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FEATURE

Cisco Putting Internet of Things to Work

Cisco partnering with NASA and major cities to test methods for running large-scale sensor networks

September 27, 2010

By Charles Waltner

While Cisco Systems is actively guiding development of networking standards for the Internet of Things, it is also exploring methods for addressing the myriad of other issues facing this new era for the world's communications network.

Most notably, Cisco is involved in several initiatives that pioneer ways of melding the Internet with our physical world.

In perhaps its most ambitious effort, Cisco partnered with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in the United States in 2009 to develop a monitoring system for the planet. The project, called Planetary Skin, aims to provide a unified means to collect and process global data that governments, businesses and individuals can use to understand and respond to climate concerns, pollution and resource demands affecting forests, food, energy sources and water. Time Magazine named Planetary Skin one of the 50 best inventions for 2009.

Sensor Networks and Smart Cities

One aspect of this system focuses on interconnecting space-based and earth-based sensor networks to assess the influence of rainforests on greenhouse gases, with the goal of better guiding land-management practices. Other Planetary Skin initiatives look to use data from networks of smart phones to bring greater detail to existing environmental monitoring systems.

Cisco also has taken on urban sensing efforts in conjunction with several major cities to explore how digital information and communications technologies can help improve quality of life in metropolitan areas. The Connected Urban Development program, managed by Cisco's global consultancy, the Internet Business Solutions Group, was spurred by Cisco's commitment to the Clinton Global Initiative, the company says.

The program is now part of a global partnership with The Climate Group.  Together, The Climate Group, Cisco and others are working with cities to use networking technologies to improve traffic flows, pioneer new real estate models, create new supply distribution systems, and find other ways to reduce transportation-related pollution and barriers to economic development and growth.

Services Delivered over the Network

Both this effort and Planetary Skin focus on working with a wide range of partners to develop prototype systems that can be replicated by others. J.D. Stanley, a director in the public sector practice of Cisco's consulting group, says these projects rely on pervasive platform architecture for pulling the disparate parts of the Internet of Things together.

He says the pervasive platform concept is a system of systems approach that taps Cisco's capabilities and those of key partners, using multi-protocol routers, middleware, cloud computing, networking services and new Internet standards to collect, communicate and analyze data about the physical world.

Key to this concept is using the network to provide services, such as security and location-awareness, to support these data exchanges.

"There's lots of data being collected, but we're still having trouble getting beyond traditional approaches, which create firewalls that store information in silos and hinder cross-sector collaborations," Stanley says.

Managing Sensor Data

Most importantly, new methods need to be developed that allow individuals and organizations better access to data that is now being collected by a rapidly growing number of sensors and other devices.

"There's lots of existing sensors, controllers and other devices that might take a very long time to move to IP," Stanley says. "So my team's focus is on the best ways to get these types of orphaned data sets to interoperate with the greater Internet."

Although Internet-based networks are crucial to collecting and distributing such information, ultimately this data needs to be coupled with applications and other advanced software that can sort it, present it and help people make sense of it all.

Stanley says the real benefits of the Internet of Things will happen when different kinds of data can be brought together, such as correlating statistics on global deforestation with information about greenhouse gases or comparing pollution patterns in the ocean with trends in fish populations.

"All this data we are collecting is relatively meaningless without context," Stanley says. "We have to find better ways to harness the power of our collective knowledge."

Charles Waltner is a freelance writer in Piedmont, Calif.

 
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