The thing about the Internet of Things


Published in Smart World Jan-Feb 2014, The thing about the Internet of Things

Introduction: It is now common knowledge that the world is becoming more connected, instrumented and data driven. In a world of 7 billion people we have almost 10 billion devices connected to the internet. A recent report from Cisco suggests that the number of connected devices will almost touch 50 billion by the year 2020.

This huge increase in the number connected devices will come largely from a couple of new technology trends namely Internet of Things (IoT), Smart grids etc.

What exactly is the Internet of Things?

The first formal definition of the Internet of Things happened when ITU-T the telecom wing of United Nations came with a report titled “The Internet of Things” in 2005. In this report ITU-T added a fourth dimension of ‘anything’ to the existing anyone, anywhere, anytime network. This report visualized a world where millions and millions of devices either passive, intelligent or sensors collected data from the environment and sent it through the network to a backend processing system.

In Mark Weiser’s classic words, “the most profound technologies are those that disappear and weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it”. Embedded intelligence in the things themselves will further enhance the power of the network. IoT is just this vision of Mark Weiser.

This fourth dimension of ‘things’ or intelligent sensors give the ability to gather data from the environment which is then sent back through the wireless network to the internet for back end processing. Analysis of the gathered data helps in forecasting events ahead of the time.

The Internet of Things is also known as M2M or machine–to–machine computing, pervasive computing or ubiquitous computing.

The Maha Kumbh Mela experiment: Last year, 2013, coincided with the 12 year cycle of the Maha Kumbh mela festival. More than 100+ million people would have passed through the city of Allahabad for a holy dip in river Sangam at the confluence of Ganges & Yamuna. Almost 95% of this human mass would have carried mobile phones equipped with location sensors.  Harvard Business University with the help of mobile Telecom Operators ran an experiment to track the movement of people through the city of Allahabad to understand the behavior of people. It was  hoped that the study of this large amount of data, as people moved through the city, would help in identifying signatures of disaster and how they can be avoided.

This is possible because mobile phones have the ability to send their location data back to the net for processing. This is an example of the Internet of Things.

Some applications of the Internet of Things is outlined below


RFID or Radio Frequency Identification: RFID was one of the early enablers of this technology; The RFID is a passive device that responds with its identity when it is in the presence of a RFID receiver. The RFID receiver transmits a signal and a RFID tag responds with its unique tag id. The RFID technology has been used extensively by large retail stores like Walmart of US and Tesco of UK etc. These stores RFID tag all their products in the central warehouse. In the presence of an RFID receiver the RFID tags of all the products are read. So the warehouse has a complete list of its inventory. As the products move from the central warehouse to the regional warehouse and finally to the retail store the products are tracked. So the retail stores know exactly how many of each product is present in all its warehouses and stores. As customers buy products and check it out at the counter the count of the products in the store is also updated. So at any point in time each store will know the count of each of its products. So stores like Walmart can now forecast if there is a going o be a shortage of any of it products and can move some of them to the concerned store. In fact we can imagine a scenario where each shopping cart is equipped with a RFID receiver. As we keep putting products into our cart the cart can add each of the items we have taken so that we have the bill ready when we reach the counter. We need not scan the products at the check out counter.

Highway Tolls: An interesting application of IoT, is the payment of highway tools in which the vehicle do not need to stop to pay the toll. Toll is deducted from a device, with a driver, which is RFID tagged. There are also applications in which the tires of cars are embedded with sensors to detect the wear & tear of the tires. Insurance companies can use the driving data from these sensors to give discounts to safe drivers.

Car-to-car networks: Another certainty in the evolution of IoT is car-to-car networks. Vehicular Communication along with the Intelligent Transport Systems (ITS) achieves safety by enabling communication between vehicles, people and roads. Vehicle-to-vehicle communications are the fundamental building block of autonomous, self-driving cars. It enables the exchange of data between vehicles and allows automobiles to “see” and adapt to driving obstacles more completely, preventing accidents besides resulting in more efficient driving.

