IoT and the Principle of Resource Constraints

Technology may be fast-moving but some concepts have remained stable for decades. Not least the principle of resource constraints. Simply put, we have four finite variables to play with in our technological sandpit:

  • electrical power
  • processor speed
  • network bandwidth
  • storage volume

This principle is key to understanding the current Internet of Things phenomenon. Processing and storage capacities have increased exponentially — today’s processors support billions of instructions per second and the latest solid state storage can fit 32 gigabytes on a single chip.
As we expand our abilities to work with technology, so we are less constrained, creating new possibilities that were previously unthinkable due to either cost or timeliness. Such as creating vast networks of sensors across our manufacturing systems and supply chains, termed the Industrial Internet.
This also means, at the other end of the scale, that we can create tiny, yet still powerful computers. So today, consumers can afford sports watches that give immediate feedback on heart rate and walking pace. Even five years ago, this would not have been practical. While enterprise business may be operating on a different scale, the trade-offs are the same.
Power and end-to-end network bandwidth have not followed such a steep curve, however. When such resources are lacking, processing and storage tend to be used in support. So for example, when network bandwidth is an issue (as it so often is, still), ‘cache’ storage or local processing can be added to the architecture.
In Internet of Things scenarios, sensors (attached to ’things’) are used to generate information, sometimes in considerable volumes, which can then be processed and acted upon. A ‘thing’ could be anything from a package being transported, a motor vehicle, an air conditioning unit or a classic painting.
If all resources were infinite, such data could be transmitted straight to the cloud, or to other ’things’. In reality however, the principle of resource constraints comes into play. In the home environment, this results in having one or more ‘smart hubs’ which can collate, pre-process and distil data coming from the sensors.
As well as a number of startups such as Icontrol and (the Samsung-led) Smartthings, the big players recognise the market opportunity this presents. Writes Alex Davies at Rethink IoT, “Microsoft is… certainly laying the groundwork for all Windows 10 devices, which now includes the Xbox, to act as coordinating hubs within the smart home.”
Smart hubs also have a place in business, collating, storing and forwarding information from sensors. Thinking more broadly however, there are no constraints on what the architecture needs to look like, beyond the need to collate data and get the message through as efficiently as possible – in my GigaOm report I identify the three most likely architectural approaches.
Given the principle of principle of resource constraints, the idea of form factor becomes more a question of identifying the right combination of elements for the job. For example, individual ‘things’ may incorporate some basic processing and solid state storage. Such capabilities can even be incorporated in disposable hubs, such as the SmartTraxx device which can be put in a shipping container to monitor location and temperature.
We may eventually move towards seemingly infinite resources, for example one day, quantum sensors might negate the need to transport information at all. For now however, we need to deal in the finite — which creates more than enough opportunity for both enterprises and consumers alike.

Meet Sens’it, a gadget that lets you play with Sigfox’s IoT network

Consumer gadget enthusiasts might have fawned over the new Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge and the Huawei Watch at Mobile World Congress, but if you are an internet of things geek, the most interesting device at MWC was probably at the other end of the Fira Gran Via at Sigfox’s booth. The French startup, which is trying to build a global wireless network solely for the internet of things, was showing off a pill-shaped device it designed to let IoT developers test out its network.

Called the Sens’it, the device has no screen or keypad, just an LED light that doubles as its only button. Under the hood, there are three sensors: an accelerometer, a thermometer and a sound meter, all of which turn themselves on at intervals to take a snapshot of their surroundings and then communicate that data over Sigfox’s network.

If you’re looking for a practical application here, there isn’t one. On its own, the device doesn’t really do anything. Sigfox intends for the device, which was built by Axible, to be a proof of concept that developers can use to create their own applications. But that doesn’t mean you can’t have a bit of fun with it.

The Sensit alongside the Sigfox web app

The Sensit next to the Sigfox web app

Sigfox has created a web app that allows you to access the data Sens’it collects, and it’s built a few communication hooks that trigger email and SMS alerts when the sensors are triggered. For instance, according to Sigfox head of marketing and communications Thomas Nicholls, you could put the Sens’it in your car and get an alert every time it moves. You could place the device in a cabin that otherwise has no power or internet connectivity and measure temperature and sound levels. The Sens’it also has a button that will trigger an email or SMS alert every time you double-tap it.

