During 2017, there will be 8.4 billion objects connected to the internet. That’s a 31% rise over 2016 numbers, and this figure is still headed north – with Gartner predicting there will be 20.4 billion IoT devices by 2020. The cost of connected devices and services will be $2 trillion this year – with 63% of the IoT made up by consumer endpoints. This data suggests how fast the IoT is growing, which points to how disruptive the technology is and the extent to which it will broadly impact our lives.
With incredible growth comes incredible opportunity, so the Internet of Things should certainly be viewed in terms of its possibility. However, it is also a sticky subject that is giving enormous headaches to IT professionals from the standpoints of connection and security (although its security has been improved somewhat by advances in the cloud servers that typically form its basis). Before we get into that, let’s better understand the landscape by looking at the two main branches of IoT.
Consumer vs. industrial IoT – what’s the distinction?
While the consumer internet of things is the primary point of focus in the media, the industrial internet of things (IIoT) is also a massive game-changer, allowing a way to seamlessly track and continually improve processes. Let’s look at 5 primary differences between these two branches of IOT:
- The IIoT need to be much more durable, depending on the conditions where they will be deployed. Think about the difference between a Fitbit and an IoT sensor that must be submerged within oil or water in order to measure its flow rate; the latter device has to meet the specifications of the IP68 standard, while a Fitbit does not.
- Industrial devices must be built with scalability in mind. While home automation is perhaps the most complex consumer project, an industrial project can involve thousands of midpoints and endpoints across hundreds of miles.
- “Things” within the IIoT are often gauging the system in areas where it is largely inaccessible. For instance, it may be underneath the ground (as with gas and oil pipes), at a high point (as with a water reservoir), out in the ocean (as with offshore drilling), or in the middle of the desert (as with a weather station).
- The Industrial internet of things faces the same general security threat as the consumer internet does. It gets more concerning with the IIoT because a consumer hack (such as someone infiltrating a smart home) is local. An industrial scenario, on the other hand, can be much more devastating since many of these installations are sensors used to facilitate processes at water treatment and power plants.
- The level of granularity and customization with industrial applications is higher. While a smart refrigerator might have relatively complex capabilities, it is fairly standard for IIoT devices to need to be adapted in order to meet the specific needs of the manufacturer that is ordering them.
Two big potential hurdles of the IoT
What are some of the biggest things holding back the internet of things? Connection and security. Let’s look at these two major potentially problematic elements.
The Internet of Things can only reveal its true power when there are a sufficient number of devices connected – and that itself is an issue. One of the primary concerns with cloud computing as it started to accelerate was a lack of established standards, and the same is currently true with IoT as its continues to develop. IoT manufacturers and services have many different specialties that reach out both horizontally (the variety of different capabilities) and vertically (throughout various sectors).
There are a vast number of companies that are operating within the Internet of Things, and the huge tech companies are running numerous types of systems. Part of the problem is that because IoT growth is so fast-paced, independent development is prioritized over the interoperability that will create a truly stable environment.
The lack of operability within the field can be understood in terms of raw competition. In the absence of a set of established standards, each individual firm is left to create its own. That itself represents a huge opportunity, as everyone knows. Everyone likes its own version and wants that one to be the accepted standard. Proprietary systems are getting the focus since everyone wants to be “the OS of IoT.”
The good news is that this problem is being addressed. One example is the Living Lab of certification, validation, testing, and compliance firm Underwriters Laboratories (UL). The lab is simply a two-story home that offers a real-world scenario in which interoperability can be studied.
Since we live in the era before established IoT standards, we have many different options from which to choose when we create systems. You get a sense for what a jungle the situation is by looking at the range of networking options. Examples of technologies that each has its own technical standards are 6LowPAN, Alljoyn, Bluetooth, Bluetooth LE, cellular, CoAP, Homekit, JSON-LD, MQTT, Neul, NFC, Sigfox, Weave, Wi-Fi, and Z-wave. A device might operate correctly through some of these networking technologies but not the others; that is an interoperability issue.
What makes the interoperability issue immediately complex even at the level of the network is that the different communication protocols operate within different stack layers. Some of the networking methods are radio communication, while others are data protocols or engage at the transport layer. Homekit is practically its own operating system. Some of the protocols interact at more than one layer.
What’s good about this? From one internet of things project to another, you can use a very different set of technologies. Companies can get creative in their implementations. For example, Anticimex, which offer pest control services in Sweden, shoots messages from its smart traps through a carrier network to an SMS system and, in turn from there, to a control center. By setting up the relay system in this manner, Anticimex is able to isolate the vast majority of problems at the trap since there is not a direct connection from it into their system.
Another primary challenge facing the IoT (which is, in many ways, related to interoperability) is security. “So many new nodes being added to networks and the internet will provide malicious actors with innumerable attack vectors and possibilities to carry out their evil deeds,” explained IoT thought-leader Ahmed Banafa, “especially since a considerable number of them suffer from security holes.”
There is a twofold danger to IoT projects, both components of which are related to the endpoints – largely because it is challenging to secure small, simply engineered devices (as suggested by Banafa’s comments).
One of the problems that can arise is that a device that is breached can be used as a window into your system by a cybercriminal. Any endpoint is an attack vector waiting to happen.
The other primary problem that can arise is that an exploited device does not have to immediately be used against you. A hacked device can be recruited into a massive botnet of exploited IoT devices. The most large-scale problem of this sort is Mirai and its offshoots. Through Mirai, huge amounts of security cameras, routers, and smart thermostats were used to down some of the largest sites in the world in 2016, along with that of security researcher Brian Krebs.
Infrastructure for your IoT project
As you might have guessed when you first saw the title, the IoT is not just a promise or just a challenge, but both. Like any huge area of opportunity, it is about overcoming the challenges to see the results that are only available in relatively undeveloped territory.
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