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Cisco Clearing Path to the "Internet of Things"

September 27, 2010

By Charles Waltner

The Internet of Things is a tantalizingly ambitious concept for the next iteration of the Information Age in which almost any object or environmental condition can be monitored, possibly controlled and tied into the digital universe. By some estimates, the Internet of Things will be able to connect at least as many objects as there are atoms on the surface of the Earth.

Unfortunately, there have been almost as many opinions about how this new era should take shape.

Since the idea for the Internet of Things was coined more than a decade ago, researchers and technology companies have struggled to make it a reality. Most significantly, a myriad of approaches for building this new kind of network have divided the market, fragmenting the Internet of Things into hundreds of islands of information separated by their own communications systems.

During the past five years, however, Cisco Systems has tackled the task of bringing at least some consensus to this matter. At stake is nothing short of a computing revolution that promises to radically improve upon the profound safety, efficiency and quality-of-life benefits already offered by today's Internet.

Smart Objects

The Internet of Things, which will include connections over the public Internet as well as an unlimited number of private networks, comes with a host of challenges that don't exist with today's networks – those designed with the assumption of unlimited power for driving ever bigger and faster digital machines for massive, fiber optic-based broadband links.

But the millions of sensors or mini-controller devices of the Internet of Things, commonly referred to as smart objects, will go places the Internet never dreamed of. Smart objects and their connected networks could regulate electrical grids, watch for ocean pollution or forest fires, check air quality in mines, and monitor factories, pipelines, bridges, warehouses, homes, buildings or most any man-made or natural object.

"It's more than Moore's Law or Metcalf's Law. Things are getting connected at a breathtaking rate."

— Dave Evans, Cisco futurist and chief technologist, IBSG

Unlike the high-powered broadband lines running today's Internet, much of the Internet of Things will need connections over low-power, low-speed, and often unstable connections in harsh or unpredictable environments.

New types of wireless technologies will make many of these connections to tiny, battery-powered sensors, while the tangle of electrical lines that already blanket the earth offers another promising means for connecting millions of sensors and controllers.

While somewhat counterintuitive, Internet of Things devices connected via power lines must also be extremely low-power. There will be so many that they could cause a huge energy drain, says J.P. Vasseur, a Cisco Distinguished Engineer who has led the company's efforts for developing the Internet of Things.

Also, these pathways over electrical lines can be as challenging to transit as wireless signals, Vasseur says. Factors such as the quality of the wires, the weather, temperature and radiation can dramatically affect the stability of the signals, he says.

Fifteen years ago when the idea for the Internet of Things emerged, such constraints seemed impossibly daunting. But over time and thanks to Moore's Law, a host of companies and researchers successfully developed ways to run these networks.

Unfortunately, each took its own path to solving this technological challenge, says Adam Dunkels, a researcher at the Swedish Institute of Computer Science and creator of Contiki, an operating system designed for the pint-sized devices that will inhabit the Internet of Things.

"Everyone had an opinion about how this new communications system should be built," he says.

IP as a Common Language

Five years ago, an intensive technical analysis by Cisco convinced the company that Internet protocol (IP) could be adapted to run over these new kinds of networks, bringing to the Internet of Things the same benefits of interoperability, scale and most importantly, a common language that has united the Internet's complex collection of private and public networks into a cohesive, global communications system.

Not everyone in the industry readily agreed with such an assessment. Many companies that had already developed products using their own approaches argued that IP simply wasn't up to the task.

Slowly, Cisco helped move the debate forward and eventually established efforts within various standardization organizations and international alliances. Particularly, Cisco worked within the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), the main standards body for Internet communications, to develop a common approach for making IP routing protocols lightweight and flexible enough for smart objects networks.

"We realized the Internet of Things was a different beast, but what seemed clear to us was that if we didn't try to rally the industry around IP, we would have mass confusion," Vasseur says. "My point to the other equipment vendors was, do you want 80 percent of a very small pie or 20 percent of a huge pie?"

