Tuesday, August 7, 2012

It's Different Out Here

Through nearly my entire career, I have been trying to create highly functional systems with a bare minimum of resources, whether that is defined as power, space, wireless spectrum, money, time, or other factors. This has often led me to develop systems formed of essentially autonomous devices that were able to self-organize, manage perturbations, and tune performance to the environment. The systems have been as diverse as tactical robots, web information harvesters, and wireless mesh networks – but all shared aspects of being simultaneously independent and coordinated.

"Experts" from product managers to preachers to pundits have turned their attention recently to the "The Internet of Things" (IoT). This phrase has many meanings, depending on who is doing the describing – and perhaps more importantly, the selling. Network-centric companies view the IoT as an extension of current networking protocols and practices, noting that IPv6 allows the addressing of billions and billions of devices (according to this infographic from Cisco Systems, 100 addresses for every atom of matter on earth).

Other market participants see the IoT as an extension of existing Radio Frequency Identity (RFID) applications, noting the power of the Internet of Things to locate and catalog every discrete item on earth – apparently believing that’s not only practical, but useful.

But my experience building a wide variety of "bare minimum" systems suggests that the real power of the Internet of Things will be quite different from either a traditional network centric or universal inventory perspective. Rather, I believe that the Internet of Things represents a completely different worldview: one where the machines take care of themselves and only trouble us for exceptions. Simple devices, speaking simply.

My vision of the IoT is absolutely required if one truly believes that the Internet of Things will reach down to billions of devices like diesel generators, soil moisture sensors, and toasters. It doesn't make economic or technical sense to add a lot of costly and finicky electronics to these devices merely to gather or impart the tiny amount of data they create or need.

This world of machine-to-machine interaction will be much more like birdsong or the interactions of social insects such as bees and ants than it will be like TCP/IP and WiFi. The overhead of traditional protocols such as IPv6 isn't necessary (or possible) when data rates are nearly immeasurably low. At the edges of the network, the vast numerical majority of devices will simply speak and listen in tiny bits of data. And they will be designed with a basic trust in an IoT universe that propagates these messages to some sort of integration point where the IoT may be interpreted for human consumption.

The Internet of Things is (and always will be) the very frontier of the network. Like every frontier in history, it will be messy, intermittent, lossy, and unpredictable. Best effort will be the rule of the day – and that will be enough!

In future blog posts, I'll explain further why the Internet of Things can be – indeed must be – completely different than the way it is currently envisioned by nearly everyone. Next time: why peer-to-peer doesn't mean equal.