Intelligent homes:  Rapid advances in technology will be closer to the home both literally and figuratively. The future home will have the ability to detect the presence of people, pets, smoke and changes to humidity, moisture, lighting, temperature. Smart devices will monitor the environment and take appropriate steps to save energy, improve safety and enhance security of homes.  Devices will start learning your habits and enhance your comfort and convenience. Everything from thermostats, fire detectors, washing machines, refrigerators will be equipped electronics that will be capable of adapting to the environment. ‘Nest’ is a smart thermostat that made headlines recently. The thermostat learns your requirements and adjusts the temperature accordingly. All gadgets in the Smart Home will be accessible through laptops, tablets or smartphones from anywhere. Others gadgets in Intelligent Homes are smart locks, smart lighting etc. Hence, we will be able to monitor all aspects of our intelligent home from anywhere.

Intelligent offices: Smart devices will also make major inroads into offices leading to the birth of intelligent offices where the lighting, heating, cooling will be based on the presence of people in the offices. This will result in an enormous savings in energy. The advances in intelligent homes and intelligent offices will be in the greater context of the Smart Grid.

eHealth: IoT is being used by some hospitals for monitoring of heart patients Here a device is  implanted into the patient. The device regularly sends data to a doctor who can monitor the patient’s pulse rate, heart rate, blood pressure etc.  It can warn the physician when it detects an irregularity in the patient’s heart rhythm who can then call the patient and advice on appropriate medication to take avoiding a real cardiac arrest.

Smart Cities: How often we sit fretting and fuming in a traffic jam contributing to air pollution. Smart Cities are equipped with multiple devices that identify and measure traffic speed and volume on city roads. At the back end the systems analyze this continuous stream of real time and provide alternative routes based on predictive analytics based on real time and historical data. Studies have also shown that it is possible to control traffic by offering discounts to drivers on less crowded roads.

Smart Grid: The grid or the legacy electrical network has three components to it namely energy generation, energy transmission and energy distribution. The conventional electrical grid which is prevalent in most countries throughout the world has extremely high transmission losses besides having other issues. Typically an outage in one part of the network would cause a cascading effect throughout the network. Remember the infamous blackout in US in 2003 which was the largest black in US in history. More closer to home, in India, we had a blackout in Dec 2012 which was the largest black out ever. This is because of the domino effect where an issue causes a cascading effect. Closer to home we had the world’s biggest blackout in Jul 31 which left 600 million powerless for close to 2 days.

With the advent of Smart Grid the legacy electrical grid will have millions of electrical sensors which monitor the flow of energy. If there is a fault in any part of the network the sensors ensure that the failure is isolated so that outage does not spread to other parts.

Besides instead of the regular electrical meters Smart Grids include the concept of the Smart home equipped with smart meters. These smart meters have a two way communication. The price of energy which we get from the grid varies like the stock price. With the smart meters and smart appliances these appliances turn on when the price of drawing energy is low.

Wearable Technologies: he latest entrants to IoT are the wearable technology like Smart watches, Google Glass, Health bands. These technologies constantly monitor measure and send the data for processing to the backend.  For e.g. Google’s glass can immediately recognize prominent landmarks and display it. Similarly health bands like Fitbit, Nike FuelBand etc can now measure steps, heart rate and provide feedback.

Challenges: There are still many challenges on the way to a future filled with M2M. There is still no universally accepted protocol. There are many competing protocols like WiFi, Zigbee, MQPP, XMPP etc and there is yet to be a single common standard between devices and the networks for the Internet Of Things.

In any case, the Internet of Things or M2M is happening technology and will soon come into our neighborhood and we should all be pretty swamped by this tidal wave in our future

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Smart Grids – Heralding a smart future

Smart Grids are “happening” technology. Smart grids are coming. In fact smart grids are coming right into our homes. So what is Smart Grid all about?

About 2 decades ago the electricity grid of the world had 3 main elements to it namely energy generation, energy transmission and energy distribution to the consumer. According to  The Smart Grid) “The grid,” refers to the electric grid, a network of transmission lines, substations, transformers and more that deliver electricity from the power plant to your home or business. It’s what you plug into when you flip on your light switch or power up your computer. The issue with the traditional energy grid is that there are enormous losses in transmission and grid would be strained during peak usage. Moreover any outage of the energy grid would have a domino effect and could effectively cause a blackout in large areas. Remember the blackout in US in 2003 which was the largest blackout in US history (Biggest blackout in US history).

