On the edge of the Internet of Things
A quick look at IoT and how it can change the world
One of our picks for this year’s technology trends, the “Internet of Things” (IoT) has the potential to transform the way we live and work. But what is it?
There are a lot of complexities around the “Internet of things” but let’s stick to the basics. A simplistic definition is that it’s all about connected devices that can exchange data, but this definition misses the bigger picture.
IoT is about connected devices. It is also about the software that runs these devices, the platforms that bring all these devices together, and of course, the problems it solves. Oh, and it’s also about the insane amount of data these devices collect, and the need to analyze all that data instantaneously, with a focus on privacy and security. Smart homes, smart cities, smart offices, and workflow automation — IoT has unlimited use cases.
From thin-client networks to today’s need for edge-computing, IoT has grown by leaps and bounds. Here is a quick look at what’s happening in this space:
Computing at the edge
The widespread availability of broadband internet led to an initial offering of connected devices that were not much more than a collection of sensors passively capturing data and transmitting it to servers in the cloud. The logic was that it’s more cost-effective to have many sensors collecting data while all the processing is done within servers housed in the cloud. And this logic still holds true, but for the elephants in the room — privacy and network usage.
As users realized the downside of always-on electronics in the home or office, a new generation of connected hardware burst on to the scene. These smart cameras, thermostats, and many more connected devices that live on the edge have sensors along with processing power. While they still transmit data to servers in the cloud for computation-intensive tasks, most of the processing can be done within a local self-contained unit. This serves the dual purposes of ensuring privacy and reducing network usage. These new generation of edge-computing connected devices are being lapped up by users all over the world.
A focus on analytics
Connected devices that can collect and process sensor data for immediate actions are great but one of the end goals of IoT is to gain actionable insights from data — and that requires both a new data infrastructure and better processes for data analytics.
Neil Barton, CTO of data infrastructure automation specialist WhereScape, says, “The blessing, and possibly the curse, of the staggering rate that companies are deploying IoT sensors is the vast amounts of data that is produced when tracking things in real-time.”
IoT devices collect data, a lot of it, and processing it will involve new data formats, information exchange protocols, data management practices, and the ability to analyze tons of data in real-time.
Gartner predicts that there will be 20.8 billion devices connected to the Internet by 2020, generating over 20 zettabytes of data.
Companies like SAS, SAP, and Teradata are a few of the players already working on solutions to handle data analytics for IoT projects. At some point, the deluge of data being collected will be too much for regular old machines, and we’ll probably need to use technologies such as machine learning and neural networks for data analysis.
Looking ahead, here are a few use cases of how IoT is already changing workflows in some industries and how it can change the way we work in some others:
Improving customer experience
Forrester Research predicted that IoT will become “the backbone” of customer value, and retail was one of the first industries to jump aboard. Brands hope to harness IoT to connect with customers, and improve the overall customer experience.
Fitness First, a chain of fitness centers, has invested in iBeacon technologies to track customers entering their gyms and to send relevant information to them automatically.
“People want to pay for an experience that makes them feel valued, welcome and known. Technology can help with this and it does not need to be either complicated or expensive”, says Fitness First CIO Ed Hutt.
Insurer Aviva partnered with UK startups such as Canary and HomeServe Labs, and gave away 500 smart home cameras to new home insurance customers in 2015 with a goal to “harness all of the insights from that experience”.
No-friction attendance reporting
For regular office goers, IoT can eliminate manual or access card-based attendance tracking systems by automatically identifying employees stepping into the office. Data collected from cameras in the office can be analyzed to generate automated attendance reports!
Enabling real-time logistics
Worldwide logistics leader DHL has invested in a series of IoT pilots across the world. It partnered with Cisco and Conduce, an IoT startup, for warehouse pilots in Europe, and with Huawei for an automotive plant pilot in China. DHL plans to use IoT to help the organization be more efficient and enable real-time tracking of packages all over the world.
Improving patient care
Healthcare institutions are piloting IoT projects that connect with patients via wearable devices, and help doctors monitor patients remotely. This can provide more affordable patient care in hospitals by reducing the need for an in-room nurse, and gives medical professionals more time to help more patients.
The internet of things is taking shape as we speak and it will, someday, connect everything and everyone — in ways we can see now, and in ways we haven’t imagined yet. Enterprises are investing in IoT to realize business goals such as last-mile tracking of inventory, enhancing customer experiences, and improving patient care.
While a few pieces of the puzzle are still missing — the need for new data infrastructure and analytics tools — bright minds spread across the globe are working out solutions today, and the day when IoT is everywhere is not really far away.
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