Forget IoT; Think “Cloud of Things”

The “Internet of Things” is one of those concepts that starts with at least a grain of truth and gets enveloped in the inevitable wave of hype.  We seem, as an industry, to be incapable of addressing anything that’s not characterized by a hockey stick growth estimate and an ever-expanding-and-less-precise definition.  The problem is that you can have something that’s terribly overblown but still important, and the fanfare forces you to either accept a borderless problem set or ignore the whole thing (well, “things” in this case).  The fact is that IoT trends could be significant, just not everything they’re assumed to be.

We have to start any IoT discussion by defining some realistic boundaries.  We have millions of “networked devices” today that provide sensor information in things like home control, and that number is growing at a predictable rate.  However, virtually none of these devices is on the Internet and there’s no good reason to put them there.  Short-range home wiring and RF technologies like X.10, ZigBee, and Insteon all provide homeowners with a way to trigger alarms when somebody opens a door or window, when a freezer gets too warm, or when water accumulates somewhere.  We should start by defining IoT as applications where something is actually Internet-hosted.

We do have examples of IoT in home control.  Most of the residential monitoring products have offered the option to call out to a monitoring center, and in the Internet age we’ve added the option to text or email, and also the option to review and control the systems from a PC, phone, or tablet.  This is the space Apple has been looking at.  What’s on the Internet isn’t the sensors but the control system, so you go from millions of devices down to perhaps a tenth of that.

There are also some sensor applications that do require, or benefit from, more conventional Internet-like addressing, though.  Where short-range RF won’t work (because ranges aren’t short) people have looked at cellular technology.  Some automotive and process control applications do involve putting something on the Internet, though it’s easy to skid from the reality of smarter vehicles to the exaggeration that every vehicle will be online or will interact with online traffic sensors in a couple years.

In general, control networks should not be “on the Internet” in a direct sense; you should have specific measures in place to make sure they aren’t addressable except by the controllers that work with the data.  It’s these controllers, as I’ve said, that are going to be expanding.  It’s significant but it’s not a network of a bezillion new things.  Also in general, traffic between the controllers and higher-level applications or users won’t be a big thing, certainly not enough to generate any major blip in an Internet traffic pattern set by video use.  I had a chance to look at the industrial control traffic of a big plant, and what was generated in the way of “Internet traffic” even if we define VPNs as the Internet was, over the period of a month, less than that generated by one YouTube viewer in a day.

So where is the substance here, if anywhere?  The big thing is that we do have a number of credible applications of IoT that could generate network and IT changes.  Most of them involve the management of things that move, from trains and trucks and ships to cars and even bikes.  Most, as far as my surveys of enterprises can validate, are really applications of what many feel to be a boring RFID technique.  The nice thing about RFID is that you can have thousands of tags that yield information when pinged by a much smaller number of sensors, and so the cost per object is much lower.

RFID today tends to be a short-range specialized technology, like being able to ping a box as it passes on a conveyor or is delivered to a home, or even “taking a ticket” on a transportation system by pinging it.  Still, you can see that if you tagged something and could read its location when it passed a sensor, there’s an opportunity in what could be called a “sensor service”, where somebody pays to have sensors in key places and sells or licenses the data to companies who couldn’t afford to cover the same geography with dedicated sensors.

Traffic from an RFID sensor network could be greater than that of a standard control network, but still a pimple on the video growth curve.  Cisco won’t sell more routers to carry IoT traffic (but they get more media attention, which is likely the reason).  But RFID sensor networks show us the real issues with IoT.

Issue one is security and privacy.  Sensors that are widely distributed and collectively analyzed can always track something that’s tagged, and that means that packages, devices, clothing, and other stuff that you carry (even stuff like a handout that you’re given and absent-mindedly stick into a pocket/bag) could be used to track you.  How would they know it was “you”?  By correlating the track of a tag back to a point where that track intersects a transaction or activity that establishes identity.  Buy something and walk out of the store and not only might Big Brother be watching you, you might be carrying him along.

Issue number two is access.  Suppose we had a million RFID sensors out there, spewing information every time someone passed.  We could in fact generate billions of data points per minute.  Do we believe that people, even authorized people, are looking at this data in real time?  The complexity of the event processing would be daunting.  The best way to think about these true IoT-like applications is that they are feeding a big-data repository and a set of analytic processes.  Not only does that tame the challenges of delivering sensor data to potentially thousands of users in real time, it can be used to reduce security and privacy concerns.  If track data is a day old, it’s still useful for legitimate profiling of movements and (where it’s legal) even people, but it doesn’t present the same level of personal risk as it would if the data could track someone to where they are now.

The cloud is likely the thing that will make IoT real or unreal.  A cloud-based process to collect data in convenient places like Hadoop cluster sides and provide for queries on that data subject to policy constraints would be easier to regulate and could easily be offered as a SaaS service.  So when you hear about the “Internet of Things”, think of the “Cloud of Things” instead.