Last week we took a look at Internet of Things (or IoT), and saw how it has four primary components: 1) the things themselves; 2) devices that obtain and communicate information about the things; 3) resources, which are the information about the thing; and 4) services that provide access to the information. Obviously, to make all of this work, the devices need to be connected to the Internet.
Back in the last decade or two, making a connection to the Internet was pretty straightforward—just plug an Ethernet cable into your computer, make sure you had it routed properly, and you were off and running. Nowadays, whether you’re using a desktop, laptop or phone, things are even easier—find a Wi-Fi hotspot, select a network, and connect. The IoT should be just as easy, right? Unfortunately, things are not quite that simple.
The Internet Protocol (IP, as in TCP/IP) is a hefty protocol, requiring significant computing power. This is no obstacle for virtually all desktops, laptops, tablets, and smartphones. But when you get down to smaller devices like embedded chips, they haven’t got the brainpower to handle a TCP/IP connection. And there are many more things out there with no embedded chip at all—just a barcode or an RFID tag.
To include these things in the Internet of Things, they need access to computing resources powerful enough to convert their data into the TCP/IP protocol. Where do they get that kind of power? Usually from a computer, eventually. Here are some common connection scenarios:
Computers, tablets, and smart phones connect directly to the Internet.
Electronic devices like sensors can be connected wirelessly or by cable to a computer, or to some kind of specialized protocol converter box with enough power and intellegence to connect to the Internet.
Embedded chips use Wireless LAN (WLAN) protocols like Bluetooth, Zigbee, 3G Wireless, GSM, 6LoWPAN etc. to connect to a receiver that either connects directly to the Internet, or to a computer which is connected to the Internet.
For electronic devices and embedded chips, you often have a number of devices connecting to a single receiver, which may convert the data to TCP/IP or a different protocol. In industrial settings and SCADA systems, this receiver is often referred to as an RTU, Remote Terminal Unit.
RFID tags attached to products, pallets, or shipping containers get scanned by RFID readers, which are connected to the Internet in some way, most often through a computer.
Bar codes on products are scanned by readers, supermarket scanners, or even smart phones. The scanning devices are connected to the Internet, usually by computer.
In whatever way something is linked to the Internet of Things, the efficiency of the data connection is significant. Access via the cloud to real-time changes in temperature, flow rate, location, and items scanned can be useful for individuals, as well as invaluable for processes and machines that integrate the real-time data feed into other systems. Cloud computing systems that adhere to the requirements for real-time systems such as high data rates, low latency, and a data-centric infrastructure will be best positioned to make the Internet of Things a reality.
Until now we have talked about using a computer somewhere in the communications path between a thing and the Internet. Does this have to be the case? Next week we’ll see if it may be possible to remove the PC from the Internet of Things altogether.