, despite permanent security issues, it is assumed that IoT will continue to spread, making its users increasingly dependent on it. It is a widely adopted view that in the name of convenience and empowerment, people will be able to accept isolated instances of privacy losses and security breaches.

But putting the psychological motivations aside, security is definitely one of the great challenges which could stymie the development of the IoT industry and, as such, it needs to be addressed with very special care. Therefore, it seems imperative for the IoT market to find an equilibrium between the business benefits that IoT-connected devices yield and the recognition that these smart objects have become an attractive and vulnerable plane for hacker and cybercriminal attacks which may cause disruption and leakage of sensitive data.

As a result of the aforementioned, a leading expert in digital security, Bruce Schneier, has issued a call to arms for IoT service providers and U.S. governmental institutions alike to give serious attention to the problem. Thus, hopefully we can expect a government regulation in this matter which will put pressure on the IoT industry players to increase investments in IoT security technologies.

However, notwithstanding the possible legislation in the making, there already exist solutions which give hope for more secure IoT deployments. In terms of security threats related to outdated or otherwise vulnerable device software, measures have been taken to provide connected devices with efficient strategies for software updates. Thanks to SOTA, standing for ‘software over the air,’ and FOTA (firmware over the air) standards, connected devices’ software, settings, and other digital programming can be updated using wireless connectivity. The benefit that this brings lies not only in the seamlessness and cost-effectiveness of the method, but also in a significant improvement in overcoming device security challenges.

Taking all the above into account, there is absolutely no reason to dive into panic mode about IoT security. Given the early phase of development that the Internet of Things is going through just now, we have to stay aware of the possible smaller or larger security blunders occurring from time to time. Yet, it is as sure as eggs is eggs that the Internet of Things’ thugs will get a hard life; there is no doubt that the leading IoT market players along with hundreds of minor IoT tech developers have already addressed the issue and will play hardball with the cybercriminals, doing their best to make the Internet of Things a secure place for their IoT users. After all, IoT is too big a business to leave it to its own devices.

IoT future: the world is your IoT oyster

All things considered, by now there is probably no single industry that would not be impacted by the IoT. While some of them have already managed to turn the empowerment offered by the IoT to their benefit, other sectors are only starting to realise its significance.

As a backup to the above argument, it is worth mentioning a recent Internet of Things project involving the Tasmanian oyster industry. Oyster farming seems to be a tough business to run, as oysters are negatively impacted by many different changes in the water environment. By employing a range of in-water sensor platforms to measure multiple variables (water temperature, salinity, and depth), the recently-built oyster IoT platform can collect data and analyse past, current, and predicted water parameters to provide useful insights for oyster farmers, allowing them to better schedule the farm operation and take preventive action when needed.

Back to general terms, what the proposed interconnection of millions of devices in real time really does for business, such as retail trade, is the collection of valuable data and provision of real-time insights for merchants. The key Internet of Things deployments of the future include supply chain and smart store applications. In healthcare, on the other hand, personal fitness and wellness trackers have already gained ground, especially among smartphone users. What is more, there can be no doubt that further spread of the IoT health tech will bring about massive changes in the process of disease treatment and diagnosis. Remote patient monitoring as well as embedded medical IoT devices will help in keeping track of the patients’ health more effectively.

Conclusion: The future’s bright

All things considered, what is IoT all about? Far from being yet another technological concept, the Internet of Things is a promise and a dream of a smarter and better future. A future in which a connected manufacturing plant orders supplies, schedules its own maintenance and even executes it without the need for a human operator’s action or even supervision. A future where every thing is connected to and aware of every other thing, providing feedback or sharing information in order to assist the next object down the line and, ultimately, help people to lead smarter lives.

Down for a more wiki-like definition of ‘What is Internet of Things?’, we can view it as a global net of objects connected to the Internet that have the ability to interact and exchange data among themselves without human intervention. Among the solutions that fit well into this general definition are grand projects like monitoring and controlling operations for sustainable urban infrastructures or small-scale deployments such as home automation systems or wearable technology. No matter the actual extent and range of possible applications, IoTizing the industry, commerce and our daily lives keeps bringing huge benefits to enterprise owners and users alike.

All in all, embracing the IoT revolution seems crucial in terms of business development, and this may well apply to any enterprise. Whether it’s oyster farming or traffic control systems, the best thing about the Internet of Things is that it’s open and ready for new challenges, and there’s room enough for any business idea imagined. Thus, the key to answering ‘what is Internet of Things?’ doesn’t necessarily lie in providing a strict definition, but rather changing your own way of thinking and starting to imagine what IoT can do for your business.

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