Understanding the IOT Landscape – Networks and Telecommunication Layer

In my previous blog I discussed the Building Blocks or the Connected Devices layer of IOT.  The connected devices being the devices and sensors that create the data that is transmitted over a network to an application or data store that will make later use of that data.  The Building Blocks include the sensors themselves, the Hardware Kits needed to listen to and operate the sensors (including the Operating System and Dev kits), and the Communications Hardware, that enable the sensors to sent data somewhere useful. The Network and Telecommunications layer is the second layer in my Simplified Architecture for IOT and is the topic of this post.

It is worth briefly discussion the connection protocols again, that are used as the very basic level of connectivity for the sensor device to the network.  Major protocols include WiFi, RFID, 2G, 3G, 4G (GSM. GPRS, GPS) Bluetooth, NFC, ZigBee. Remembering that some definitions of IoT require that the device is addressable by IP6, and classify other devices as M2M. I think that this distinction is not really that relevant – IoT in my mind is an extension of what M2M has been doing for many years, but where IoT is different is that the data ends being available to some internet connected application … either via some concentrator, smartphone or other mechanism. Ubiquitous connectivity, open standards, big data and commodity cloud processing are the enabling technologies that make IoT different from traditional M2M.

“It should not come as earth shattering news that machine-to-machine (M2M) technology and the Internet of Things have hit a major convergence point in the tech industry. What is fairly new however is that the two have become so closely intertwined with each other that you can no longer think about one without thinking of the other.”   From TechCrunch

However, one area that the traditional vendors in the M2M market have much to offer in scaling and managing IoT is at the telecoms and networks layers.

Starting with the Telco’s themselves, that have a lot to gain from the IoT marketplace. They provide the basic communications networks and focus on basic protocols and services like SIM management. In Australia, Telstra for example has a M2M business unit that provides special M2M data plans for SIMS, purchase plans for devices needed for M2M (mainly communications equipment, but also some asset tracking tools) and Tools and Services such as SIM Subscription Management, VPN and Integration Services.  Optus, likewise have a similar set of services, and interestingly, promote partners that provide specific M2M solutions in HealthCare, Government, Transport and Logistics, Retail, Industrial & Utility, Insurance, Mining and Healthcare.

What the network operators want to see industry embrace is specific non-removable SIM’s that are embedded into the IoT sensors during manufacturing. The SIM can later be provisioned over the air with the subscription profile of the operator providing the network. The device could be later reprovisioned if the unit is moved to another location or the customer decides to use another provider.(Source: GSMA).

However the traditional telco’s do not provide all that you need for a M2M solution, let alone for a complete IoT solution. Satellite communications, Smart Grid technology, radio (see what Observant are doing in agriculture), Bluetooth all have a part to play. That is where the non-traditional networking firms like Stream Technologies, Jaspar Communications and ITRON play.

Stream Technologies, with a tiny staff and less than £5 million of investment, is a “leading-edge disruptive force” in the telecoms industry. Working in the M2M business for 14 years Stream is no aspiring start-up but a mature company with depth of product for the IoT and M2M industry.  Stream has built the only platform which links the entire UK and European eco-system of machine-generated data. It embraces not only the telecoms giants but satellite-based Inmarsat, and offers a virtual platform that minimises intrusion into telco systems as it attracts new mobile phone networks worldwide.

Kore Wireless Asia Pacific is providing a set of similar services for Asia Pac region, with a vision to offer a distinctly “uncarrier” level of complication-free service to the M2M market for their device connectivity needs.

Jasper Communications , a US based firm, claims its the World’s #1 IoT Platform, and certainly shows a large number of excellent case studies of world leading brands using its technology.

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Jaspar Communications Worlds #1 IoT Platform

Jaspar offer a Connected Devices Cloud enables seamless integration, cost containment, automated connected device provisioning and management, and real-time diagnostics—all completely configurable to meet the operational needs of your connected products business.

Features of product at this level of the IoT stack focus on managing the devices that are deployed in the network. Jaspar’s products include features such as full visibility of network use across all deployed device, automated service management for all stages of product life cycle, cost management, analyze and optimize operator rate plans and programs, diagnostics including identify, troubleshoot issues on any device, automation and creation and management of customer billing.

Obviously not the full stack to create an IoT solution, but a necessary set of features for management of the communications and device assets.

