The modern Internet is millions of networks containing billions of hosts. The hosts are computers — small personal computers, big enterprise-size computers, and embedded computers. Digital cameras, MP3 players, and car electronics contain computers, but they are not usually hosts on the Internet. With the rise of IPv6, that will change. New devices will be hosts on the Internet. The Internet of Things is coming.
I recently spoke to Ron Vetter of the IEEE Computer Society. Here's how he puts it: "The ‘Internet of Things' has to do with the large number of devices (things) that are currently or will be shortly connected to the Internet. The proliferation of smart sensors will greatly increase the number of things connected as well as the kind of information and control that will be available. For example, think about what happens when we connect most of our home appliances, HVAC controls, entertainment devices, etc. to the Internet. The quantity of information will explode, as will concerns for privacy and security."
Vetter is referring to sensors of all shapes and sizes, from anemometers to watt meters (no, there are no sensors starting with Z), which will continuously produce oceans of data. Home automation will finally leave the land of geeks and enter the mainstream, when all of these "things" go online.
"Advances and standardization in computer networking and low cost hardware have contributed to moving machine-to-machine communication forward," said Vetter.
The Internet of Things will talk to us, but they will spend more time talking to each other. These M2M (Machine to Machine) communications will happen wirelessly. Many people rely on M2M communications by using a Bluetooth headset, making a payment with their mobile phone or - for the early adopters with money to burn - subscribing to a 4G network.
The technology required to power the Internet of Things is already here, but some of it needs improvement. Networking devices are already here — no office is complete without a network containing printers, wi-fi routers, and mobile phones. The networking protocol IPv6 is already here, with its trillions of addresses ready for use, although it is only sparsely deployed so far. Low cost production, antenna design, and battery life could do with improvement. Privacy controls, green technology, and Thing management will need a lot of work.
Centralization and distribution
The Internet of Things will lead to de-centralization. It could lead to the end of cloud computing.
As innovation brings sweeping reform, the computer world swings from one model to another. Anyone who has worked in an enterprise for a few years has seen a couple of re-organizations. They know how work is merged and centralized one year, then split and distributed a couple years later, and then it's back to merging and centralizing.
Way back in the 1950s, the installed computer base was thousands of room-size machines, scattered around the world's public institutions and public enterprises. The work of each organization was centralized, because it had to be. No-one had invented distributed computing yet.
The 1980s brought personal computers to the general public. A new software market appeared, distributing computing power to individuals. Mainframes and dumb terminals were replaced with clever desktop machines.
The current trend is centralization - replacing the local computer room with remote cloud services. The clever desktop machine is being replaced with the mobile device - the modern equivalent of the dumb terminal.
The future is another wave of distribution. When everything in the Internet of Things talks to everything else, where will the center be?
Utopia or dystopia
As we build the Internet of Things in the coming years, new types of work and even new industries will spring up that don't currently exist. Who will make all the Things? What will stop hackers switching the lights on and off in a million homes? When the Internet of Things is producing its ocean of data, where can we store it? And how do we use it?
There will be moral questions to answer in addition to the technical build. Will our lives get better, when the Internet of Things brings us unprecedented insights into the workings of the world? Or will it strip away the remains of our privacy, reporting everything we do to others? Getting it right will require a more holistic approach from the IT industry.
The momentum of the Internet of Things is now building. The Internet changed our lives, and the Internet of Things will change us again.
Nick Hardiman builds and maintains the infrastructure required to run Internet services. Nick deals with the lower layers of the Internet - the machines, networks, operating systems, and applications. Nick's job stops there, and he hands over to the designers and developers who build the top layer that customers use.