Internet of Things and its future

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Power companies read meters through tele-metering systems instead of visiting houses; doctors remotely monitor the conditions of their patients 24/7 by having the patients use devices at home instead of requiring the patients to stay at hospital; vehicle-mounted terminals automatically display the nearest parking space; sensors in smart homes turn off utilities, close windows, monitor security, and report to homeowners in real time. These are scenarios that only existed in science fiction previously. With the coming of age of the Internet of Things, however, they are becoming a reality.

What is the Internet of Things?

Also called M2M standing for Machine to Machine, Machine to Man, Man to Machine, or Machine to Mobile, the Internet of Things intelligently connects humans, devices, and systems. Considered as another IT wave following computers, the Internet, and mobile communications, it represents the pinnacle of our current ICT ambitions.

The ITU states that the goal of ICT is to connect all objects on the basis of networked individuals to form a ubiquitous network, which is called the Internet of Things. In layman's terms, this network covers all everyday objects such as watches, keys, household appliances, cars, and buildings.

When embedded with chips and sensors, these objects can "think", "feel", and "talk" with each other. Together with the infrastructure of the Internet and mobile networks, these objects can communicate with humans, and enable us to monitor and control them anytime anywhere and enjoy their intelligent service, making the idea of a "Smart Planet" a dream come true.

As for the goal of telemetry and remote management of distributed assets, M2M bears much similarity to the Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) system early on. Deployed in centralized control centers to monitor remote devices and assets, SCADA was widely employed in such areas as industrial automation, utilities, and energy. When the first SCADA systems were deployed in the absence of universally accepted standards and reliable public networks, however, engineers were almost forced to design and maintain proprietary wired/wireless networks and protocols, thus creating a series of rigid and closed communications infrastructures. In contrast, modern M2M technologies have been born under a totally different scenario:

1. The Internet and cellular networks have become a worldwide standard, with unprecedented levels of coverage, reliability and affordability;

2. Smaller and smarter "devices" are constantly hitting the industrial and consumer markets, making it easier to conceive and provide new after-sales and remotely managed services;

3. Software design and system interoperability standards like XML, web services and SOA are converging to create fertile ground for M2M communications technologies, making it easier to apply them horizontally across different industries, with a much lower CAPEX versus the past.

Huge market potential

The Internet of Things is likely to have a staggering impact on our daily lives and become an inherent part of areas such as electricity, transportation, industrial control, retail, utilities management, healthcare, water resources management, and petroleum. It can greatly improve productivity and our lives. And unsurprisingly, its great market potential is attracting investments from governments, telecom operators, manufacturers, and industry users.

After becoming the President of the United States at the beginning of 2009, Barack Obama enthusiastically responded to IBM's "Smart Planet" concept, positing new energies and the Internet of Things as the two major weapons for economic revitalization. Various countries subsequently developed their Internet of Things strategies in less than a year, including i-Japan Plan, Sensing China, and the EU's Action Plan on the Internet of Things.

Since revenues from voice services continue to decline, operators are ceaselessly looking for new growth areas. With the huge market potential and demand stimulated by immense traffic from trillions of connected devices, the Internet of Things provides operators with the means to expand their service portfolios and increase revenues beyond the pipe.

Internet of Things in China

China Mobile believes that Internet of Things services will attract hundreds of millions of subscribers. In 2007 the operator launched M2M services, which it consolidated with an operation center in Chongqing in 2008 to research and develop a national Internet of Things platform and M2M products.

It has since launched three M2M products: Car Service Link, Elevator Guardian, and Fire Control System, in addition to developing industry-specific solutions for logistics, electricity, finance, etc. So far it has deployed more than two millions of terminals as the interfaces for the Internet of Things throughout China, and the number is expected to increase by 60% or more in the next five years.

At the end of 2007, China Telecom began constructing an Internet of Things platform. Now nearing completion, the platform supports multiple types of terminals and systems, and integrates various service functions such as remote management, operation monitoring, alarm management, protocol adaptation, industry service access, and transparent data transmission.

