4 mins read

Around the world, there is a strong, steadily climbing interest in the sphere of the Internet of Things (IoT). Being dubbed one of the pillars of ‘Industry 4.0 – The Automation’, unlocking its full potential is said to be able to generate trillions in economic value. IoT-based solutions are already helping cities to grow smarter with use cases from traffic, air and waste management, to name a few. But what really is IoT? And what does it take to build a successful IoT system?

In this article, and a series of articles that will follow, let’s unpack the concept of IoT and discuss the current processes and technologies that make up the current IoT drive.

What is IoT?

The Internet of Things (IoT) refers to the billions of physical devices around the world that are connected to the internet, collecting, acting on and sharing data. It is a system of interrelated wired or wireless computing devices, uniquely identifiable, enabling mechanical and digital machines, infrastructure, vehicles, animals or people to transfer information over a network without human-to-human or human-to-computer interactions.

IoT devices can range from a wearable device such as a smart watch that records and transmits health and wellbeing information of a human or livestock, through to devices on infrastructure such as wind turbines, solar panels or manufacturing equipment that monitor for issues and automatically adjust to avoid failures.

The IoT sector has the potential to provide an enormous amount of data, opening up new opportunities for businesses to innovate products and services, optimise operations (with near-real-time adjustments) and provide greater insights into business at any scale (be it farming, corporate, governmental to list a few).

Internet of Things network - connected devices

What are the must-haves for a successful IoT system?

To date, there is an estimated 7 billion connected physical objects – these connected things range from common household items, to highly complex industrial devices embedded with sensors, actuators, software and technologies that are streamlined to make low-powered, reliable network and data exchange – it’s easy then to think that IoT is simply all about hardware. This is not the case – in fact, the hardware part of an IoT ecosystem is only the tip of the iceberg. Let’s look at the different ‘must-haves’ for a successful IoT system:

Transport layer

Connectivity is one of the more critical pieces. These components provide data flow control and ensure messages are sent in a timely manner and maintain their integrity. Over the past few years, a range of network protocols (some new, while others introducing improvements on exiting protocols) have emerged, allowing for a variety of use cases be it dependent on data throughput, or how fresh a data payload are when it reaches the cloud. These include wired networks, wireless personal area networks such as 6L0WPAN, ZigBee, Thread, Wireless Local Area Network (WLAN) such as WiFi, Low Power Wide Area Network (LPWAN) such as SigFox, Weightless, LoRaWAN, NB-IoT/LTE Cat-M1, and Wireless Wide Area Networks such as cellular based 3G and 4G networks and the (slow) deployment of 5G.

Then there is also choice about whether your IoT solution connects from the node (the device) to edge (an intermediate computer or base station which enables the node to be smaller) to cloud; or, alternatively, from node to cloud.

Understanding which option to choose will depend on your requirements – from coverage footprint, network capacity, power consumption and bandwidth.

Choice of computing – the cloud

Your choice of computing power when building an IoT solution is critical. Should you have existing on-premise infrastructure, provisioning for network, data throughput and storage, software patching (amongst a range of tasks) will fall on your shoulders – this could lead to the need for additional hardware. Careful consideration about remaining on an on-premise system should be made. A cloud-based system, on the other hand, is where one could build quick proof-of-concepts, fail fast; and it allows for high scalability, without high cost.

This computing power is where your data gets ingested, aggregated and/or pushed to (process) queues, and where insights can be drawn.

Security

Protecting data sourced from a connected device can present a difficult challenge – each device connected to your IoT system creates a potential threat to the security of the data you collect. And it’s not only in your interests to ensure that data is secure – there are also regulatory obligations about the kinds of encryption, access management or authentication required, depending on the industry you’re operating in. The security capabilities of IoT platforms vary so understanding what is required and what each system can provide is key.

Choice of hardware

Although only the tip of the iceberg, your choice of hardware for your sensor nodes, actuators and/or edge gateways is an important consideration in any IoT system. Whether built in-house or purchased ‘off-the-shelf’, there is a range of hardware options available. It may be that your IoT solution can connect directly to a smart phone via an app and this is the only hardware your solution requires. In other cases, it might be a dongle.

The above “must-haves” are by no means an exhaustive list of requirements to build an IoT Solution – they do form the basis for the bare requirements for a machine-to-machine, secure, highly available system. The following articles will further explore the various parts of an Internet of Things system, providing in-depth details for each of the moving parts, and as the technology scenery is an ever-changing one, we shall have some fun in exploring the new and upcoming IoT frameworks and solutions.