The Smart Grid tries to address all these problems of traditional energy grid. The Smart Grid has millions of sensors along the grid which measure and monitor the grid continuously and are equipped with 2 way communication. The “smart” grid will be equipped with controls, sensors, automatic meters and computers that communicate and control the grid. The smart meters and sensor constantly transmit data back to a central command center.  The Smart Grid can quickly identify outages and isolate that part of the grid preventing a cascading effect to other parts. The Smart Grid can identify potential network problems and re-route the energy through other parts of the energy network. Moreover the smart meters that are installed in every home can intelligently adjust the energy usage to non-peak hours when the cost of the energy is low.

Some of the key advantages of smart grids

–          Better resiliency to failures and quicker recovery times
–          Automatic re-routing of energy transmission in case of network failures
–          Faster response to outages with the ability to isolate the faults
–          Better integration with renewable energy like wind, solar energy
–          Reduced losses and more efficiency built into the grid.

Some of the key aspects of the Smart Grid are

Smart Home: As mentioned above the Smart Grid will extend to your home making it a “Smart Home”. Smart Homes will be equipped with smart meters instead of the traditional meters. These meters will be equipped with 2 way communication with your energy utility. All the appliances in your home will be networked into a “Energy Management System” the EMS. Through the EMS you will be able to monitor your energy usage and ensure that save money by utilizing your appliances during off peak hours. Smart Appliances will be able to communicate with the energy utility and automatically turn off during peak periods and turn on during when the cost of the energy is low. This is also known as “demand response” when consumers change their consumption patterns based on lower cost or other incentives offered by the utility companies. The energy price like the stick ticker fluctuates with the energy cost being highest during peak periods during the day.

Home Power Generation: The homes of the future will have solar panels or wind turbines will generate power and sell the excess power back to the Smart Grid.

Distribution Intelligence: The smart grid with its transformers, switches, substations will be fitted with sensors that will measure and monitor the energy flow through the grid. These sensors will be able to quickly detect faults and isolate the faulty network from the rest of the network. The Smart Grid will have computer software that will provide the grid with the capacity to self-heal in case of outages and provide better resiliency to the network. Besides security systems will play a key role in the Smart Grid.

Grid Operation Centers: The Energy grid consists of transformers, power lines and transmission towers. It is absolutely essential that only as power as needed is generated. Otherwise like water sloshing through water pipes excess power generated can cause oscillations and result in  the grid to become unstable eventually leading to a black out. The Smart Grid will have sensors all along the way which measure and monitor the energy usage and be able to respond quickly to any instability. It will have the power to self-heal.

Plug-in Electric Vehicles (PEVs) : Plug-in Electric Vehicles like Chevy’s Volt, Ford’s Electric Focus, the Nissan’s Leaf and the Tesla’s electric vehicle. The electric vehicle will run entirely on electricity and will be eventually lead to reducing the carbon emissions and a greener future. The PEVs will plug into the grid and will charge during the off-peak periods. The advantage of the PEVs is that the Smart Grid can utilize the energy stored in the PEVs to other parts of the network which need them most. The PEVs can serve as distributed source of stored energy supplying the energy to isolated regions during blackouts.

Smart Grids truly herald a smart future!

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Towards an auction-based Internet

The post below was quoted and discussed extensively in (see the link) GigaOM, 14 Jan 2011 – Software Defined Networks could create an auction-based bazaar.

Published in Telecom Asia, Jan 13,2012 – Towards an auction-based internet

Are we headed to an auction-based Internet? This train of thought (no pun intended), which struck me while I was travelling from Chennai to Bangalorelast evening, was the result of the synthesis  of different ideas and technologies which I had read  in the recent past.

The current state of technology and the technology trends do seem to indicate such a possibility.  An auction-based internet would be a business model in which bandwidth would be allocated to different data traffic on the internet based on dynamic bidding by different network elements. Such an eventuality is a distinct possibility considering the economics and latencies involved in data transfer, the evolution of the smart grid concept and the emergence of the promising technology known as the OpenFlow protocol.  This is further elaborated below

Firstly, in the book “Grids, cloud and virtualization”, by Massimo Caforo and Giovanni Aloisio, the authors highlight a typical problem of the computing infrastructure of today. In the book, the authors contend that a key issue in large scale computing is data affinity, which is the result of the dual issues of data latency and the economics of data transfer. They quote, Jim Gray (Turing award in 1998) whose paper on “Distributed Computing Economics” states that that programs need to be migrated to the data on which they operate rather than transferring large amounts of data to the programs.  This is in fact used in the Hadoop paradigm, where the principle of locality is maintained by keeping the programs close to the data on which they operate.