Currently, the operator is preparing M2M service trials in Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Anhui, Fujian, Hubei, and Shanghai. Qi Qingzhong, Vice President of China Telecom's Shanghai Research Institute, is convinced that operators will capitalize on the tremendous potential of the Internet of things for effective differentiated operations.

Though it has not put forward any specific concept for the Internet of Things, China Unicom has launched some sector-specific M2M applications such as its New Horizon series–Bank New Horizon, Ocean New Horizon, and Logistics New Horizon.

Internet of Things from a technical perspective

Technically, the Internet of Things integrates multiple wired and wireless communication, control, and IT technologies, which connect various terminals or subsystems under a unified management platform that employs open and standardized data presentation technologies such as XML/web services/SOA. Its system functions include remote monitoring, automatic alarms, control, diagnosis, maintenance, global device management, and integrated, intelligent information services for users.

As an example of the system's application potential, equipment and systems monitoring pollution sources and discharges can be connected through wireless sensors deployed on-site. The data is sent through mobile networks to various environmental protection agencies and finally the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) for total management.

Architecturally, the Internet of Things can be divided into the sensing, communication, management, and application layers.

Sensing layer

The sensing layer collects and gathers physical parameters such as the temperature, humidity, and air composition. It comprises: 1) field devices that have sensing, computing, and communication capabilities, like RFID labels and readers, cameras, the GPS, sensors and actuators; 2) field networks that are formed by interconnecting these devices.

The field networks used at the sensing layer include various short-range wireless network standards and more than ten field bus standards such as Modbus, Foundation Fieldbus, CAN, and ProfiNet. It is difficult to tell which standard is better, because every standard is applicable to a given scenario. As the Internet of Things spans various industries and a range of user requirements, the above systems will probably coexist in field network standards for a long time to come.

With the maturity of wireless sensor network technologies such as ZigBee in recent years, communication modules become more energy-efficient and cost-effective. Networks using these technologies do not need cables and support multi-hop routing, self-organization, and self-recovery. Moreover, their ease of deployment and maintenance is very suitable for connecting large number of field devices at the sensing layer.

The gateway, a core device for M2M applications, exists on the boundary of field networks, and comes with field network and IP WAN interfaces for forwarding data between field networks and various IP WANs. It also manages field networks and releases their management APIs to the remote management platform.

Now multiple network types and systems exist in the field. To reduce network complexity and the costs for developing M2M applications, networks and systems need be classified and hardware and software APIs standardized under a unified platform.

Certain applications require field devices at the sensing layer to be directly embedded with wired/wireless modules that can communicate through IP WANs and transmit the sensing data directly to the management hub rather than using a gateway.

Communication layer

The communication layer is the information trunk for the Internet of Things. It consists of various IP WANs provided by operators, including wired networks (such as the ATM, xDSL, and fibers) and mobile networks (such as GPRS, 3G, and 3G+). Whilst wired networks use various underlying protocols at the communication layer, all upper-layer protocols are under the TCP/IP stack.

Compared with wired network technologies, mobile technologies allow M2M applications to be deployed more flexibly. The advent of wireless broadband has accelerated M2M service development and promoted 3G networks as the preferred medium for M2M applications.

Management layer

Integrating M2M and sector-specific technologies, the management layer is a solution set for a wide range of intelligent applications. As a management platform, this layer is integral to the Internet of Things architecture and industry chain, integrating management, control, and operations on terminals and assets, including mobile assets.

The management platform comprises the following software sets: integrated frameworks, Internet of Things middleware, industry suites, and industry application solutions. The middleware abstracts and implements the basic function sets of the management platform, such as network and device management, authentication, authorization, and accounts (AAA) management, data management, and service management. The industry suites are a series of support models, tools, and service sets designed to address sector-specific requirements.

As the management platform controls the Internet of Things, operators take it as a foundation for development and deployment, and many have in place an operable platform. In turn, certain M2M software manufacturers have released powerful middleware, industry suites, and even complete management platform solutions.

