The internet of things, or IoT, is a system of interrelated computing devices, mechanical and digital machines, objects, animals or people that are provided with unique identifiers (UIDs) and the ability to transfer data over a network without requiring human-to-human or human-to-computer interaction.
A thing in the internet of things can be a person with a heart monitor implant, a farm animal with a biochip transponder, an automobile that has built-in sensors to alert the driver when tire pressure is low or any other natural or man-made object that can be assigned an Internet Protocol (IP) address and is able to transfer data over a network.
Increasingly, organizations in a variety of industries are using IoT to operate more efficiently, better understand customers to deliver enhanced customer service, improve decision-making and increase the value of the business.
An IoT ecosystem consists of web-enabled smart devices that use embedded systems, such as processors, sensors and communication hardware, to collect, send and act on data they acquire from their environments. IoT devices share the sensor data they collect by connecting to an IoT gateway or other edge device where data is either sent to the cloud to be analyzed or analyzed locally. Sometimes, these devices communicate with other related devices and act on the information they get from one another. The devices do most of the work without human intervention, although people can interact with the devices -- for instance, to set them up, give them instructions or access the data.
The connectivity, networking and communication protocols used with these web-enabled devices largely depend on the specific IoT applications deployed.
IoT can also make use of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to aid in making data collecting processes easier and more dynamic.
An example of how an IoT system works from collecting data to taking action
The internet of things helps people live and work smarter, as well as gain complete control over their lives. In addition to offering smart devices to automate homes, IoT is essential to business. IoT provides businesses with a real-time look into how their systems really work, delivering insights into everything from the performance of machines to supply chain and logistics operations.
IoT enables companies to automate processes and reduce labor costs. It also cuts down on waste and improves service delivery, making it less expensive to manufacture and deliver goods, as well as offering transparency into customer transactions.
As such, IoT is one of the most important technologies of everyday life, and it will continue to pick up steam as more businesses realize the potential of connected devices to keep them competitive.
The internet of things offers several benefits to organizations. Some benefits are industry-specific, and some are applicable across multiple industries. Some of the common benefits of IoT enable businesses to:
IoT encourages companies to rethink the ways they approach their businesses and gives them the tools to improve their business strategies.
Generally, IoT is most abundant in manufacturing, transportation and utility organizations, making use of sensors and other IoT devices; however, it has also found use cases for organizations within the agriculture, infrastructure and home automation industries, leading some organizations toward digital transformation.
IoT can benefit farmers in agriculture by making their job easier. Sensors can collect data on rainfall, humidity, temperature and soil content, as well as other factors, that would help automate farming techniques.
The ability to monitor operations surrounding infrastructure is also a factor that IoT can help with. Sensors, for example, could be used to monitor events or changes within structural buildings, bridges and other infrastructure. This brings benefits with it, such as cost saving, saved time, quality-of-life workflow changes and paperless workflow.
A home automation business can utilize IoT to monitor and manipulate mechanical and electrical systems in a building. On a broader scale, smart cities can help citizens reduce waste and energy consumption.
IoT touches every industry, including businesses within healthcare, finance, retail and manufacturing.
Some of the advantages of IoT include the following:
Some disadvantages of IoT include the following:
There are several emerging IoT standards, including the following:
IoT frameworks include the following:
There are numerous real-world applications of the internet of things, ranging from consumer IoT and enterprise IoT to manufacturing and industrial IoT (IIoT). IoT applications span numerous verticals, including automotive, telecom and energy.
In the consumer segment, for example, smart homes that are equipped with smart thermostats, smart appliances and connected heating, lighting and electronic devices can be controlled remotely via computers and smartphones.
Wearable devices with sensors and software can collect and analyze user data, sending messages to other technologies about the users with the aim of making users' lives easier and more comfortable. Wearable devices are also used for public safety -- for example, improving first responders' response times during emergencies by providing optimized routes to a location or by tracking construction workers' or firefighters' vital signs at life-threatening sites.
In healthcare, IoT offers many benefits, including the ability to monitor patients more closely using an analysis of the data that's generated. Hospitals often use IoT systems to complete tasks such as inventory management for both pharmaceuticals and medical instruments.
Smart buildings can, for instance, reduce energy costs using sensors that detect how many occupants are in a room. The temperature can adjust automatically -- for example, turning the air conditioner on if sensors detect a conference room is full or turning the heat down if everyone in the office has gone home.
In agriculture, IoT-based smart farming systems can help monitor, for instance, light, temperature, humidity and soil moisture of crop fields using connected sensors. IoT is also instrumental in automating irrigation systems.
In a smart city, IoT sensors and deployments, such as smart streetlights and smart meters, can help alleviate traffic, conserve energy, monitor and address environmental concerns, and improve sanitation.
The internet of things connects billions of devices to the internet and involves the use of billions of data points, all of which need to be secured. Due to its expanded attack surface, IoT security and IoT privacy are cited as major concerns.
In 2016, one of the most notorious recent IoT attacks was Mirai, a botnet that infiltrated domain name server provider Dyn and took down many websites for an extended period of time in one of the biggest distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks ever seen. Attackers gained access to the network by exploiting poorly secured IoT devices.
Because IoT devices are closely connected, all a hacker has to do is exploit one vulnerability to manipulate all the data, rendering it unusable. Manufacturers that don't update their devices regularly -- or at all -- leave them vulnerable to cybercriminals.
Additionally, connected devices often ask users to input their personal information, including names, ages, addresses, phone numbers and even social media accounts -- information that's invaluable to hackers.