The book highlights another interesting fact. It says “cheapest and fastest way to move a Terabyte cross country is sneakernet (i.e. the transfer of electronic information, especially computer files, by physically carrying removable media such as magnetic tape, compact discs, DVDs, USB flash drives, or external drives from one computer to another). Google used sneakernet to transfer 120 TB of data. The SETI@home also used sneakernet to transfer data recorded by their telescopes inArecibo, Puerto Rico stored in magnetic tapes toBerkeley,California.

It is now a well known fact that mobile and fixed line data has virtually exploded clogging the internet. YouTube, video downloads and other streaming data choke the data pipes of the internet and Service Providers have not found a good way to monetize this data explosion. While there has been a tremendous advancement in CPU processing power (CPU horsepower in the range of petaflops) and enormous increases in storage capacity(of the order of petabytes) coupled with dropping prices,  there has been no corresponding drop in bandwidth prices in relation to the bandwidth capacity.

Secondly, in the book “Hot, flat and crowded” Thomas L. Friedman  describes the “Smart Homes” of the future in which all the home appliances will have sensors and will participate in the energy auction in real time as a part of the Smart Grid.  The price of energy in the Energy Grid fluctuates like stock prices since enterprises are bidding for energy during the day. In his Smart Home, Friedman envisions a situation in which the washing machine will turn on during off-peak hours when the prices of energy in the energy grid is low. In this way all the appliances in the homes of the future will minimize energy consumption by adjusting the cycles accordingly.

Why could not the internet also behave in a similar fashion? The internet pipes get crowded at different periods of the day, during seasons and during popular sporting events. Why cannot we have an intelligent network in place in which price of different data transfer rates vary depending on the time of the day, the type of traffic and the quality of service required.  Could the internet be based on an auction-mechanism in which different devices bid for bandwidth based on the urgency, speed and quality of services required? Is this possible with the routers, switches of today?

The answer is yes. This can be achieved by the new, path breaking innovation known as Software Defined Networks (SDNs) based on the OpenFlow protocol. SDN is the result of pioneering effort by Stanford University and University of California, Berkeley and is based on the Open Flow Protocol and represents a paradigm shift to the way networking elements operate.  Do read my post Software Defined Networks : A glimpse of tomorrow   for a more detailed look at SDNs. SDNs can be made to dynamically route traffic flows based on decisions in real time.  The flow of data packets through the network can be controlled in a programmatic manner through the OpenFlow protocol. In order to dynamically allocate smaller or fatter pipes for different flows, it necessary for the logic in the Flow Controller to be updated dynamically based on the bid price.

For e.g. we could assume that a corporate has 3 different flows namely, immediate, (ASAP), price below $x. Based on the upper ceiling for the bid price, the OpenFlow controller will allocate a flow for the immediate traffic of the corporation. For the ASAP flow, the corporate would have requested that the flow be arranged when the bid price falls between a range $a – $b. The OpenFlow Controller will ensure that it can arrange for such a flow. The last type of traffic which is not important it will be send during non-peak hours. This will require that the OpenFlow controller be able to allocate different flows dynamically based on winning the auction process that happens in this scheme. The current protocols of the internet of today namely RSVP, DiffServ allocate pipes based on the traffic type & class which is static once allocated. This strategy enables OpenFlow to dynamically adjust the traffic flows based on the current bid price prevailing in that part of the network.

The ability of the OpenFlow protocol to be able to dynamically allocate different flows will once and for all solve the problem of being able to monetize mobile and fixed line data.  Users can decide the type of service they are interested and choose appropriately. This will be a win-win for both the Service Providers and the consumer. The Service Provider will be able to get a ROI for the infrastructure based on the traffic flowing through his network. The consumer rather than paying a fixed access charge could have a smaller charge because of low bandwidth usage.

