Business as usual is no longer an option.
Talk to anyone in the tech industry about the Internet of Things (IoT) and inevitably words like ‘potential’ or ‘opportunities’ litter the conversation. As Jim Peters, SITA CTO notes, “the Internet of Things sits on the Gartner Hype Cycle at the very top.”
So is IoT getting a bad rap as another jam tomorrow story?
Peters believes the perception comes down to the IoT being used as general term for a collection of technologies and so doesn’t get into business conversations.
“When the CIO has a budget meeting there’s no IoT discussion, so to speak. The budget discussion is about the use cases, whether it’s proximity services in an airport or real-time monitoring of aircraft parts. It means IoT doesn’t get the credit for some of what it’s already delivering.”
Jérôme Poulain, VP International Development at Orange Business Services, agrees. He’s been working on large scale IoT initiatives for years including a number of Smart City projects in places like Marseilles and Doha. He says the IoT is already all around us, but is not perceived in that way.
“Today there are already many everyday objects participating in the Internet of Things. Even ones we don’t even think about. The passport - it has a chip. Also with shopping, there are tiny RFID tags in clothing that retailers use to manage their inventory and of course there is the king of these objects, the smartphone.”
It has also changed business models worldwide. The “Uberization of our economy”, as Poulain calls it.
"Some companies not owning any assets are more valuable than ones owning millions. What we see with these businesses is that IoT technologies allows them to manage a value chain without the capex and they are very successful,” he says.
“This is a wake-up call for us all. It means business as usual is not an option anymore,” he continues.
One company that’s done more than most to drive the IoT is Intel. They’ve pushed Moore’s law to where you can get minute computers and sensors onto tiny chips.
Charlie Sheridan, Director of IoT Systems Research for Intel Labs Europe, agrees the IoT is the here and now, but believes it’s just at the start of a revolution.
“We're really already in that era of smart and connected everything,” he says. “And it's going to grow.”
“I think over the next 10 years there’s going to be a dramatic evolution of computing. We're going to take all the data that we're generating with our smart and connected devices and merge it with very, very intelligent machine learning and artificial intelligence,” he predicts.
Nevertheless, it’s not going to be all plain sailing and both Sheridan and Poulain see challenges ahead.
“Security is paramount, so we need to think about it upfront and really build it in from the beginning,” says Sheridan.
Poulain concurs. “Cybersecurity is really key. When you interconnect objects using LoRa (the networking standard enabling the IoT) or using Wi-Fi or anything, you really have to make sure that the identity of the objects is secured, and the communication that you have with them is also encrypted, managed and secure,” he says.
Another challenge comes in assembling the various pieces of technology into an IoT solution.
“The most important thing is the integration,” says Poulain. “At Orange, we have an approach we call Datavenue with the steps ‘select, connect, manage, control’.
“With proper integration using the proper devices, the proper connection, the proper platform for managing them, it can really bring lots of value.”
Businesses are often constrained by legacy technology and Sheridan sees this as an issue. “How do you retrofit all of these smart and connected devices into your existing enterprise and operational systems? It's easy to do greenfield, but retrofits are challenging.”
“If you can get it working, feeding that virtual cycle of pushing data into the cloud. There is some really interesting opportunities and benefits.”
A related issue is standards, which would help with interoperability between components. “Standards are going to be absolutely critical and key to rapid deployment of IoT,” says Sheridan.
“One of the things that Intel is doing is working with the Industrial Internet Consortia (IIC). It's got GE; it's got Siemens; all of the large players. Both from a computing technology side and also from an industry side, coming together to define standards.”
There’s also the huge volume of data to deal with. It’s going to put unprecedented pressure on networks, says Sheridan.
“How do you actually manage that data? Where is the best place, the most optimized place, to do the data analytics?
“With IoT, a large percentage of the data, some 40%, will be processed much closer to the edge. So we're starting to see new paradigms in how we manage the data from edge analytics all the way through to the cloud,” he continues.
Another question that needs answering is connectivity. How do we actually take all the different objects and get them on the grid?
As Peters explains, “If, as some estimates put it, we’re going to have 50 billion connected sensors, you can’t have 50 billion more cables going into the wall somewhere.”
Fortunately, wireless options are in abundance. For close proximity there is Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and the newer wireless protocol, Zigbee. For longer range connectivity, GSM is omnipresent, but its power and cost characteristics make it unattractive for many IoT deployments.
To counter this, new dedicated IoT networks are starting to evolve under the banner LPWAN (Low Power Wide Area Network). Two competing networks are Sigfox and LoRa.
The benefit of these networks is that they offer lower cost connectivity for objects that produce only small amounts of data and need long battery life.
As Poulain explains, “For example, LoRa is a radio connection technology that can work with a public or private base station over a few tens of meters right up to a few kilometers.
“It allows objects to live like 10 years without changing the battery, because they just send a few data bits per day to the base station. So when you have your LoRa base station connected to your AirportHub for example, you would have the possibility to connect a lot of objects and they will last forever.”
However, as Poulain points out, with all the connectivity options there will be a trade-off between data rate, range, power, and cost.
“You have to choose which technology matches what you want to do. If you want flexibility with the possibility of building your own private network and bi-directionality, LoRa is just right.
“Or if you want a wider coverage that is operated one way, there is for example, Sigfox. You also have the telecom operators with cellular GSM,” he says.
On top of that, cellular networks will eventually offer the full range of IoT connection: LTE-M or NB-IOT on 4G networks and even GSM-IOT, are all expected to become public before the end of 2018.
Today cellular networks, which are available worldwide, remain relatively expensive. As the IoT world ramps up this too will evolve and cost will converge at an affordable level.
“With 5G becoming common from 2020, IoT will be fully supported with wide coverage, volumes, as well as long battery life,” says Poulain.
Sheridan agrees. “5G technology will come. The driver for that is really going to be areas like autonomous systems, robotics, and potentially drone control. Autonomous systems, robotics are going to need much, much denser connectivity than available today.”
What’s clear is that overcoming the challenges is by no means easy, but the smart thinking seems to be don’t hold back as there are already benefits to be had.
As Sheridan advises, “basically you've got to pick a problem and just go after it. There are many, many opportunities. Smart buildings, Smart homes, Smart grid; these are all areas that are going through transformation.”
The good news is there’s a lot of expertise already out there, adds Poulain. “SITA and Orange, with their transportation and industrial knowledge are a natural partnership for integrating IoT into their customers’ businesses.”
And is IoT still a jam tomorrow story?
Absolutely not, he says. “The future is now and we are actually getting real savings from IoT projects, so the Internet of Things, it’s real, it’s here and it’s happening.”