Hackers aren't the only threat to the internet of things; privacy is another major concern for IoT users. For instance, companies that make and distribute consumer IoT devices could use those devices to obtain and sell users' personal data.
Beyond leaking personal data, IoT poses a risk to critical infrastructure, including electricity, transportation and inancial services.
Kevin Ashton, co-founder of the Auto-ID Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), first mentioned the internet of things in a presentation he made to Procter &Gamble (P&G) in 1999. Wanting to bring radio frequency ID (RFID) to the attention of P&G's senior management, Ashton called his presentation "Internet of Things" to incorporate the cool new trend of 1999: the internet. MIT professor Neil Gershenfeld's book, When Things Start to Think, also appeared in 1999. It didn't use the exact term but provided a clear vision of where IoT was headed.
IoT has evolved from the convergence of wireless technologies, microelectromechanical systems (MEMSes), microservices and the internet. The convergence has helped tear down the silos between operational technology (OT) and information technology (IT), enabling unstructured machine-generated data to be analyzed for insights to drive improvements.
Although Ashton's was the first mention of the internet of things, the idea of connected devices has been around since the 1970s, under the monikers embedded internet and pervasive computing.
The first internet appliance, for example, was a Coke machine at Carnegie Mellon University in the early 1980s. Using the web, programmers could check the status of the machine and determine whether there would be a cold drink awaiting them, should they decide to make the trip to the machine.
IoT evolved from M2M communication, i.e., machines connecting to each other via a network without human interaction. M2M refers to connecting a device to the cloud, managing it and collecting data.
Taking M2M to the next level, IoT is a sensor network of billions of smart devices that connect people, systems and other applications to collect and share data. As its foundation, M2M offers the connectivity that enables IoT.
The internet of things is also a natural extension of supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA), a category of software application programs for process control, the gathering of data in real time from remote locations to control equipment and conditions. SCADA systems include hardware and software components. The hardware gathers and feeds data into a computer that has SCADA software installed, where it is then processed and presented in a timely manner. The evolution of SCADA is such that late-generation SCADA systems developed into first-generation IoT systems.
The concept of the IoT ecosystem, however, didn't really come into its own until the middle of 2010 when, in part, the government of China said it would make IoT a strategic priority in its five-year plan.
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If your company is like many organizations, it's actively engaged in or considering launching one or more IoT initiatives. It has a goal, a strategy and a desired outcome -- whether to drive revenue, cut costs or optimize business processes. And it might have already selected technologies and suppliers.
But does it have an IoT architecture? And is that architecture specific to this project or a customized version of a more general IoT framework?
You might be wondering why either of those matter -- two reasons. First, organizations with an IoT architecture are significantly more successful than those without. Successful companies -- those that rank in the top third of all companies when it comes to saving money, driving new revenue or improving business processes via IoT -- are 34% more likely to have an IoT architecture than less successful firms.
But that's not just any architecture, which brings us to the second reason it's important. Successful companies are more likely to adhere to an architecture that includes both a general-purpose IoT framework and a specific, customized version for the specific IoT project, whether that project is smart cities, industrial IoT or facilities IoT.
The best place to start is to define what an architecture is. Fundamentally, an architecture is a diagram or model that comprises two parts: the key technology components that make it up and the relationship between those components.
In other words, an architecture is more than a list of necessary technology components, but it does start with that list. It goes on to define how these components interact or engage with each other.
Some further definition is in order. By technology component, we mean a system, device or piece of software that delivers a specific technical capability. The cloud isn't a technology component, though it might be where a technology component is located -- e.g., a firewall in the cloud. Components can be hardware, software, or a mix of the two; and they can be defined at a high level (firewall) or a very granular level (link-layer packet filtering). Defining the components at the right level is part of the challenge of crafting an architecture. For example, in an IoT architecture, those components are likely to include connected devices, smart devices, sensors and actuators.
At a high level, the components involved in an IoT architecture include four key components. (See Figure 1 below).
Figure 1. The four components of IoT architecture
The relationship between the components is the second part of the architecture. By relationship between, we mean how components communicate with each other, and what sorts of information are exchanged. This can include data flow, metadata flow, control information or no information at all. Software components often communicate via APIs, and network layer components typically communicate via network protocols.
Speaking of layers, architects often think in terms of component layers, such as network layer, perception layer, processing layer, physical layer, gateway layer, platform layer, device layer, business layer, security layer, sensor layer and so on.
The concept of a layer is that it comprises a set of capabilities that communicate with one another, but for the purpose of other components can be treated as a single entity, with a single transparent entity.
In IoT architecture, the application layer need not know what type of physical network carries the data. All the network devices comprise the network layer that transports traffic as needed by the applications.
We define the six layers of IoT architecture as described below. Note that in some cases, layers are made up of sublayers. This a common characteristic in complex architectures, such as that of IoT. (See Figure 2 below).
Figure 2: The six layers of IoT architecture
Together, the physical layer/device layer, network layer and data/database layers comprise the infrastructure component discussed above.
These layers go from bottom to top in a fashion similar to the Open Systems Interconnection model, which was the original source of the layering concept. (See Figure 3 below).
Figure 3: An overview of the IoT architecture model
Enterprise IT, OT and IoT technology professionals should develop IoT projects and initiatives based on a consistent architecture. That doesn't mean using the exact same tools and technologies for every project, but rather making sure every component is properly instantiated for the specific project, and that technology professionals have thought about all the layers, including the network layer, perception layer, processing layer, physical layer, gateway layer, platform layer, device layer, business layer, security layer and sensor layer.
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