IP Standard for Sensor Networks

This summer an IETF group led by Vasseur created the first IP standard for routing over sensor networks using wireless and power line links. The new standard has had its first interoperability tests and is on the cusp of ratification. Cisco has already committed to using the technology in its networking products.

Vasseur says the new standard, known as RPL (the IPv6 Routing Protocol for Low-power and lossy networks) not only provides the economical routing necessary for limited power micro-devices but also offers the flexibility to support the wide variety of ways smart object networks might be used. "It was a very bumpy road getting to this point, and there's still work to do, but the pieces are now finally in place," he says.

Dunkels agrees that the tided seems to be turning. "Everyone started out by building super-customized protocols, but people are now seeing the beauty of IP," he says.

Building a Smart Grid

More work for Cisco and other IP advocates remains. Vendors outside the networking industry are proving reluctant to commit to using Internet standards, says David Mohler, the chief technology officer for Duke Energy.

Duke Energy, with electricity customers in the southern and Midwestern United States, has been working with Cisco and other companies to develop smart grid technologies to vastly improve how Duke manages its electrical infrastructure.

Mohler says the energy industry epitomizes the challenges faced in many other areas where these new technologies could make a huge difference. Progress towards a unified, IP-based approach to building a smart grid is going slowly because many traditional equipment makers for the energy industry are trying to protect their existing product lines.

From Mohler's perspective, Internet standards are clearly the only path to take. "Why go out and try to invent something new when you have a proven technology in hand?" he says.

Currently, a utility like Duke might have several different electrical meter systems, a few electrical distribution management programs, and an assortment of other operational and management technologies, each running on their own proprietary equipment. IP is the one common language that can bring order to this labyrinth of products, Mohler says.

Technology Avalanche

Certainly from Cisco's perspective, the Internet of Things can't happen soon enough. By all measures, this era of communications represents a business opportunity that dwarfs today's Internet.

Dave Evans, Cisco's futurist and chief technologist for the company's global consultancy, the Internet Business Solutions group (IBSG), says that advances in computing power, nanotechnology, software, and wireless capabilities are combining to greatly accelerate expansion of Internet communications in what he terms a "technology avalanche."

Evans says as many as one trillion devices could become connected to the Internet. "It's more than Moore's Law or Metcalf's Law," he says. "Things are getting connected at a breathtaking rate."

Such connections include sensors on electrical lines to conserve energy, RFID tags attached to shipping crates to track inventory, temperature sensors in lab refrigerators to preserve medical supplies, tiny humidity gauges scattered on a forest floor to assess fire danger, sensors drifting in the ocean to track pollution, or devices on pipes values to automatically adjust pressure. "In a way, it will be a sixth sense for us," Evans says.

To be sure, Cisco is staking much of its future on this new era for the Internet. Many of its boldest business efforts, including its Smart Grids, Connected Cities, Connected Real Estate and other business segments touching on manufacturing, healthcare and home networking all involve new technologies springing from the Internet of Things.

Dunkels says few can argue the logic of Cisco's interest to build the Internet of Things from the same technologies that have so remarkably created today's Internet.

"In a way, it's like trying to kick in an unlocked door," he says.

Building Industry Consensus on Internet of Things

To that point Vasseur, Patrick Wetterwald and other Cisco executives have helped form the Internet Protocol for Smart Objects (IPSO) Alliance, now with more than 50 member companies, including Intel, Google, Fujitsu, Ericsson, SAP, Bosch, The EDF Group, Duke Energy, Itron and Johnson Controls.

The group works closely with standards bodies, including the IETF, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) to specify new IP-based technologies and promote industry consensus on how to assemble the parts for the Internet of Things.

Dunkels, who is a member of the IPSO, says such a group is crucial for bringing some order to the vast concept for the Internet's reinvention.

"This is all new for everyone," Dunkels says. "While some questions are being answered, we're still looking for ways to meld everything together."

Charles Waltner is a freelance writer in Piedmont, Calif.

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