Cloud Society: Internet of Things - do sweat the small stuff

Internet of Things

As I headed back from the Cisco-underwritten Internet of Things World Forum event held in Barcelona this week, I was struck by some incongruities between what was being presented as the vision, and what is happening on the ground.

When IoT was being discussed in principle, it was positioned as an object in its own right, a solution to an existing problem, a lofty destination to aim for. Top-to-bottom architecture diagrams were drawn, interspersed by pictures of the sun rising over a city skyline and an uplifting soundtrack.

Whatever this IoT thing is, suggested the presentations, it would be huge. The term “Smart City” was used many times, implying visions of a plexiglass-domed Megacity One in which everything, down to the paving slabs and the hinges on doors, would be part of an exciting, citizen-friendly, safe and sustainable whole.

Yet, from this starting point, the conversation would turn to specific examples which tended to be on a much smaller scale. And quite rightly too, might I suggest.

Don’t get me wrong - I’m all for the Internet of Things. I wrote a report about it after all, and I am in the middle of writing another. But I find myself wondering about the old adage, “If you want to get there, don’t start from here.”

Frequently the debate would turn to the kinds of issues that such an all-encompassing vision of things might cause. Privacy for example - and indeed, Big Brother was suggested to be alive and well in the Metropolis. Equally, challenges of integration, of management maturity, of securing such a complex beast were hotly debated.

While the reality might be much more mundane, I would suggest that it is still just as exciting. A far better starting point for thinking about the Internet of Things is not as a tangible destination, but as a way of enhancing of what we already have. Rather than the starting point of “How can IoT be applied to healthcare” which results in discussions of smart hospitals, of patient privacy and so on, what about - “What would be the benefits of connecting monitoring devices that already exist, and augmenting some physical objects with sensors?”

I’m speaking from a little bit of experience as I’ve seen a similar approach being adopted before, back in my consulting days. When centralised network management was still emerging, network elements - routers, switches, terminal servers and so on - were largely controlled locally, for example via a console connected by a serial cable.

The fun we had dredging through component catalogues to enable boxes to be wired together, to screen scrape, to add capabilities and update firmware so that all such devices could be brought under central control, I can’t tell you the half of it. Most importantly the benefits were huge, for example in terms of reduced time spent travelling between network elements, plus a centralised hub enabled decision making to happen faster.

With IoT we’re seeing similar, but now we have the ability to process events far more cleverly, using modern derivatives of log management software such as Splunk. The base principle is the same however - start joining things up and reap the rewards. Only this time we can apply the same principles not only to the machines that go ‘ping’ but also to trolleys and wheelchairs, crutches and meals. And cups of tea - let’s move stories of cups of tea going cold because the patient couldn’t even reach them into the past.

The power of the Internet of Things is right at our fingertips. We don’t have to imagine use cases - they’re right in front of us. Forget digging up roads - every plug connecting every appliance should be a smart plug, centrally controllable. Every heater should be a smart heater. Every car should be able to broadcast its location to its owner, every concert ticket should be impossible to forge, every tractor building a nutrient map of the field. All such examples can be explored without the need to consider, say, privacy implications.

For sure, the Internet of Things is about far more than simple remote control - but it’s a good place to start. I have said that ‘true’ Internet of things is predicated on three pillars: smart devices, low-latency networks and a scalable processing, analytical back end. On top of these we will build all manner of clever services - that’s where real innovation will happen. Right now, one pillar is looking decidedly weak compared to the other two, however. Many of our devices simply aren’t yet smart enough: the only thing preventing them being so is cost, and this is falling quickly.

So, here’s my top tip. For sure, enjoy the visionary take on IoT, and if you have a spare few million quid to spend on a new factory or office building, by all means kit it out with all manner of clever-geekery - a widening pool of vendors will be only too pleased to help. Keep going with the municipal pilots which can demonstrate the potential. But if, like the majority, you find these too high a mountain to climb, simply look around you and think about what you could do better with some sensors, some remote switches, some clever apps.

Perhaps one day we will all be living in smart cities but right now, already, we are seeing a groundswell of smart, as prices fall and capabilities grow. It doesn’t cost much to participate and the benefits can be immediate. Even as we look to the future, let’s not forget the benefits of IoT can be found in the here and now.

Jon is an author, technology commentator and director at Inter Orbis, which researches the impact of technology on business and society. With over 20 years’ in the technology industry, Jon has a deep understanding of the global infrastructures, software architectures, and governance models required to make communities work..

In Jon’s varied career he has been IT manager, software consultant, training manager, IT security expert and industry analyst. He was named European analyst of the year by the Institute of Industry Analyst Relations in 2009..

Outside of technology, Jon has authored several books about music including bands such as Marillion and Rush, Jon is currently writing two books about the impact of the Internet on business and society, and is researching a novel about the violinist, Paganini.