Part II: The components of IoT
In a previous article, I posed the question “Why is the Internet of Things (IoT) important?”. Before I dive deeper into my experience with the IoT, I would like to put forth a working definition of the IoT. Specifically, what are its components?
As its name conveys, IoT is composed of the “Internet” and “Things.” To those I add Communications, Energy and People — enablers that must be given importance for IoT to come to fruition. Hence the full list of components becomes: Internet, Things, Communications, Energy and People.
I’ll spare you a lengthy explanation since you are, of course, reading this article published in the internet. It is however worthwhile to highlight some elements that are particularly important to IoT.
The Cloud: The internet itself has enabled large data centers to become part of a large shared computing infrastructure known as the Cloud. The cloud has put big computing power in the hands of many, some which could not otherwise afford it. If the internet of things has the potential to integrate billions of devices which will themselves provide a gazillion bits of relevant information, large and fast data storage and retrieval are requisite. Data from devices is now often augmented by the who (social) and the where (location intelligence), just to name a few added bits. The who is potentially 7.25 billion people (see World Bank) and growing. The where is even bigger if we were to consider every square meter of the surface of our planet to be “locatable” we would end up with 510 trillion data points (see NASA). And what if we are really considering exploring and traveling to other planets? So where else could we possibly store all this information?
And what about computing power? Where else could we expediently train the Machine Learning algorithms that are often cited as part of IoT solutions. To learn from every person in the planet, we require large data sets to be processed. As we become more “artificially intelligent,” we have to process information faster. Unless you are some rich crazy nerd that has a data center in their house, this can only be done by clusters of computers, i.e. in the Cloud.
Ubiquity: The internet has become synonymous with “ubiquity.” With the exception of very remote locations, it is possible to exchange information via the internet from just about any part of the planet. Even when the “things” that we “wire” to the internet are not moving, the cost of running physical wires to them too often becomes prohibitive. So it was again, the affordable Smart Phone (our first IoT gateway) that raised the awareness of the power of the internet when accessed by the many who can afford a phone but not a computer.
While we could write an entire book on this subject, we should not. Here is where human creativity is really needed to make the IoT a success. What are the kinds of things that we could connect to the internet to provide value to humanity? In future articles in this series I will examine this more in detail sharing examples that I was not creative enough to invent, but that I hope will inspire readers.
I chose to keep using the word “Things”, an obscure and abstract term, as we do not yet know what kinds of “things” are possible.
We have come a long way baby. When the internet was conceived, we could only string computers together via wired networks. In those days, coaxial cables – similar to those used in cable TV in some of older homes – were required. Throughput of up to 1 Mb/sec was considered revolutionary.
A lot has changed and continues to change.
Throughput: It is now possible to transfer data between computers at rates of hundreds of Gb/sec.
Medium: It is now possible to connect wirelessly.
Ubiquity: It is now possible to do so while changing locations. Goodbye coaxial cable! I can now watch cable TV on my smart phone. But even this would not be possible without batteries, which brings me to the next and quite relevant IoT component: Energy.
By energy, I do not mean the human energy that is often cited — in an excessive way — when describing the lifestyles of those who work on startups in places like Silicon Valley. I refer to the “usable power” that must be available to make IoT possible, both inside of the large data centers and inside the “things” we connect to these data centers via the internet.
I use the term energy because hints at IoT’s connections to the broader world issues such as geopolitics (e.g. oil prices), human sustainability (e.g. green house gases and climate change) and solutions to world problems (e.g. renewable energy). This is perhaps not an accurate descriptor, as what is delivered to “things” and data center computers is in actuality Power and more specifically Electric Power (see Wikipedia for explanation of differences).
This component of IoT, I argue is one of the the most important as it has the biggest impact on what can be done. How many times have we purchased wearables just to find out that they drain our Smart Phone’s power (Sorry Apple watch, not this time.) So if we are to put lots of intelligence and sensors on the IoT “things,” how can we do so without improved battery technology?
Furthermore, data centers are big energy consumers. Energy in data centers is consumed by the computers themselves as well as by maintaining the temperatures of these natural “ovens” so that they do not overheat. Improvements in energy efficiency of processors, improvement in the design of data center HVAC systems as well as improvements on the design of data center buildings are all necessary to make IoT an “energy success”.
We must also consider how this energy is harvested. To place sensors in remote locations, we can leverage small solar power arrays or other types of compact generators. To power these huge data centers, ever more widespread around the planet, we must also consider how we are to generate the additional power they require. IoT presents us with the opportunity to make use of renewable sources so that we do not create technology that accelerates climate change.
The final component of the IoT is the Human Factor. We should be using the IoT to make people healthier, safer, happier, more productive, etc. Great importance has to be given to what we do, how we do it and why we do itin order to interface with this complex component.
What we do? It has to solve a real problem that improves the lives of many, not just some. Do we really need to track on the internet how fast our bicycle is going or how fast we are pedaling? Is that something that is needed to improve public transportation or is it just for those who can afford a fancy road or mountain bike? Do we really need a virtual reality solution or should we not instead look at the reality we already live in?
How we do it? We cannot design an IoT device that requires an engineer to configure. We cannot design an IoT user interface that makes it difficult to interpret the information that is presented. We cannot design an IoT device that takes a few minutes to give the user results. All these are aspects of one of my favorite subjects — albeit one that I am not very good at — User Interface (UX) design.
Finally, why we do it? We must take into consideration human needs and emotions. Are we doing more harm than good by sharing our selfies? Would it not be best to create apps in which we share the situations of others and perhaps raise awareness to their needs?
We’ll explore some possible and existing applications of the IoT in future posts. Stay tuned!
As the CTO of IT Vizion, Mario Brenes leads the development of all new software products. Prior to IT Vizion, he was the Director of Technical Services of IndX (a software startup) and was part of the management team during the company’s acquisition by Siemens in 2003.
With his 25+ years of experience in industrial IT and automation, Mario continues to be a relentless innovator, focusing on developing products that provide a balance between new technologies and business values.
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