What is IoT? Guide to the Internet of Things

Jaime E. Love

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The Internet of Things (IoT) shifts human and computer interaction to a broad and widely distributed framework. By connecting various “things” and “objects”—smartphones, lights, industrial machines, wearables, remote sensors and physical objects that have been equipped with RFID tags—it’s possible to drive advances that would have seemed unimaginable only a couple of decades ago.

The IoT—which serves as a broad term for a vast network of connected devices—has moved into the mainstream of business and life. It now serves as a fabric for far more advanced human-machine interaction. It encompasses everything from home thermostats and wearables to tracking systems and smart systems for agriculture, buildings and even cities.

Today, virtually no technology lies outside the realm of the IoT. Self-driving vehicles, manufacturing robots, environmental monitoring, supply chain tracking, transportation systems, and remote medical devices are just a few of the areas undergoing radical change due to the IoT.

Mobile phone company Ericsson reports that there are currently about 29 billion IoT devices in use worldwide. Businesses are increasingly turning to the IoT to drive innovation, trim costs, improve safety and security, and promote greater sustainability.

Not surprisingly, the global COVID-19 pandemic has further accelerated adoption of IoT technologies. The need for automation and touchless systems has multiplied. These include frameworks that support remote work as well as various health scanners, contact tracing systems, crowdsourcing and digital payments. Used effectively, the IoT introduces systems and frameworks that match or exceed human capabilities.

A Brief History of IoT

From the earliest days of computing, it has been apparent that connected devices and systems deliver value. They allow machines and humans to interact in more useful and productive ways. The roots of the IoT extend back to 1969, when a group of prominent researchers developed ARPAnet (the precursor to today’s Internet). Over the ensuring three decades, various computing, networking and wireless protocols began to take shape—and serve as a foundation for the IoT.

In 1999, Kevin Ashton from MIT introduced the term “Internet of Things.” At the time, the concept focused heavily on RFID tags that were added to physical objects. However, after the turn of the century, two events proved transformative. In the early 2000’s, Amazon introduced AWS Cloud. It provided an agile and flexible framework for collecting, managing and sharing data. Six thereafter, Apple released the first iPhone. It supported sophisticated apps and enabled always-on real-time connectivity.

By 2008, the IoT reached a milestone. There were more connected devices than people in the world. Over the ensuing years, further developments in sensors, connectivity and artificial intelligence (AI) fueled increasingly sophisticated and easy-to-use IoT solutions. Meanwhile, consortiums and standards appeared, making it easier to maximize the value of a connected world.

Over the last few years, the IoT has matured at a remarkable speed. Sensors and microchips designed specifically for the IoT have appeared, software and AI/machine learning have advanced, and vendors have introduced an array of solutions that deliver more robust capabilities.

Also see: What is Edge Computing

How the IoT Works

Connecting myriad devices, while a seemingly simple concept, is incredibly challenging. IoT devices must function in many different situations and scenarios. They must interact with other digital technologies as well as legacy systems while relying on different communications standards and protocols. In many cases, IoT devices must support multiple standards and protocols.

The foundation for the IoT is Internet Protocol (IP) and Transmission Control Protocol (TCP). These standards—which grew out of ARPAnet and are now part of the Internet and Web—serve as the underlying protocols for establishing a virtual connection between various sensors, devices and systems.

IoT devices connect to IoT gateways or edge devices that collect data. The modern IoT is comprised of seven basic layers that reside within an Open Systems Interconnection (OSI) model. These include the:

  • Physical layer
  • Data links
  • Network
  • Transport mechanism
  • Session layer
  • Presentation layer
  • Software applications

The physical and data link layers determine how devices connect to the IoT. This can include cables, Bluetooth or Wi-Fi. The data link layer identifies connected devices through a media access control (MAC) address.

The network layer, also referred to as the Internet layer, routes packets of data to an Internet Protocol (IP) address. Today, Internet Protocol version 6 (IPv6) offers advanced network identification and controls that keeps the IoT running.

The transport layer accommodates end-to-end communication across a group of IoT devices and other systems. It boosts reliability, alleviates congestion and ensures that packets arrive intact and in the correct sequence.

The session, presentation and application layers address cross-application messaging and the exchange of data.

Vendors and others use a wide range of IoT protocols to address the specific needs of each of these layers. These include various communication technologies such as 5G and LTE, Bluetooth, Near Field Communication (NFC), LAN, RFID, ZigBee, Wi-Fi, Low Power Wide Area Network (LPWAN), Wide Area Networks (WAN) and Metropolitan Area Network (MAN).

