IBM has a new protocol (and a box) for the internet of things

IBM (s ibm) may be in talks to sell off its server division, but it’s not abandoning hardware just yet. Instead, Big Blue is introducing an appliance for the internet of things, as well as a new use case for an existing protocol optimized for delivering messages between sensors.

IBM considers both efforts part of its Smarter Planet and Mobile First strategies. The box is called the IBM MessageSight, and it combines the ability to process a lot of information in real time — which experts believe the internet of things will need. The logic is that billions of sensors sending trillions of bits will need some type of special equipment to process the incoming information in real-time and send instructions back to a human or a device.

IBM uses the example of the hundreds of sensors in your car recognizing a problem, turning on your check engine light, and then notifying the dealer so it can do remote diagnostics. As someone who is heading to the dealer tomorrow for a check engine light, this example caught my eye. Yet, I’m not sold on the need for a special box over more intelligence at the sensor, or perhaps a mesh network with nominal “intelligence.”

The internet of things exaflood is coming!

floodThe idea is compelling, but it also grossly simplifies the flow of data inside the internet of things. For example, it assumes all sensor data must be processed in “real time.” It also assumes all the data must be processed. Both of these are untrue, especially in the early days of the internet of things. But IBM is looking ahead. From its release on the MessageSight appliance:

Over the next 15 years, the number of machines and sensors connected to the Internet will explode. According to IMS Research, there will be more than 22 billion web-connected devices by 2020. These new devices will generate more 2.5 quintillion bytes of new data every day, while every hour enough information is consumed by Internet traffic to fill seven million DVDs.

It’s the same exaflood of data that telephone companies were so fearful of a decade ago. And like the telephone companies, IBM is hoping to cash in on these fears — with its box. IBM’s appliance can totally stand up to this tsunami of information, or so goes the pitch. A release from Big Blue noted that the machine can handle up to 1 million concurrent sensors and can scale to manage up to 13 million messages per second.

The new protocol for the internet of things?

Inside this magic data-defying box will be a protocol called MQTT (Message Queuing Telemetry Transport), which the OASIS standards organization recently proposed for the internet of things. The standard, which is backed by Kaazing, Red Hat, TIBCO, Cisco and IBM, is a lightweight messaging transport system for communication in machine to machine and mobile environments.

The idea is that such a lightweight protocol will allow sensors to communicate wirelessly without needing massive batteries to support a fully functional wireless radio. I’m unclear on what radio protocol one might use, but have reached out with questions. As for MQTT, it’s already in use for satellite transmissions and in medical and industrial settings where low-bandwidth communications are essential.

IBM said “sensors can use MQTT to send messages wirelessly using 10 times less battery power and 93 times faster than before, making it possible for a sensor to send real time updates that can be acted upon immediately.” IBM is positioning MQTT as the same enabler for the internet of things, as HTTP was for the web. I’m not sure I’d go that far, but it’s worth watching to see how the standard evolves.

As for IBM’s appliance, I’m pretty sure people can build connected homes, buildings and possible cities without it, but IBM’s marketing will snag customers, especially as part of an overarching integrated smarter cities deployment.

Updated at 11:41 PT: This story was updated to clarify that the MQTT protocol is new for use in the internet of things. The protocol itself is not new.