The Internet Of Thingamajigs

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IoT is the abbreviation being tossed about for the Internet of Things. What IoT actually means depends upon who you talk to and many of you do not know what it means based on a recent survey of Electronic Design readers. That is not surprising since I have not quite figured out what it means and I follow this space rather closely. The problem is that IoT means different things to different people and about the only thing they have in common is that there might be a connection to the thing via the Internet.

The definition of thingamajig is:

  1. noun - relating to a nonspecific object.
  2. noun - referring to a specific object whose name is not known or forgotten.

So I think IoT should stand for the Internet of Thingamajigs instead since the only way to talk about it is to be too specific.

So what does IoT mean to some people?

Well, typically it means connecting devices to Internet server-based applications that in turn are controllable from apps running on smartphones, tablets or PCs. It is essentially machine-to-machine (M2M) communication but M2M is not as cool as IoT. It is suprising how the underlying protocols like MQTT (see MQTT Will Enable The Internet Of Things) figure in both.

As a general hierarchy, end nodes can connect directly to the Internet services or they can go through one or more gateway layers. Whether the end nodes can or need to go through gateways varies depending upon the performance capabilities of the end node. When talking about IoT, many consider an end node to be as small as an 8-, 16- or 32-bit microcontroller with a network interface and a small amount of flash memory.

Of course, end nodes can be larger 32- or 64-bit platforms. These tend to be overkill for handling a light switch or temperature sensor but stranger things have been done. These larger platforms tend to be utilized as gateways that have two or more network interfaces. Often these network interfaces are different allowing the gateway to bridge between different communication systems or protocols such as ZigBee to WiFi or Ethernet.

One of the larger platforms is Intel's Quark (see How Many Quarks Does It Take To Make An IoT?). It is a 32-bit x86 sytem-on-chip (SoC). It could be used for sensor applications but it is a bit costly compared to a Cortex-M0+ or other small microcontroller. On the other hand, it could easily handle gateway chores that can include things such as firewalls, authentication and security as well as protocol translation. So when Intel talks about IoT they usually mean down to the Quark level. Others tend to think smaller but it all plays together, somehow.

The playing together part tends to be another spot where people have different views of IoT. Take the gateway. It could be like the typical home gateway that links an Ethernet or WiFi LAN to the Internet. It often provides NAT (network address translation) for IPv4 networks as well as providing a basic firewall. It typically does more but it does not usually care what device is on the LAN and what service it communicates with on the Internet.

Gateways can be built in this agnostic fashion but they can also be more specific about the types of devices they support. This is typically the case for current M2M networks where the end nodes and the layers of gateways are built to only work with each other. Eventually they wind up on the Internet but again the communication is often to a specific web server. This would be the case for set top boxes that are now common place with HDTVs. Forget about the built-in receivers. They don't get used a lot. These days a monitor makes more sense but that discussion is for another article.

The “new IoT” approach often bandied about has the gateways being more flexible to the point of running downloadable services. In theory, a gateway could handle home security, HVAC (heating, ventilation, air conditioning) and even control your HDTV. The challenge is making this work. There are a variety of schemes to make this work but they are often limited to accommodate service providers that usually want to sell you all these services.

So is that IoT box something you will be able to buy at the local electronics or hardware store? Probably not. The issues related to service providers are likely to keep the Tower of Babel structure with have now with low level connectivity like WiFi and Ethernet being the common bond.

So if you figure out what IoT will be then let me know. For now I suspect that it will be more confusion until more real solutions are delivered. There already are thingamajigs attached to the LAN and eventually to the Internet so the IoT is here now. We shall see whether this state of affairs improves overtime. I hope it does because I hate having redundant devices because my IoT is actually many logically distinct networks.

 

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on Mar 6, 2014

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William Wong

Bill Wong covers Digital, Embedded, Systems and Software topics at Electronic Design. He writes a number of columns, including Lab Bench and alt.embedded, plus Bill's Workbench hands-on column....
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