An auction-based internet is not just a possibility but would also be a worthwhile business model to pursue. The ability to route traffic dynamically based on an auction mechanism in the internet enables the internet infrastructure to be utilized optimally. It will serve the dual purpose of solving traffic congestion, as highest bidders will get the pipe but will also monetize data traffic based on its importance to the end user.

An auction based internet is a very distinct possibility in our future given the promise of the OpenFlow protocol.

All  thoughts, ideas or counter opinions are welcome!

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Tomorrow’s wireless ecosystem

The wireless networks of today had its humble beginnings in 1924 when the first mobile radio was demonstrated. It was many years since this beginning, that a completely functional cellular network was established. The earliest systems were the analog 1G system that was demonstrated in 1978 in US with great success. The initial mobile systems were primarily used for making mobile voice calls. This continued for the next 2 decades as the network evolved to digital based 2G systems.


It was around 1999-2000 that ETSI standardized GPRS or 2.5G technology to use the cellular network for data. Though the early data rates, of 144 kbps, were modest, the entry of GPRS proved to be a turning point in technological history. GPRS provided the triple benefits of wireless connectivity, mobility and internet access.  Technological advancement enabled faster and higher speeds of wireless, mobile access to the internet. The deployments of 3G enabled speeds of up to 2 Mbps for fixed access while LTE promised speeds of almost 56 Mbps per second coupled with excellent spectral efficiency.


The large increase of bandwidth along with mobility has allowed different technologies to take advantage of the wireless infrastructure for their purposes.  While Wi-Fi networks based on 802.11 and WiMAX based on 802.16 will play a part in the wireless ecosystem this post looks at the role that will be played by cellular networks from 2G to 4G.


The cellular network with its feature of wireless access, mobility and the ability to handle voice, video and data calls will be the host of multiple disparate technologies as we move forward into the future.  Below are listed some of the major users of the wireless network in the future


Mobile Phones:  The cellular network was created to handle voice calls originating from mobile phones. A large part of mobile traffic will still be for mobile to mobile calls. As the penetration of the cellular networks occurs in emerging economies we can expect that there will be considerable traffic from voice calls. It is likely that as the concept of IP Multimedia System (IMS) finds widespread acceptance the mobile phone will also be used for making video calls. With the advent of the Smartphone this is a distinct possibility in the future.

Smartphones, tablets and Laptops: These devices will be the next major users of the cellular network. Smartphones, besides being able to make calls, also allow for many new compelling data applications. Exciting apps on tablets like the iPad and laptops consume a lot of bandwidth and use the GPRS, 3G or LTE network for data transfer. In fact in a recent report it has been found that a majority of data traffic in the wireless network are video. Consumers use the iPad and the laptop for watching videos on Youtube and for browsing using the wireless network.

Internet of Things (IoT):  The internet of things, also known as M2M, envisages a network in which passive or intelligent devices are spread throughout the network and collect and transmit data to back end database. RFIDs were the early enablers of this technology. These sensors and intelligent devices will collect data and transmit the data using the wireless network. Applications for the Internet of Things range from devices that monitor and transmit data about the health of cardiac patients to being able to monitor the structural integrity of bridges.

Smart Grid: The energy industry is delicately poised for a complete transformation with the evolution of the smart grid concept. There is now an imminent need for an increased efficiency in power generation, transmission and distribution coupled with a reduction of energy losses. In this context many leading players in the energy industry are coming up with a connected end-to-end digital grid to smartly manage energy transmission and distribution.  The digital grid will have smart meters, sensors and other devices distributed throughout the grid capable of sensing, collecting, analyzing and distributing the data to devices that can take action on them. The huge volume of collected data will be sent to intelligent device which will use the wireless 3G networks to transmit the data.  Appropriate action like alternate routing and optimal energy distribution would then happen. The Smart Grid will be a major user of the cellular wireless network in the future.

Hence it can be seen the users of the wireless network will increase dramatically as we move forward into the future. Multiple technologies will compete for the available bandwidth. For handling this exponential growth in traffic we not only need faster speeds for the traffic but also sufficient spectrum available for use and it is necessary that ITU addresses the spectrum needs on a war footing.

It is thus clear that the telecom network will have to become more sophisticated and more technologically advanced as we move forward into the future.

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