Nicholls gave me a Sens’it to play with while I was in Barcelona for MWC (Sigfox’s network isn’t in my hometown Chicago yet), and I made it do a few basic things. I got it to trigger an alert when my plane took off from the airport, and I sent random text messages to myself while I was wandering around. But someone with more time and creativity than me could do a lot more with the device by using IFTTT channels or by tapping into SMS APIs like those offered by Twilio and Nexmo.

An immensely useful application would be the ability to generate a “safety” call to my phone with a double tap of the Sens’it button. It doesn’t matter if there’s nothing but dead air at the other end of the line. It would be a great way to get out of conversation when someone has cornered you — on the show floor at MWC, for instance.

All of this is designed to prove the resiliency and range of Sigfox’s network, which is now live in Spain, France and Russia and will soon go online in the Netherlands and in the U.S., starting in San Francisco. Sigfox uses the Industrial Scientific and Medical (ISM) band used by Z-Wave and ZigBee to create a very low-power, long-range and low-throughput network.

A Sigfox ISM radio module

A Sigfox ISM radio module

That network is entirely unsuitable for a gadget or appliance that needs constant high-bandwidth links, such as a car or a tablet, but it excels in the low-bore connectivity world of the industrial internet. Sigfox connects home alarms, parking space sensors, water meters and even dog tracking collars — anything that only needs intermittent access to the network as well as a cheap radio and service plans.

One of the big selling points for Sigfox, Nicholls said, is its extremely long range. It can cover entire cities with just a handful of base stations, and it can reach far out to remote places that even cellular networks don’t reach. I can attest to that. Upon landing in New York after my plane experiment, I opened up my email and discovered that Sens’it had triggered several more emails 10 to 15 minutes after I took off from the Barcelona airport. That means it was still connecting to the Sigfox while we were at cruising altitude over the Spanish countryside. It only stopped linking up with the network once we hit the open ocean.

Sigfox only manufactured an initial batch of 1,000 Sens’it devices, so it’s not handing them out to everyone. But if you’re a service provider, IoT developer or just a curious maker with an idea, you can apply for a Sens’it here.

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ARM, Freescale and IBM offer a platform for industrial IoT

ARM is trying to make its mbed OS, its fairly new operating system for the internet of things, a little more business-friendly by debuting a ready-made platform consisting of a development board, the software and the cloud back-end services at the Embedded World show in Germany on Monday.

The IoT starter kit consists of an ARM mbed-enabled development board from Freescale running an ARM Cortex M4 based processor. The actual mbed OS won’t be out in public beta until October, so until then the board is mbed-enabled running the underlying mbed systems level software. The board connects directly to IBM’s BlueMix cloud service, and you can then port data from the board to the IBM IoT Foundation service, which acts as a kind of home for IoT data in IBM’s cloud.

In a chat with Freescale’s Director of Marketing John Dixon, he called it, “an Arduino for the industrial internet,” which is a nice way of thinking about the product or the range of mbed OS-enabed products that could arise out of similar partnerships. Much like how Arduino-boards let anyone build hardware and learn to muck about with physical devices, these platforms are designed to let people do the same — only the type of partners, robust data back ends and security mean you could use the same platform to build 10 or 10,000,000 of the devices.

The deal with IBM isn’t exclusive, according to ARM’s Zach Shelby, VP of marketing. He said the company will likely design deals with other cloud providers and build an ecosystem of companies as it attempts to strengthen the mbed OS ecosystem. So far, he said there are 100,000 developers using mbed and more than 45 development boards, and he said he believes most of those are professionals as opposed to hobbyists.

Most of the applications that are being built with ARM’s mbed development kits so far are smart city related followed by Bluetooth beacon products, Shelby said. Even without the formal mbed OS, ARM is putting together the right elements with a development board, consistent software and the cloud back end. Canonical is racing to do something similar as are others, so we’ll see how all of this plays out.

