IoT: IP, therefore I am
Communication is essential for society and commerce, but it depends on a common language. Paul Skelton explains how this can be readily achieved.
As technology marches on, so does the quest for an ideal platform that will ably support the Internet of Things, or IoT.
Geoff Mulligan, founder of the Internet Protocol for Smart Objects (IPSO) Alliance, contends that the platform should be built on an open IP backbone.
“Open standards are a much better long-term vision for the IoT,” he says.
“Look at the internet itself. It is made up of a bunch of incompatible protocols that would be impossible to navigate without open standards like IP. You would need one computer to watch YouTube and another to access Facebook.
“Computers are programmed to talk to incompatible protocols, but that works only because computers have a lot of memory.
“Embedded devices – like a thermostat, door lock or sensor – don’t have enough computing capability for all the different protocols. Instead, you get locked into a single solution. Otherwise, manufacturers have to build ridiculously complex devices that can shift from one protocol to another, which creates several potential failure points.
“So there are several reasons why you don’t want to build the IoT as a network of proprietary stovepipes then try to cobble them together.”
Geoff, who also developed the 6LoWPAN protocol and is a Presidential Innovation Fellow, says this is why 12 companies – including Intel and Cisco – initially formed the IPSO Alliance.
“In 2008 we noticed that lots of new proprietary technologies were emerging. We felt that this would fragment the IoT market, particularly in the field of smart grids or smart energy. Many vendors were trying to sell their own solutions.
“The IPSO Alliance has never been about building a unique protocol or specification for the IoT. We just want to use IP and open standards.”
Geoff says the biggest challenge for the IPSO Alliance is to counter IP mistruths spread by other groups.
“So many people have misconceptions about the technology. Some say you can’t use IP because it’s too big, or it wouldn’t work for small devices.
“We are dispelling the myths surrounding open standards. Many vendors that used to promote proprietary solutions are beginning to embrace open standards such as IP.
“For example, Zigbee Alliance has done so after 10 years of going it alone.”
Geoff says there are other challenges for IP as it continues to find a place in the IoT.
“Identity management, privacy and life cycle management are issues – even if we are all using the same protocol.
“If the protocol doesn’t ensure the privacy of data that comes off the device, or manage its identity and life cycle, then it won’t succeed.
“Think about it this way: people aren’t concerned about throwing out a defunct light bulb, but what if it had been connected to your network?
“Just because the bulb dies, that doesn’t mean the microcontroller and the brains in the bulb die too. This could conceivably give someone access to a home or building network, then to a security system.
“IPSO wants to figure out how we manage that kind of scenario over billions of devices. The next frontier is to develop a standard way of dealing with it for the entire IoT.”
Geoff acknowledges that IP isn’t the be-all and end-all.
“IP is not the end of the story. It makes the connection possible, but it’s no good if the devices don’t speak a common language.
“To get people on a common network, IPSO has been working on some standardisation at the higher layers.
“If it’s a light bulb from Sylvania and a light switch from Schneider, or a TV from Samsung and a washing machine from Whirlpool, those devices can connect over IP – but they still need higher-level communications.”
The advantage in using IP is that we don’t need to wait for another protocol to prove itself.
“If you chose a proprietary standard, who knows how long it will be around?
“IP has been around for about 50 years, and it will be around for at least another 50.”