The “Internet of Things”?

To quote Wikipedia; “the Internet of Things (IoT) refers to uniquely identifiable objects and their virtual representations in an Internet-like structure.”

To read the entire entry might make fans of “The Terminator” nervous when they realize that the concept of virtually every object, machine and device, from pacemakers to jumbo jets, is directly linked to the Internet. Not quite a “machines take over the world” scenario yet but it is the dawn of a new age for application development and furthers the reach of “the cloud” into more aspects of both business and personal life.

A concept where all objects and people in daily life are equipped with identifiers was first proposed by Kevin Ashton in 1999. He envisioned that once they were “connected” they could be managed and inventoried by computers. All of it predicated on the availability of, or use of, radio frequency identification (RFID) as connecting everything would for the most part require a wireless connection and a way to identify the object.

According to Helen Duce, a director of the RFID Technology Auto-ID European Centre at the University of Cambridge, the university has created a bold vision of a new RFID-connected world: “We have a clear vision – to create a world where every object – from jumbo jets to sewing needles – is linked to the Internet. Compelling as this vision is, it is only achievable if this system is adopted by everyone everywhere. Success will be nothing less than global adoption.”

However if you ask some in the IT universe the whole thought of having to add IoT to their plate, along with cloud, mobile applications and starting to mine all that “big data”, is one they are not sure we are ready to handle…let alone afford.

In a recent Wired article Mahesh Kumar , CMO of the “Data as a Service” company BDNA, expresses concern as to whether IoT might not be the very thing that sinks IT. He does acknowledge that it is a data problem they face and one that has been building for years, “The shift from mainframe to client/server” Kumar points out, “drove a huge escalation in IT data. Storage networking introduced new layers of data to manage. Server virtualization not only increased the number of virtual servers to be managed, but also added even more data to map physical assets to virtual ones. Today, dynamic applications running on private or hybrid cloud infrastructure fluctuate in real-time, adding further complexity to IT data.”

He goes on to suggest that it is not just volume that is a problem but complexity and, although he doesn’t say it outright in his article, the structured and unstructured nature of many data sets is what really makes managing all that data time and labor intensive. And you have to also add “big data” and the drive to dig into it and glean meaningful, profitable outcomes for businesses.

Enough already?

Sorry but no. IoT has already been on and off the drawing board and has already resulted in the introduction of products to enable the “Internet of Things”.

First there is the introduction of products that harness “ambient backscatter”, which loosely defined is a way for the “objects” that are the target of IoT to hitchhike on virtually any available signal in its proximity. It also is able to draw power from these sources which helps to mitigate the hefty power consumption requirements of wireless devices.

“Ambient backscatter” is a method of networking developed by researchers at the University of Washington. To sum it up, the technology allows devices to communicate with one another wirelessly and with no batteries. Instead of creating their own signals, ambient backscatter devices essentially freeload off existing signals from radio, TV, cellular, and Wi-Fi networks, which invisibly blanket much of the earth. Sounds a little crooked but it frees these devices from reliance on any fixed network access point and removes the battery life problem by not needing one.

Intel has recently introduced a gateway that they refer to as a “middleman” for IoT and IBM and Semtech have also just release a wireless solution aimed at the Internet of Things. These two solutions each target one or more of the basic needs of IoT but don’t necessarily mean it’s here…yet.

Nonetheless, several existing technologies serve to already support using the Internet and specific applications to perform very useful things for a variety of company types. Logistics departments are already seeking GPS and mobile applications and more than one sensor or two have been deployed by businesses in need of monitoring remotely any number of critical assets.

Developing such applications doesn’t need to be expensive and they can be done utilizing offshore development teams already skilled in programming the interactions of remote devices and computing infrastructures. So even if there isn’t an “ambient backscatter” device available, your business can start to use remote technologies to monitor everything from the freezer in your grocery store to a critical pressure setting on an oil pipeline.

Probably not the end of IT but only the beginning of yet another revolution in computing.

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