The “Internet of things” or more popularly known as “IoT” could further be expanded to say “Inter-network of Things.” When talking about IoT, we are talking about connecting millions & trillions of devices. The nature of these devices vary a lot in terms of physical, logical & functional characteristics. A common question asked surrounding these devices – “haven’t these devices been in existence?” Well, the simple answer is yes, they have. So why do we continue to talk about these devices which are already around us doing their job? Because they do exist, but the majority are not connected and hence cannot communicate.
Let’s step back in time and talk about connected devices. With the innovation of computer networks came the notion of connectedness to communicate & share resources. Slowly the connectivity spread across buildings, campuses, cities, continents, etc. But the devices we are discussing are specialized devices, which has an ability to connect and communicate using a specialized protocol, called Internet Protocol (IP). Hence the connectivity was made possible only to a few of these specialized devices (i.e. computers, laptops, networking switches, routers, controllers, etc.) with special characteristics (hardware and software). The ability to connect was confined mainly because of hardware and software limitations, meaning not many devices were satisfying the criteria and remain isolated and dis-connected.
Over time with great innovations in the field of networking and communications (Wi-Fi: 802.11b, g, n, ac, ad, aj, ax and ay / Cellular: CDMA, GSM, 2G, 3G, 4G, 4G LTE & 5G – yet to come / Bluetooth / Bluetooth Low Energy: BLE / 6LowPAN: IPv6 ver. for IEEE 802.15.4 based networks / ZigBee: for IEEE 802.15.4 based networks / Lora WAN etc.) the limitations have not only been lifted but also made communication possible among a variety of devices, from small sensors to giant trucks irrespective of their location, whether it is physically connected (wired) or remote (wireless).
Let me take a popular use case of firmware upgrade (transformed to so called “Over The Air Update” – OTA) & draw a simple graph to show the renovation & realization of use cases across the devices (with different characteristics) as the innovations and technology progress:
Now that we understand the importance of connectivity and its major role to make IoT happen, let me talk about other aspects of IoT and the eco-system. When we talk about millions and trillions of devices, can you imagine the amount of data these devices generate? Since we know they aren’t going to sit quiet… lets say an enormous amount of data. So how does this data reach the destined application servers (residential gateways, cloud gateways, data analytics systems etc.)? Obviously through networks. Are the existing traditional networks good enough to withstand the storm of data & provide intelligence to avoid single point of failure? Can we utilize the network resources in a most efficient way without putting strain on the network? What about dynamic load management? I would say NO.
It doesn’t stop there, luckily we see the emerging trends “Software Defined Networking (SDN)” in the field of Networking & Communications, which can deal with real time network challenges posed by IoT.
The institution of thought behind SDN is to make the network equipment programmable and combine the power of virtualization. Hence the basis of SDN is virtualization and its ability to separate the network control plane with forwarding plane and provide programmatic interface into the network equipment. Which means the intelligence to take decision and route the packets is completely abstracted and lifted from a network device to a much powerful server (virtualized). From a broader perspective SDN allows organizations to replace manual interface in network equipment with programmatic interface that can enable the automation of tasks such as flow control, configuration and policy management and can also enable the network to dynamically respond to changing network conditions and application requirements (e.g.: efficiently handling storm of data generated by IoT devices). The provision to run network software separately from underlying hardware especially in a virtual environment can revolutionizes computing power, storage, logical centralization of control plane functions & network operations, which can deal with pools of network devices as a single entity to plan and control the network and resources dynamically. With SDN, network flows are controlled at the level of global network abstractions rather than at the level of individual devices, which will not only help in dynamic load management but also prevent single point of failure. Emerging trends and technology in networking especially SDN and NFV is starting to create a perfect eco-system and can only help make the realization of IoT possible not only for now but for days to come.
Syed Mahaboob Basha