Internet of Things 101: Understanding the Building Blocks of the Connected World

Most people I meet often define the advancements in hardware miniaturization, smart digital hub, and personalized home environment as a smart revolution. A revolution that suddenly erupted and engulfed our lives.I argue that talking-devices always existed in subtle, hidden ways, just that we never noticed or acknowledged their presence!

We all have been witnessing these changes for years – right from the appliances on our breakfast table to the car or public transport that takes us to our place of work. Computers, printers, access door switches to lighting and air-conditioning systems and back home to our living room. We lived with these devices that were, for the sake of my argument, reasonably smart. And they just got smarter rather quietly!

So what changed? How did these ‘machines’ develop the brain muscle to start influencing our lives in such a profound and powerful way? In the simplest of explanations, the learning curve of talking devices shrank at a faster rate beyond our estimates. Internet of Things (IoT) emerged and the world started to take notice of this new, unified phenomenon of uniquely identifiable objects and their virtual representations on the Internet or Internet-like structures (such as private networks/cloud).

To fully comprehend the Internet of Things, we need to familiarize ourselves with these three fundamental building blocks:

  • Hardware, Smart Gateway and Software
  • Internet & Cloud
  • Applications, Services and Smart-grid

Hardware, Smart Gateway and Software

I am often asked about what type or how ‘small’ a device can be to be qualified as an IoT-friendly device? Going by general conventions with regard to IoT, any uniquely identifiable device that can potentially transmit signals over any transmission medium - wired/wirelessly can be considered as an IoT-friendly device. This generally accepted definition suddenly expands the potential hardware data-set. Now what fits in this description? Electrical sensors, air-conditioners, microwaves, television, fire-alarm sensors, gaming stations, air-quality monitoring systems, among others. The device may or may-not be capable of establishing two-way communication or performing action but such capabilities are often desirable. The mix of hardware and devices across form-factors and their ability to capture and transmit signals (data) makes the Internet of Things a complex superset that needs an intelligent hub or a gateway to collect, comprehend, trans-receive and take corresponding actions if necessary.

Also called a “Smart-Hub,” a Smart Gateway is often an aggregator of signals emerging from multiple sources. Volume, velocity and variety of data often dictate the smartness of the Gateway. As an example, if the Gateway is to manipulate a lighting system or adjust air-conditioning based on signalling, your smart phone or your tablet may require less complex software programming as opposed something like a medical sensor hub that tracks more complex data like your physical activity and makes recommendations by comparing your activities to the benchmarks. For example, triggering the emergency alert system once it notices you failed to wake up.

In this way, hardware development, miniaturization and our ability to write software-on-the-chip is making the journey IoT truly exciting!

Internet & Cloud

Perhaps the most critical missing link in the Machine to Machine evolution was absence of scalable, elastic and reliable connectivity layer. With the advancement, penetration and improved network capabilities, the world is far more connected than ever. Companies, services or devices generating or storing data/signals on standalone boxes or smart-hubs were extremely limited by the absence of an expandable network that can take the data to more meaningful outcomes and actions.

Thankfully the cloud is working as a magic-glue to connect devices with smart-hubs and bringing together demand-supply systems that were earlier incomprehensible. As an example, earth-sensors constantly monitor soil composition across irrigation fields in districts and states. The signals trigger irrigation needs based on soil humidity, air-moisture and weather pattern to central irrigation department, thus helping them meet demand-supply and prevent the waste of natural resources.

Applications, Services and Smart-grid

Flexibility and scalability of the cloud infrastructure has opened up the door for us to write applications and services to derive meaningful insights out of the data generated by IoT-friendly devices. We are now witnessing developers, startups, small and medium businesses (SMBs) and enterprises that are developing industry-specific solutions to solve unique problems which were previously impossible to address due to the lack of machine-generated data. Imagine a real-time supply-chain management solution for inventory management, agricultural decision-making software or real-time law-enforcement services driven by security solutions powered by a smart-security grid. Each of these solutions uniquely harness the power of IoT. The list goes on and so do the endless possibilities of better managing and integrating our resources, in addition to the creation of new intelligent decision-making capabilities. We live in exciting times.

The journey of IoT has just begun. With evolving standards, protocols and device development, the next few years will fuel the connected devices growth like never before. The best is yet to come.

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