Industrial IoT startup Sight Machine raises $5M, expands to robots

Sight Machine, a startup trying to simplify the collection and analysis of industrial data, has raised a $5 million venture capital round from Mercury Fund, Michigan eLab, Huron River Ventures, Orfin Ventures and Funders Club, as well as its existing investors. The company originally focused on computer vision and letting users easily analyze images from assembly-line cameras, but has expanded its platform to include data from sensors, robots, and other industrial instruments and systems. Sight Machine was co-founded by Nathan Oostendorp, who also co-founded tech news site Slashdot.

Internet-of-things service providers Kore and Raco merge

Kore Wireless, one of the biggest independent players in internet-of-things connectivity, is buying competitor RacoWireless. Combined, the two will manage 3 million cellular connections linking everything from farm equipment to bagged ice machines.

The enterprise CIO needs a comprehensive strategic plan and quick

There are many who profess to know what goes on within the mind of the CIO and across the IT organization as a whole. The challenge is: If you have not been responsible for the role, it is increasingly difficult to truly understand the complicated world that encompasses enterprise IT organizations. Could they be simplified? In a word, yes. But that is easier said than done. One needs an appreciation for the demands coming from not just technology, but also from other organizations within the company and the IT organization itself. But even that statement does not provide the full depth of the complexity facing today’s CIO.

The CIO balancing act

Today’s CIO is facing a balancing act between legacy solutions, methodologies and the modern-day buzzword bingo. Whether from cloud computing, big data analytics, data center complications, new architectures, new programming languages or just simply (relatively) the changes in the business direction, the complication is far and wide. And even if a CIO agrees and wants to move to a new solution like cloud, there may be other limiting factors to consider.

IT as a strategic weapon

Strategy is not a new or foreign concept to the IT organization. The vast majority of CIOs and IT organizations have a well-defined strategy that outlines how the IT organization supports the company as a whole. At times however, strategy becomes a victim to the interrupt-driven nature of IT requests. Always being one to want to please, the latest request becomes the newest focus for the team.

One opportunity missed by many organizations is how to transition from being the “hero” to being the sought-after strategic weapon for a company. There is a big difference between the two and it resonates greatly on IT’s intrinsic value to the company. The modern-day CIO is shifting from problem solving to providing business leverage. That is not to say that the IT organization gives up the problem solving. It remains, but is table stakes in today’s IT requirements.

Spanning the industries

The shift in thinking is not relegated to a specific region or industry. Silicon Valley, including its wide geography from San Francisco to San Jose, is not alone in the opportunity. Neither are new upstarts in the web scale category. Every single industry and region has the same challenge. Recall that companies operate in a global economy and need to respond accordingly. Eat or be eaten. Even the incumbent is not immune to the changes sitting at the front door.

Cloud implementation v2.0

One way IT organizations are changing the conversation between IT and Line of Business (LoB) teams is in the introduction of cloud computing. Beyond the common use-cases (CRM, HRIS, Email, etc), the implementations vary greatly. One trend coming up is a move to ‘cloud implementation v2.0’. Organizations were quick to try cloud-based services with very mixed results. In many cases, the attempt was fairly haphazard. IT organizations are now stepping back and rethinking their approach to cloud in a more holistic fashion. Where does it apply, how, why and when? But it goes much broader than that.

Shifting gears to focus on data

In order to understand where to apply cloud, understanding the larger objective is critical. This is where data-centric conversations come into play. In the end, it is not just about the application and data, but also about the value to the company. Add in conversations like Big Data, Analytics, Internet of Things (IoT), Industrial Internet and one can see how the complexity just grew exponentially.

The clock is ticking…

The growing complexity for the CIO and IT organization does not translate to more available time. Quite the contrary. The demands that companies are placing on their IT organization are increasing exponentially. This is where a new strategic vision is needed. In order to respond in a timely manner, CIOs will need to rethink their organization, processes, focuses and technology in a holistic manner. It will take time to evolve to the new model. But timing is of the essence. The demand is here today and is only increasing.