Another means for connectivity for IoT (and M2M) is utilising our power network. SmartMeters were early on touted as the gateway for managing the smart home, and this future may still eventuate.  Firms such as Itron are implementing Smart Grid solutions with their OpenWay Riva grid communications and automation solutions.

ITRON Smart Grid

With OpenWay Riva, Itron is first to offer adaptive communications technology, meaning utilities can deploy a single network solution that incorporates multiple communications technologies — radio frequency (RF), power line carrier (PLC) even Wi-Fi — working in concert in the same device. The technology automatically utilizes the most reliable and fastest communication path based on its location, network operating conditions and the nature of the application or data.

Finally, something about the standards that are emerging. Although you may not be building IoT solutions that require you to implement standards at these low levels, an understanding of what standards your devices and communications networks us useful, both to understand the complete solution stack, but to also to ensure that you stick to the emerging standards to enable future change and interoperability.

The European Telecommunications Standards Institute, ETSI, produces globally-applicable standards for Information and Communications Technologies (ICT), including fixed, mobile, radio, converged, broadcast and internet technologies.

ETSI’s standardization group dedicated to Low Throughput Networks technology has just released the first three specifications of an Internet of Things (IoT) network dedicated to low throughput communications. Read the whole article here

networkThese new requirements provide a breakthrough in the machine to machine business, allowing object connection for a few euros per year, with a few milliwatts for transmission and a modem costing less than 1 euro. The key to the success of IoT standardization and implementation, these assumptions are the basis for many new and innovative applications.

Low Throughput Network (LTN) technology is a wide area bidirectional wireless network with key differentiators compared to existing networks. It enables long-range data transmission (distances around 40 km in open field) and/or communication with buried underground equipment and operates with minimal power consumption allowing several years of operation even with standard batteries. This technology also implements advanced signal processing that provides effective protection against interference.

Another interesting standard is MQTT which stands for MQ Telemetry Transport. It is a publish/subscribe, extremely simple and lightweight messaging protocol, designed for constrained devices and low-bandwidth, high-latency or unreliable networks. The design principles are to minimise network bandwidth and device resource requirements whilst also attempting to ensure reliability and some degree of assurance of delivery. These principles also turn out to make the protocol ideal of the emerging “machine-to-machine” (M2M) or “Internet of Things” world of connected devices, and for mobile applications where bandwidth and battery power are at a premium. MQTT is now an OASIS standard.

My next post will venture up into the horizontal software layers where middleware, big data, IOT platforms, and analytics all have a part to play,

Understanding the IoT landscape – The Building Blocks

The number of vendors who are active in the IoT space is already mindboggling … just like Cloud, every existing IT vendor out there will be reshaping their solutions so that they look like you absolutely need them if you are going to build a solution.  The trap is, of course, using the wrong tools for the job and ending up with too many layers of software, with too much baggage, to do the job properly.

The first part in understanding the IoT landscape is to understand the various layers, who plays in them, and do you need to concern yourself with them.  Each layer will have critical importance depending on whether you are building a consumer tool, or alternatively automating your factory … two very different propositions.

The first step to understanding the complexity of the IoT space is to review the excellent IOT landscape diagram, first published by TechCrunch, in the article Making Sense of the Internet of Things.  This article sets out three layers, the building blocks, horizontals and verticals. This blog will elaborate on each of the layers  to aid understanding and look at the space from more of an architectural lens, rather than commercial view.

The first level concerns the Connected Devices or Building Blocks and includes the sensors themselves, hardware kits that control the sensors and provide the connectivity to the chosen network protocol. In my simplified IoT architecture this is included as the Connected Devices layer.

IOT Architecture

A simplified view of the architecture of IOT

Sensors –  The first layer, and the one that enables the whole industry, are the ‘things’ themselves.   Without understanding the ‘things’ then it is pretty hard to envisage the rest of the landscape.  A good definition of the ‘thing’ is come from Techtarget:

“A thing, in the Internet of Things, can be a person with a heart monitor implant, a farm animal with a biochip transponder, an automobile that has built-in sensors to alert the driver when tire pressure is low — or any other natural or man-made object that can be assigned an IP address and provided with the ability to transfer data over a network. So far, the Internet of Things has been most closely associated with machine-to-machine (M2M) communication in manufacturing and power, oil and gas utilities. Products built with M2M communication capabilities are often referred to as being smart.”

