In our discussion so far about the Internet of Things (IoT), we have seen how information about things gets collected by devices and distributed via the cloud. In most cases, somewhere along the path of communication, before the data reaches the cloud, there will be an intermediate computer, often a PC. This is because the protocol of the Internet (IP) requires a level of computing power to send and receive messages that until recently was beyond the capabilities of most embedded devices on the IoT.
But of course, technology doesn’t stand still for long. The trend towards greater computing power on ever-shrinking devices with proportionally lower prices and reduced power requirements is opening new opportunities for direct, device-to-cloud communication.
In the last decade, as Ethernet technologies gained popularity for industrial communications, special processors were developed for the sole purpose of converting serial I/O data communication into TCP/IP. Implementing just this functionality of a PC reduced hardware dimensions down to about the size of a sandwich, cut power requirements substantially, and reduced costs to between $200 and $400. This kind of box can be connected or mounted on any machine or piece of equipment that has a serial data interface, and programmed to connect to a LAN, the Internet, or a cloud server.
A few years ago embedded systems developers took it a step further. In a continuing drive to cut size and costs, they began creating matchbox-sized and smaller serial-to-Ethernet converters that can be mounted on a network card and installed directly into different types of equipment and machinery. With prices at or below $50 apiece, some of these devices still have sufficient computing power to offer a direct connection to a cloud server.
Recently there has been a sea-change in computing power and price among tiny micro controller units (MCUs) that you might find in a camera or automobile. Chip capacities of 32 bits now allow for running a real-time operating system with support for TCP/IP and even SSL encryption. With the proper communications protocols hard-coded into the chip, it can be mass produced far more cheaply than any of the above devices. Suddenly widespread thing-to-Internet communication seems much more feasible.
Coming from another direction, there has been significant effort put into data communications protocols. In a white paper “From the Internet of Computers to the Internet of Things“, authors Friedemann Mattern and Christian Floerkemeier say, “If, in a future Internet of Things, everyday objects are to be addressed and controlled via the Internet, then we should ideally not be resorting to special communications protocols as is currently the case with RFID. Instead, things should behave just like normal Internet nodes.”
Different standards bodies have been developing new, low-resource-demand protocols with names like IPSO, 6LoWPAN, and the ZigBee Alliance’s ZigBee IP (ZIP) that do not require the relatively high power processing of TCP, but still provide direct IP communication to and from the Internet. This type of protocol allows embedded chips to emit and receive wireless signals over a WLAN (Wireless Local Area Network) or HAN (Home Area Network). With IPv6 support, the envisioned umpteen billions of chips can each be connected to the cloud, each with a unique IP address.
Combining these simplified communications protocols with smaller, ever-more powerful devices means that we may see a decrease in the number PCs required to connect the Internet of Things. This in turn may amplify the call for the kind of resources we expect to see from a cloud infrastructure that can support the flow of real-time data.
“Although the software systems in smart objects will have to function with minimal resources, as in conventional embedded systems,” said Mattern and Floerkemeier, “a more extensive software infrastructure will be needed on the network and on background servers in order to manage the smart objects and provide services to support them.”
One area in which removing the PC to simplify the system has proven its value is in M2M (Machine to Machine) connectivity. Our next blog will take a closer look at this very practical application of the Internet of Things.