By: Axel Kloth, Chairman, President, and CEO, SSR Labs

The world is becoming increasingly interconnected. Today, we see a vast variety of clients connecting through the Internet backbone to servers in data centers, triggered by human interaction or request, usually during the workday. On top of that, video (Netflix, Youtube, possibly others) after the workday ended appears to be a large consumer of bandwidth. In either case, the traffic is largely initiated by humans.

The Internet of Things (and here particularly the Industrial Internet of Things) is about to change that. The sheer number of clients is going to grow by an order of magnitude at least. Most Market Research organizations predict over 20 billion devices to be online as part of the IOT by 2022.

Those devices will communicate in a very different way. They will send status messages periodically and upon reaching a threshold, largely for control purposes. They will do that 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

That is a relentless barrage of data that will test the Internet backbone and the server farms in the backend. It will also require all of these IOT devices to be “online” anywhere, at all times. It will require ubiquitous connectivity. Now, not all connectivity is the same, but nevertheless, all of these devices will have to be addressable one way or another, and that’s not possible with IPv4 any more. IPv6 will be required.

Different methods to access the Internet will be required as the needs for bandwidth, latency and power consumption will differ. A temperature sensor measuring air and water temperature on a buoy at the coast will need different means of communication compared to a gateway in an office building with thousands of temperature, humidity, pressure, sunlight (IR) and occupancy (motion) sensors. While local pre-processing within that gateway will occur, it will have to connect to other devices within and outside that building.

As an example, if the public utility sends an incoming message to conserve energy, then the gateway can be programmed to reduce the cooling by the AC slightly, and stop cooling rooms altogether that are not occupied. It can instruct consumers of large amounts of electricity within the building to delay starting up. To achieve this, all devices that make up the IOT must be connected, anywhere and anytime. By doing that, synergies can be exploited. In an office building with a server farm there is going to be excess heat produced by the servers. There is no point in the winter to run the AC to cool the servers, and to run the heater to heat the building. Smart buildings should be able to reuse that heat from the servers to heat the building. To do so, all devices and sensors and actuators must be connected, anytime and anywhere.

The beauty of the solution is that once physical and logical connectivity is established, everything else becomes a software and configuration challenge. If the sensors and actuators exist to facilitate any given task, then making use of synergies becomes a software and configuration issue, and not a hardware issue (or even worse, a building update or reconfiguration).

The same applies for entire cities. Smart cities can re-route traffic on demand, or even discourage private transportation altogether based on sensors indicating traffic overload, and rerouting all traffic to public transport systems. Currently, vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communication protocols are being developed – and so far security has been an afterthought. That must change, and it will, but for that to happen new hardware (i.e. processors with built-in and fully integrated crypto processing and much improved key management) will have to be available.

Californians are familiar with the threat of brownouts, i.e. the power grid being taxed to a degree that the voltage drops from the normal 110 Volts to values well below that. Most devices with switching power supplies will continue to work, but most large consumers of electricity will start to fail or malfunction. If there is a chance for a brownout, it is smarter to signal to AC units in residences and in offices to reduce the cooling rather than cutting power to a hospital where the elderly and babies may be on a respirator. This requires that all mentioned devices are connected in a secure fashion to the Internet and to local gateways, and it requires those gateways to pre-process data and to send status messages upstream where they can be evaluated and receive commands if necessary. Again, ubiquitous secure connectivity is paramount.

Airports could signal departure delays to the highways and the trains feeding passengers to the airport by slowing down the ingress traffic rate. The same can be done for egress: if two large aircraft such as the A380 deboard at the same time, egress traffic rates out of the airport on highways and trains could be increased.

In agriculture, we will be able to make use of water and fertilizers in a much more efficient fashion, and we will reduce runoff of fertilizer into rivers and the ocean, thereby reducing pollution. Harvesters and combines can be controlled by GPS and by IOT sensors in the ground, reducing unnecessary trips. By doing so, hedges can be re-introduced as wind breakers into large-scale farming, reducing the danger of wind blowing away fertile soil. The produce can be much more easily tracked, reducing waste and spoilage.

Doing so can and will reduce the human footprint by making use of primary energy and fresh water in a much more efficient way. It will make buildings, offices, streets, cities, sidewalks and any other public infrastructure more convenient, safer, and cheaper to operate.

What does it take to enable system designers to achieve these goals? Ubiquitous secure connectivity is needed. Every sensor, every actuator, every gateway must be connected to the Internet in a secure fashion, and all of them will have to be able to pre-process some data and send it to an upstream gateway, again in a secure fashion. Firmware updates will need to be made possible remotely or over-the-air (OTA), again in a secure fashion. All IOT devices will need to be able to learn some patterns to reduce upstream traffic and the need for peak bandwidth.

In other words, ubiquitous connectivity requires a set of features that go beyond just the physical and logical connectivity. Ubiquitous connectivity means that the connection from anywhere to anywhere else is secure – unhackably secure. Unhackably secure in this context means that security (privacy and authenticity of the message) is ensured by default, through a VPN or similar means. It also means that the bandwidth provided is appropriate for the purpose. A sensor that sends a packet with a size of 200 bytes every minute won’t need a 10 Gigabit Ethernet port (and in all likelihood, that port would exceed the power available to the sensor in the first place) – it will likely be more than adequately served by Bluetooth or I2C or SPI connectivity. Most other sensors or actuators will require no more bandwidth than USB 2 provides, even on a shared bus in a hub. If that is not enough, then Gigabit Ethernet is a good choice with a decent bandwidth for the power consumed. USB 3 with its improved and integrated power delivery could be another viable choice, eliminating the need for a separate power supply. Wireless LAN (WLAN) connectivity (IEEE 802.11 with all of its derivatives) works well if no cabling is possible, but power consumption per bandwidth is higher than on wired LAN. If neither WLAN nor Bluetooth are possible, then wireless WAN (WWAN: GSM, LTE, 3G, 4G, 5G) are possible solutions for ubiquitous connectivity.

As I2C, SPI and USB are not directly routable on the Internet, any sensors and actuators with those interfaces will need to connect through a gateway to the Internet. Luckily, interfaces such as RS 232C and RS 485 as well as Centronics and IEEE 488 rarely exist any more, and as such there is no need to support them other than maybe having to tunnel protocols based on those deprecated interfaces through the Internet.

In summary, ubiquitous connectivity is a prerequisite for the IOT. With the IOT we gain security, safety, convenience and efficiency, and we will be able to make better use of natural resources. Once deployed, the ubiquitous connectivity of the IOT will allow us to do more with less.