One interesting thing about this definition is that it states a requirement that the ‘thing’ has an IP address. However, many things are connected via protocols such as Bluetooth and NFC and don’t necessarily have an IP address. However, these things, are often connected to the Internet, by a concentrator or hub, in many cases a mobile phone or some other computer in the network (particularly in the case of M2M).

For example, the Android developers platform supports three broad categories of sensors:

  • Motion sensorsThese sensors measure acceleration forces and rotational forces along three axes. This category includes accelerometers, gravity sensors, gyroscopes, and rotational vector sensors.
  • Environmental sensorsThese sensors measure various environmental parameters, such as ambient air temperature and pressure, illumination, and humidity. This category includes barometers, photometers, and thermometers.
  • Position sensorsThese sensors measure the physical position of a device. This category includes orientation sensors and magnetometers.

These are all connected to the internet via the Android mobile phone, which acts as the concentrator or router for these devices to talk to apps (although some apps run on the device itself and do not communicate with the network at all)

For a list of the many hundreds of available sensors, refer to the Wikipedia list which describes the sensors available in each of the categories.

Hardware Kits – The hardware kits are used to connect and control the sensors, provide them power, and gather the data and send to the network via some communication protocol. At this level the hardware may have to be concerned with failure modes, error reporting, power management, data storage and a number of tasks required to control the device or sensor.

Some of the major kits here include Arduino, Intel Galileo and Raspberry-Pi BeagleBoard, Gadgeteer, CubieBoard, and others.

Kits like Raspberry Pi are very cheap ($25 – $35) and were designed for kids to program. A list of the Automation, sensing and robotics projects completed this kit can be found here.

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Communications Hardware –  The hardware kits may or may not come with communications hardware, and depending on the deployment scenario, additional communication protocols may be required. For example in agriculture, satellite and radio networks are used to communicate with sensor equipment.

An example of communication hardware, the TSgaTe is a powerful communication platform that enables fast and simple development of M2M solutions, wireless monitoring and remote control applications. Available TST libraries allow easy and quick development of software applications in ANSI C language that take full advantage of the add-on modules. Such hardware are embedded into the end device, like the street light controller shown below.

Street Light Wireless Controller from TST

Street Light Wireless Controller from TST

Connection Protocols – this is the very basic level of connectivity for the sensor device to the network.  Major protocols include WiFi, RFID, 2G, 3G, 4G (GSM. GPRS, GPS) Bluetooth, NFC, ZigBee.

Most of the above protocols are well known, however ZigBee deserves some explanation

Zigbee is a low cost, low power wireless technology that has been designed for the robust transmission of small amounts of data, usually sensor measurements or control commands for actuators, over mesh networks in the industrial environment. This standard has been defined by the ZigBee Alliance, an industrial consortium of companies led by Texas Instruments, Philips, Freescale and ST among others. Zigbee allows sending data, usually information from sensors and/or control commands for actuators, through multi hope wireless mesh networks, which allows a great coverage area (due to message forwarding by the repeater nodes) with redundant links (if a route is down, information is sent over another path), making Zigbee a robust network suitable for critical environments.

In my next article we will try to make some sense of the communications networks that are used to for IoT and M2M communication, before tackling the horizontal layers where the software platforms reside.

Living with IoT

Imagine a world where your behaviours and habits with products determine its warranty status? Where you car tells the insurer how safely and carefully you drive and charges you accordingly (or suspends your policy automatically when you do not drive within the law).  These are all the flop side of the benefits of IoT – we will live in a world where our privacy is further eroded for the benefit of commerce … and we will all willingly agree to get better prices, service and utility out of lives.

We quickly gave up our information privacy to Google, Facebook and others when the services they provided far outweighed the small sacrifice of anonymity in what we read, purchased and watched.  We will do the same with devices, when having them connected to their manufacturer, the distributor, and other service providers.  And do you think the Government won’t be interested in some of that data too … of course it will.

So like cloud computing, social and other technologies we are going to hear a lot about security and privacy in the IoT space and most of it will be simply noise. Most people will not understand how the data will be used or collected and will not care as long as the get the better service or product experience.

So it remains to the professionals in the industry to ensure that we have the safeguards in place and that we fundamentally respect individuals privacy as we build solutions. However, as with other technologies, those firms that put adopt the ‘do nothing’ approach and let the shrill cries of “what about security and privacy” will be left behind. Think about the problem clearly, adopt sensible precautions and standards, rather than trying to get everything perfect before you start.