Problems and challenges

Applications for the Internet of Things are still at the promotional phase and have yet to move past enterprises. In China, though increasingly in demand in such areas as energy, industry, finance and security, M2M applications are mainly used in the electricity and transportation sectors, which account for 86.5% of all Internet of Things terminals available in China. The main hurdle against large-scale commercial use of the Internet of Things is the lack of standards and a mature business model.

Standardization and integration

Any large-scale service deployment needs to be framed within a set of standards. The Internet of Things involves many manufacturers, spans multiple industries, and differs widely in application scenarios and user requirements. Standardization has been sluggish, impacting large-scale commercial deployment of related services.

Uneven competition between different types of devices is affecting the overall quality of the applications. Terminal manufacturers and solution providers have to develop M2M applications ad hoc, which reduces efficiency. As most personal applications are standardized and customized, the expansion of M2M services to individual users will be detrimentally affected if the terminals are not standardized.

The standardization for the Internet of Things involves the horizontal common technical layer and the vertical industry application layer. The former covers common communication protocols at, for example, the carrier level; terminal description and service discovery mechanisms; and application data switching mechanisms such as technologies based on XML, SOAP, and web services. The latter covers terminals, communication protocols, and application specifications.

Fortunately, companies are beginning to prioritize standardization. Peter Friess of the EU's Networked Enterprise & RFID Unit requires that the EU should develop an Internet of Things standard that covers multiple layers including technology, operation, and services, and urges all member countries to develop an international standard.

In China, operators are aggressively promoting the Internet of Things and developing relevant standards. Nevertheless, enterprises and organizations across industries need to contribute for this to be successful.

China Mobile has developed and upgraded the Wireless M2M Protocol (WMMP) and standardized the communication protocols between GPRS terminals, the Internet of Things operation platform, and terminals' communication modules. The operator requires that all GPRS data traffic related to devices should pass through the Internet of Things operation platform to encourage terminal manufacturers to use the WMMP for product certification.

China Telecom is actively pushing household appliance manufacturers to standardize terminal interfaces, and will soon expand its partnerships to other terminal sectors for broader standardization. Now the operator is leading standardization for the interfaces between the home gateway and the Internet of Things management platform and those between the home gateway and collection devices.

A win-win industry chain

The industry chain for the Internet of Things is long and encapsulates module suppliers, device manufacturers, platform software providers, system integrators, network operators, and end users. Therefore, role division in software and hardware production need to be further optimized, and the roles and profit models of all stakeholders in the industry chain must be accurately defined so that the potential can be fully tapped.

Operators, system integrators and service providers are seeking to maximize profits. Generally, operators are involved in M2M services either by leasing network capacity to independent M2M providers or by providing the services themselves, which is more profitable. As most operators now provide pipes only, profits from M2M services are low. Realistically, a central role in platform construction and standardization is the only viable way out.

Further exacerbating developmental difficulties in China are the industry barriers, which force current users to develop their own solutions instead of using those offered by specialist providers.

Development trend

Extending to individual and home users

The gradual establishment and improvement of a standards system will inevitably extend the scope of M2M applications and lower deployment costs so that such applications will become part of our daily life.

The Internet of Things and mobile networks

Theoretically, M2M services can be carried over various networks. Mobile networks are usually preferred for the deployment flexibility it provides for M2M applications. 3G mobile networks provide higher available bandwidth, which is a precondition for the quality of M2M services and stimulates data transmission demand.

Developing M2M services is a practical imperative for mobile operators who are mainly focused on data services on their 3G networks. In this view, the Internet of Things is in line with their 3G network development strategies.

The ubiquitous network

The Internet of Things extends communications beyond the traditional boundaries. Refrigerators, washing machines, vending machines and containers, previously considered as unrelated to communications, can now be networked with intelligent communication modules. As more devices are added into communication networks, ubiquitous networks will take shape and grow.

At the current phase of the Internet of Things, most applications are independent and deployed for specific users. With the development and maturity of distributed intelligent information processing technologies, Internet of Things systems will make intelligent sensing widely available through information sharing and collaboration. Then, we will begin to move into a ubiquitous network era.

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