The Internet Of Things Waits On Standards

Great idea, but the Internet is going nowhere till it has settled on a standard, says Peter Judge

One of the things that will keep our data centres busy over the next decade will be the Internet of Things (IoT). Billions of tiny sensors, attached to just about everything, will be gathering data, and all of that data has to be collected and processed somewhere.

There’s a green angle to this, of course. The Internet of Things is used by the Smart set: the Smart Grids, Smart Cities, Smart Homes and so forth, which are supposed to reduce our overall energy consumption – and hopefully they’ll save more energy than is used in the networks and data centres that handle their data.

IoT faces conflict

We all know that data centres are playing their part here, with a drive to cut power requirements. But what is happening with the Internet of Things?Internet of things fibre cable circuit board network © asharkyu Shutterstock

I’ve spent a bit of time this week on IoT stories, and it’s clear that there is a lot going on, but still a lot to be done. There are doubts and debate – and probably misinformation – around the subject. And at the moment, it seems that no-one is quite sure how the IoT will be connected.

Let’s take the Smart Home as an example. A smart meter will monitor energy use, and respond when utilities offer changed prices, in order to smooth the peaks of demand. It will talk to smart plugs and (assuming we trust it) switch devices on and off as appropriate, according to sensors.

Whatever network the devices use has to be low energy, so the ones that aren’t on the mains don’t have to be wired up, and they don’t need their batteries changed every week.
It has to be simple, so it more-or-less sets itself up. With dozens of devices per person, the human overhead would kill IoT otherwise.

The tech also has to be made for a mass market so the prices don’t stop the users from using it it at all.

What are the options? There are a lot of competing technologies out there, including Wi-Fi, Bluetooth Low Energy, the latest DECT mutation (ULE) and the Weightless group which uses “white space” radio. Some of these are more likely than others to succeed, and there are stil other moribund technologies out there which aren’t quite dead yet, such as ZigBee.

All these ideas can deliver communications at the kind of data rate which IoT needs (low speeds, typically a few kbps), and at the low energy these applicaitons demand (batteries have to last for a couple of years).

But none of them will reach the production levels required for a mass market, as long as the others are contenders. We need to wait for the standards war to play out.

Mobile lessons

Why can’t they all live happily together? Because sensors need to communicate with multiple gateways. If your electricity provider changes your house smart meter, or you move house, the new meter has to pick up all your smart plugs and smart lights, without you reprogramming them or getting new ones.

4G, Mobile, Smartphone © Digital Storm Shutterstock 2012Multiple networks are no problem for smartphones, of course, They typically handle multiple international cellular, 3G and 4G standards, several Wi-Fi generations, Bluetooth, possibly sonic communications, NFC and (if it’s not an iPhone) probably pick up FM radio. They may still have infra-red communication, and can pick up information by barcode using the camera.

But smartphones are high-price items, and they get charged regularly. They can afford to run all this tech, but multiple radios are expensive, and involve a lot of power overhead. Even a software-defined radio has to (obviously) run software, and that takes it outside IoT power budgets.

For similar reasons, look out for IoT operators. Multiple networks, managed by some sort of controller within your house will be too much of an overhead. Walkie-talkies pre-dated mobile phones, but mobile phones took off big time because the model of operators allowed each device to communicate more, and took away the headache of getting the thing to work.

If it’s that complicated, should we care? We should – because when it happens, the important thing about IoT won’t be the sensors and the home networks. The thing that matters will be the data, pulled to the centre and aggregated, to be made useful.

IoT data will be big business for data centres. And IoT fans say it will help the planet.

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