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Open to New Things


Connecting a diversity of devices means preserving the openness of the Internet of Things.


by John Sublett
, August 2014

As a technologist, I tend to focus more on the design and implementation of systems and less on the marketing message. However, when it comes to marketing messages, the Internet of Things (IoT) really hits the nail on the head and describes a particular challenge precisely and succinctly. The term is credited to Kevin Ashton all the way back in 1999, but with advances in network technology and the ever-decreasing cost of compute power, it is more relevant now than ever. It describes a system where the physical world of devices and sensors is connected, monitored, and even controlled through the internet.

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The arrival of IPv6 enabled the first part of the vision, connecting every device in the world to a common network. To be connected to a network, a device must have a unique address, and with IPv6 there are enough unique addresses available to connect every device on Earth many times over.

The second part of the challenge is the more interesting one to me: of Things. That part of the message is perfectly ambiguous and is the crux of the challenge. It does not say “new things” or “old things” or “my things” or “your things.” It also does not say “residential things” or “industrial things” or “things in buildings.” It simply says “Things,” and that open-ended message is the challenge.

The internet comes with a set of foundational technologies: IP, SSL/TLS, firewalls, LAN and WAN infrastructure, and so on. Together, these technologies enable the worldwide network that is the internet. However, these technologies are not nearly enough by themselves to provide real value. The real value comes from the applications built on top of the internet. For example, the World Wide Web is really just an application, built on the internet, to provide people with access to information. The web adds technologies such as HTTP; HTML/HTML5; web browsers; search engines; and a vast array of content types: documents, photos, video, and so on. And the web is the most successful system of all time, with more than 750 million websites online as of 2013, and many of those representing businesses that base their entire livelihood on their web presence. The success of the web has been driven by its openness.

The open IoT will be built on foundational technologies that can adapt to the demands of an evolving system. That means scalability, open connectivity, and open extensibility with an ecosystem of innovators empowered to complete the ever-changing puzzle.

The success of the IoT depends even more on openness. The diversity of the devices that will make up the IoT makes a single, unifying protocol impractical for a few important reasons. First, not all IoT devices are new devices. For devices that are already in place, you’ll have to speak their language to talk to them. Second, the communication protocol needs to meet the needs of the information being provided. You wouldn’t use the same protocol to transmit both a live video stream and a periodic reading from a wireless temperature sensor. And finally, human nature dictates that we always try to build a better mousetrap. There is always someone ready to do it again, but better.

A successful infrastructure for the IoT must embrace these realities. As you select and build the technologies that define an IoT solution for your business, consider not just today’s needs but your needs for the future. What devices will you need to connect over the next 10-plus years? What information will you need to get from them, and at what frequency? What services do you need to deliver based on that connectivity? What capabilities will your infrastructure need to deliver those services?

These requirements are impossible to predict for the expected life span of most systems. The only constant is change. The open IoT will be built on foundational technologies that can adapt to the demands of an evolving system. That means scalability, open connectivity, and open extensibility with an ecosystem of innovators empowered to complete the ever-changing puzzle.

Exciting times ahead.

John Sublett is chief technology officer at Tridium.

 
 
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