What is This Whole IoT Thing? – Part 1
Everywhere you turn, it seems like everything has the potential to connect to everything. This, often, gets referred to as the Internet of Things (IoT) but that title just seems to confuse many. So, what is IoT, what is the big deal about it and does it matter to you? This blog is the first part of a two part blog where we dig into these questions.
Before we define IoT, let’s talk a little about the two main ways that data is processed and stored.
- Centralized: This is where all data goes back to a central location and is stored and processed, then, when needed, the data is fed back to endpoints to be read. This is akin to the old-style mainframe servers where people used a “dumb” terminal to interact with the mainframe. All of the storage and work happened on the mainframe and the dumb terminal just displayed the output of that work. Many web-based applications do something similar to this. You use a browser to view the website and interact with it but most of the storage and crunching of data actually happens on the back-end and you usually just see the output.
- Distributed: As with many things, there are many variations of this but, essentially, a distributed environment relies on data to be stored in decentralized locations and processed in those decentralized locations. Sometimes, people work in complete isolation and data never goes back to a central point. More often, however, data will be stored and processed on, say, a person’s laptop then, when it is ready, they will upload it to a shared location to be housed, shared with others and/or it’s data processed.
There are many that try to define IoT but I will try to keep it simple here. IoT is, essentially, a network of devices that have the capability to collect data and interact with each other, sharing that data.
As with many things in technology, IoT is nothing new, the reach and use of it has just expanded. For example, manufacturing systems have been doing this for a long time. In those, they usually have things such as positioning sensors that communicate with actuators to know where a product is located and, based on its location, activate some kind of motor or arm or such. One of the biggest differences here is that these systems usually communicate back through a central brain, usually called a PLC (Programmable Logic Controller) which evaluates the data and tells the other components what to do based on that evaluation.
The main thing about IoT is that this capacity is expanding into new realms or new iterations of old things. As an example, for quite a while now, we have had watches that connect to a heart rate strap to know your heart rate while you work out. Now, however, we have much more than that. I wear a Garmin Fenix 5 watch with a heart rate strap. When I go out for a run, my watch collects GPS data of my location along with the accelerometers collecting data about force and movement. The heart rate strap collects heart rate data but also collects more accelerometer data about my cadence, rise and fall, left/right shift and more. The heart rate strap reports all of this back to my watch in real time, where it is collected, processed and I can see more analytics than I care to see. Once the run is over, my watch can upload all of this data to my cell phone (or directly to the Garmin cloud over my WiFi connection) where I can see even more analytics along with histograms charting my run history, progress and much more.
Some other examples of modern IoT devices would be:
- Nest Programmable Thermostat. (There are commercial solutions that are similar to this too but also provide real-time analytics back to your HVAC provider.)
- Insulin pump that can be controlled from your phone and that data can be uploaded to your doctor.
- Cars that connect to the Internet through WiFi or Bluetooth to know the weather, maps and much more.
- Alarm systems that connect with and can remotely control locks and camera systems, all viewed and managed from an application on your cell phone, over the Internet.
- Household appliances (Refrigerator, oven, washer/dryer) that can tell you what they are doing and be remotely controlled.
While there are definitely some new technologies that allow devices to connect easier and faster, the fact that there are devices talking to each other is not overly new. The recent expansion of IoT is largely driven by the proliferation of the Internet and the expansion of the use of cloud computing. This becomes the major conduit that allows IoT devices to aggregate with each other over long distances and for their data to be centrally stored, processed and remotely accessed and controlled.
IoT and its extended use does provide some amazing capacities but it also raises some interesting questions and concerns that should not be ignored. In the next blog, I will dig into those questions and concerns.
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