Each of these technologies enables different capabilities. For example, RFID makes it possible to attach a tracking chip to a physical item—anything from a medical device in a hospital to a pallet that contains food products or medicine. ZigBee and a similar protocol called Z-Wave use a mesh network to transmit data—even when a cellular or wired connection isn’t available.

However, it’s often possible to link and combine different technologies such as Bluetooth Low Energy, Z-Wave and 804.15.4 through IPv6 over Low-Power Wireless Personal Area Networks (6LoWPAN), an open standard that supports low-power radio communication to the internet.

Much of the data collected by IoT devices is streamed to the cloud or managed in Edge and Fog systems, which can store and sometimes process data away from a central server or cloud. This model makes it possible to introduce far more advanced real-time capabilities that are needed for systems such as digital twins, smart manufacturing and smart cities.

Also see: Best Data Analytics Tools 

Data Drives IoT

At its heart, the IoT is a sensing system. The “eyes, ears, nose and fingers” of this connected world reside in various devices, sensors and chips. They collect the data that feeds insight, automation, AI and other functions. Today’s IoT sensors can detect movement and motion, temperature, pressure, gas and chemical concentrations, magnetic and electrical fields, light, sound and much more.

This makes it possible, for example, to determine when a bridge or tunnel requires repairs, how to optimize performance across a subway or train network, and when a specific event has occurred. In the latter case, a motion sensor might switch on a security camera if someone enters an unauthorized space.

The IoT can also aid in keeping machinery running, support connected healthcare, improve supply chain visibility, personalize media content, and aid in managing infrastructure and equipment, such as storage tanks and transport vehicles.

All the data collected by sensors can also identify patterns and trends that escape human eyes and minds. For instance, the IoT can help a credit card company identity fraud, an ice cream manufacturer know which flavors are more popular in different locations, and a healthcare provider spot factors that contribute to sickness and disease.

Weather forecasting has become far more accurate in recent years due to connected weather stations that feed data on a block-by-block level. In many cases, homeowners and businesses install connected weather stations and the data is aggregated by the IoT and used to generate more granular predictions. This data benefits farmers, importers, logistics companies and many others.

Geolocation is a key factor in connecting all the data dots. It makes it possible to understand data in deeper ways—and in context—but it also enables more advanced capabilities that allow an E-ZPass toll system or a company such as Lyft to perform its magic. The possibilities are nearly endless. Identifying cars, scooters or pollutants, and overlaying services, payments and solutions suddenly becomes possible with IoT geolocation data.

Of course, a key consideration for organizations looking to extract the maximum value from the IoT is to ensure that the data is accurate. One of the biggest challenges revolves around how data is combined—and what data to exclude. Data scientists must ensure that software and other tools pull the right data at the right time, sequence it correctly, and combine it in a way that generates meaningful results.

When data is assembled and sequenced correctly, it’s possible to gain highly granular snapshots of actions, movements, events, behaviors and conditions. This can help businesses develop more elastic and dynamic pricing models, highly accurate predictive maintenance frameworks, smarter sourcing and supply chains and much more. As organizations slice, dice, crunch and analyze all this data—often through machine learning (ML) and deep learning (DL) techniques—valuable insight, information and knowledge follow.

Also see: Top Data Visualization Tools 

IoT Means Business

According to the World Economic Forum, the IoT is part of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. A convergence of various digital technologies enables things like precision agriculture, smart factories, digital twins, fully autonomous vehicles and robotics, automated warehouses and grocery stores, and entirely new business models, which weren’t possible before the IoT existed.

Digital twins are a particularly compelling solution. These systems—which typically extract data from buildings, roadways, storage tanks, engines, manufacturing equipment, products and numerous other sources, create virtual models or “twins” of actual products, services, and systems. In this simulated space, it’s possible to explore various options and scenarios, and understand performance and possible outcomes at a far deeper level.

Plugging into a growing collection of standards, protocols and APIs, IoT systems can connect and interconnect in increasingly sophisticated ways. It’s possible to tap into broader technology platforms that intersect with AI and automation. Increasingly, vendors such as AWS, Google, Cisco, Microsoft, IBM, SAP and others offer IoT and Industrial IoT (IIoT) platforms that combine various functions and deliver plug-and-play capabilities.

These vendor platforms now include highly integrated tools for auto-provisioning, data collection, cloud and edge storage, remote device management, analytics and machine learning, policy enforcement and security. Many of these systems are highly scalable and many include templates and functions designed for specific industry verticals, such as manufacturing, healthcare, finance and transportation.

