Building the IoT: connectivity and security

-July 25, 2016

In my prior blog, Building the IoT: standards and hardware needs, I discussed how the "things," device hardware and their interoperability, needed to evolve in order for the IoT to grow and reach its full potential. The other IoT elements still under construction relate to the Internet. Both connectivity and security still need to mature.

Short-range wireless networking, for instance, is another major IoT building block that needs work. It is used in local networks, such as:

With the latest versions of Bluetooth and Zigbee, both protocols can now transport an IP packet, allowing, as IDC represents it, a uniquely identifiable endpoint. A gateway/hub/concentrator is still required to move from the short-range wireless domain to the internet domain. For example, with Bluetooth, a smartphone or tablet can be this gateway.

The main R&D efforts for local area networking are focused on radio hardware and power consumption so that we can avoid needing a power cable or batteries for wireless devices, network topologies and software stacks. 6LoWPAN and its latest evolution under Google’s direction, Thread, are pushing the limits in this area. Because consumers have become accustomed to regularly changing their technology, such as updating their computers and smartphones every few years, the consumer market is a good laboratory for this development.

There is also a need for long-range wireless networking in the IoT to mature. Connectivity for things relies on existing IP networks. For mobile IoT devices and difficult-to-reach areas, IP networking is mainly achieved via cellular systems. However, there are multiple locations where there is no cellular coverage. Further, although cellular is effective, it becomes too expensive as the number of end-devices starts reaching a large number. A user can pay for a single data plan (the use of cellular modems in cars to provide Wi-Fi, for example), but that cost rapidly becomes prohibitive when operating a large fleet.

For end-devices without a stable power supply—such as in farming applications or pipeline monitoring and control—the use of cellular is also not a good option. A cellular modem is fairly power-hungry.

Accordingly, we are beginning to see new contenders for IoT device traffic in long-range wireless connections. A new class of wireless, called low-power wide-area networks (LPWAN), has begun to emerge. Whereas previously you could choose low power with limited distance (802.15.4), or greater distance with high power, LPWAN provide a good compromise: battery-powered operation with distances up to 30KM.

There are a number of competing technologies for LPWAN, but two approaches are of particular significance are LoRa and SIGFOX.

LoRa provides an open specification for the protocol, and most importantly, an open business model. The latter means that anyone can build a LoRa network—from an individual or a private company to a network operator.

SIGFOX is an ultra-narrowband technology. It requires an inexpensive endpoint radio and a more sophisticated base station to manage the network. Telecommunication operators usually carry the largest amount of data; usually high frequencies (such as 5G), whereas SIGFOX intends to do the opposite by using the lower frequencies. SIGFOX advertises that its messages can travel up to 1,000 kilometers (620 miles), and each base station can handle up to 1 million objects, consuming 1/1000th the energy of a standard cellular system. SIGFOX communication tends to be better if it’s headed up from the endpoint to the base station, because the receive sensitivity on the endpoint is not as good as the expensive base station. It has bidirectional functionality, but its capacity going from the base station back to the endpoint is constrained, and you’ll have less link budget going down than going up.

SIGFOX and LoRa have been competitors in the LPWAN space for several years. Yet even with different business models and technologies, SIGFOX and LoRa have the same end-goal: to be adopted for IoT deployments over both city and nationwide LPWAN. For the IoT, LPWAN solves the connectivity problem for simple coverage of complete buildings, campuses or cities without the need for complex mesh or densely populated star networks.

The advantage of LPWAN is well-understood by the cellular operators; so well, in fact, that Nokia, Ericsson and Intel are collaborating on narrowband-LTE (NB-LTE). They argue it is the best path forward for using LTE to power IoT devices. NB-LTE represents an optimized variant of LTE. According to them, it is well-suited for the IoT market segment because it is cheap to deploy, easy to use and delivers strong power efficiency. The three partners face an array of competing interests supporting alternative technologies. Those include Huawei and other companies supporting the existing narrowband cellular IoT proposal.

These technologies are part of the solution to solve some of the cloud-centric network challenges. It is happening, but we can’t say this is mainstream technology today.

Internet concerns

Beyond the issue of wireless connectivity to the internet lie questions about the internet itself. There is no doubt that IoT devices use the Internet Protocol (IP). The IPSO Alliance was founded in 2008 to promote IP adoption. Last year, the Alliance publicly declared that the use of IP in IoT devices was now well understood by all industries. The question now is, “How to best use IP?”

For example, is the current IP networking topology and hierarchy the right one to meet IoT requirements? When we start thinking of using gateways/hubs/concentrators in a network, it also raises the question of network equipment usage and data processing locations. Does it make sense to take the data from the end-points and send it all the way to a back-end system (cloud), or would some local processing offer a better system design?

Global-industry thinking right now is that distributed processing is a better solution, but the internet was not built that way. The predicted sheer breadth and scale of IoT systems requires collaboration at a number of levels, including hardware, software across edge and cloud, plus the protocols and data model standards that enable all of the “things” to communicate and interoperate. The world networking experts know that the current infrastructure made up of constrained devices and networks simply can’t keep up with the volume of data traffic created by IoT devices, nor can it meet the low-latency response times demanded by some systems. Given the predicted IoT growth, this problem will only get worse.

In his article, The IoT Needs Fog Computing, Angelo Corsaro, chief technology officer of Prismtech, makes many good points about why the internet as we know it today is not adequate. He states that it must change from cloud to fog to support the new IoT networking, data storage and data processing requirements.

The main challenges of the existing cloud-centric network for broad IoT application are:

  • Connectivity (one connection for each device)
  • Bandwidth (high number of devices will exceed number of humans communicating)
  • Latency (the reaction time must be compatible with the dynamics of the physical entity or process with which the application interacts)
  • Cost (for an system owner, the cost of each connection multiplied by the number of devices can sour the ROI on a system)

These issues led to the creation of the OpenFog Consortium (OFC). OFC was created to define a composability architecture and approach to fog/edge/distributed computing, including creating a reference design that delivers interoperability close to the end-devices. OFC’s efforts will define an architecture of distributed computing, network, storage, control, and resources that will support intelligence at the edge of IoT, including autonomous and self-aware machines, things, devices, and smart objects. OFC is one more example that an important building block to achieve a scalable IoT is under development. This supports Gartner’s belief that the IoT will take five to 10 years to achieve mainstream adoption.

Yet the majority of media coverage about the IoT is still very cloud-centric, sharing the IT viewpoint. In my opinion, IT-driven cloud initiatives make one significant mistake. For many of the IoT building blocks, IT is trying to push its technologies to the other end of the spectrum—the devices. Applying IT know-how to embedded devices requires more hardware and software, which currently inflates the cost of IoT devices. For the IoT to become a reality, the edge device unit cost needs to be a lot lower than what we can achieve today. If we try to apply IT technologies and processes to OT devices, we are missing the point.

IT assumes large processors with lots of storage and memory. The programming languages and other software technologies of IT rely on the availability of these resources. Applying the IT cost infrastructure to OT devices is not the right approach. More development is required not only in hardware, but in system management. Managing a network of thousands or millions of computing devices is a significant challenge.

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