This leads to potential gains in several areas: workers safety, production uptime, product quality, regulatory compliance, operational efficiencies, physical security and much more. Together, the IoT and IIoT can deliver visibility into conditions that extend outside the enterprise.

Today, IoT platforms serve as a valuable resource for both small and larger enterprise. They reduce—and in some cases eliminate—the need to assemble an IoT framework from scratch and devote staffing and financial resources to the task of maintaining and updating a connected technology and business framework.

Also see: Top Digital Transformation Companies

How Secure is IoT?

An inconvenient truth is that the IoT is not inherently secure. Because it is comprised of a mishmash of protocols, standards and vendors, any enterprise venturing into a highly connected world must take abundant precautions and enact strong safeguards. In addition, as organizations accumulate large numbers of IoT devices—sometimes reaching into the millions—the security challenges multiply.

It’s no secret that data breaches and ransomware attacks have reached epidemic proportions. During the pandemic, the problem worsened. As more and more connected devices appear, potential gaps and breakdowns grow. Making matters worse, conventional security tools don’t necessarily protect IoT devices and data.

Part of the security challenge also centers on the way IoT devices are built—and what operating system and software they use. Unfortunately, equipment vendors frequently use legacy BIOS and OS standards that are not equipped for today’s environment. Many also don’t provide regular patches and updates to address security bugs and other problems.

Already, criminals have taken over Internet connected baby monitors, commandeered smart refrigerators and television sets, and gained access to automobiles and medical devices.

Ultimately, IoT security must address three primary areas:

Authentication

Device authentication increasingly revolves around protocols, such as X.509, that verifies devices, gateways, users, services, and applications. The X.509 cryptographic standard uses self-signed or authority-signed public key certificates that validate identities over a network.

Encryption

Encryption typically encompasses the Wireless Protection Access 2 (WPA2) standard of network encryption.

Port protection

Port protection techniques revolve around disabling ports that aren’t required to operate an IoT device or ensuring that they are protected by a firewall.

Fortunately, a growing array of vendors specialize in IoT security. They are introducing more integrated and streamlined security for this highly connected business world.

Also see: Data Mining Techniques 

Ethical and Privacy Concerns Related to IoT

There’s also a growing focus on privacy and ethics. As data becomes more connected—and interconnected—both the challenges and risks grow. The European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which took effect in 2018, introduced strict rules, regulations and penalties for organizations handling data that touches European citizens.

In 2020, California introduced a new law, California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA), which requires manufacturers to include “reasonable” security features in IoT devices. It also introduced standards for companies doing business in California, and penalties for violations and data breaches. A major violation could result in fines of US $2,500 to US $7,500 per violation as well as action from the California attorney general’s office.

The concerns don’t stop with laws and regulations, however. Privacy experts and a growing segment of the public are increasingly vocal about how facial recognition data, healthcare data and other forms of IoT data are collected and used. As a result, businesses relying on the IoT must take a close look at several key areas and tools, including:

  • Data personalization
  • Data de-identification, and re-identification
  • Data persistence
  • How IoT data is stored and retained

IoT: a Connected World is Taking Shape

Sitting on the sidelines and waiting for the IoT to mature is no longer a viable option for most organizations. The IoT and IIoT are here now, and they are valuable tools for businesses of all shapes and sizes. Industries as diverse as finance, manufacturing, agriculture, construction, energy, transportation and healthcare are witnessing enormous changes as a result of connected technologies.

Consulting firm McKinsey & Co. reports that the worldwide number of IoT-connected devices is projected to increase to 43 billion by 2023, an almost threefold increase from 2018. The firm also notes that the IoT is an increasingly critical factor in determining which companies excel and generate growth and new sources of revenues.

What’s more, sensor technology and other IoT components are becoming cheaper and far more powerful. When organizations combine these components with powerful 5G, cloud, edge and fog technologies, the power of the IoT further multiplies—and the value to organizations grows. Adding augmented reality, virtual reality, robotics and various forms of AI often unleashes new and compelling business models.

The opportunities don’t end at the four walls of the enterprise. The World Economic Forum found that 84% of existing IoT deployments address, or have the power to advance, the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. As organizations develop and advance sustainability programs and aim for aggressive carbon reduction targets, the IoT will play a crucial role in measuring progress, identifying gaps and achieving objectives.

To be sure, the IoT is at the center of everything as businesses look to modernize and gain advantages through innovation, cost cutting, new features and services, and improved interactions with business partners and customers. The IoT is ultimately about dollars—and good business sense. Enterprises that put it to work effectively witness innovation and transformation on a scale that hasn’t been possible in the past. These enterprises achieve the full promise of digital transformation.

Also see: Real Time Data Management Trends

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