IoT: The Internet of Things

by John J. Smith on Thursday December 11th, 2014 12:05 PM

There is a new buzzword in town, and it's name is IoT (Internet of Things, a.k.a Cloud of Things, a.k.a Internet of Everything). Ok... so the term has actually been around for a few years, but it has only been a household word for a few months now. It claims to be a revolution that will have a significant impact on the way we live. It has already begun to affect industries such as health services and automotive. But what does it mean to the average tech person? It looks like the answer to that is Plenty, but what it means depends on what you do.

The essence of IoT is simple. Lots and lots of little remote sensors that are cloud-enabled. Things like GPS tracking devices, health monitors, and even controls for autonomous vehicles. All of these devices send their data to the cloud, where it can be processed and made available to end users. Of course the concept is simple. It's the infrastructure and implementation details that are tough. More on that later.

OK... I know what you are thinking. We've all seen tech fads that died, (3DTV anyone?) but this one seems to have a little more behind it. Intel announced a big buy-in for IoT recently with a worldwide press release. They've joined a long list of chip makers like Freescale, Atmel, TI, and lots of others who are all joining in on the land grab. It's difficult to make any predictions with such a poorly defined and little understood market, but with this much momentum from so many big names, something is destined to happen.

The potential market size could easily dwarf the cell phone market within a few years. Think about it... most people own a cell phone, and they update it around once every two years. IoT allows for lots of little, tiny cloud-enabled devices. In fact, Gartner predicts 26 Million devices by the year 2020. That's a lot of devices, and a lot of room to grow.

All of this is great, but there is a lot of work to do before IoT can make the impact it promises. Chip makers have fallen into a "big order" mentality that stifles entrepreneurial designs (just try to order a dozen Raspberry Pi CPU chips from Broadcom... I dare you). Luckily, those who lost the cell phone wars are determined to fix this, for their own sake. Software has fallen into a "web is all, and all is web" mindset that scoffs at embedded software. I predict that this will change slowly, but it is inevitable as the need for low-level programming of devices begins to expand. "Big Data" has been getting ready, but only time will tell if they can handle the influx of data and the proliferation of devices that could potentially overwhelm them. IT has a looming problem with a dwindling address space and the painfully slow uptake of IPV6. Security and standardization are lagging waaaaay behind, as they always do.

So what does all of this mean to your average techie? How is this going to affect your career? That depends on your chosen career path.

Hardware Engineers will find a place in "gizmotronics". Lots of little sensors for lots of little devices. The time scale of design contracts will shrink, and an emphasis on small, cheap, and low-power will prevail. There will still be a need for "big iron", but that will only be for datacenters and comms. None of this is new, but it will all get a new emphasis from IoT. I suspect that hardware engineers will be in short supply.

Embedded software engineers will find a place next to the hardware engineers, as they normally do. A bigger emphasis will be put on understanding the scope of the problem, and less emphasis will be placed on general software knowledge. Porting operating systems and drivers will be necessary, but with more emphasis on reduced memory footprints and efficiency. Embedded software developers should find more opportunities available.

Application developers and Web designers will find that they are less affected by IoT than other developers. IoT devices generally send data directly from the hardware to the cloud, so there isn't much room for an application. App and web developers will still have the cellular/tablet/pc market to play in, and many companies will want a branded app to communicate with the cloud. Web and app developers will still be involved in the front end GUI, but I don't see IoT increasing demand for the skill, just maintaining current demand, which has been abnormally high for a few years.

Big Data will need to learn a little bit about the hardware that they are communicating with. I've worked at a company that went through this kind of transition. It isn't as easy as you would expect. However, the sheer volume of data that will need to be managed will probably affect Big Data more than anyone.

Everyone will need to learn new ways to communicate with a plethora of little devices. It is inevitable that new protocols will be developed for this purpose. Current communications (SMB, IPV4, IPV6, etc) are inadequate for the projected demand, and will need to be replaced by something more device-specific. Proposals for this new communications paradigm are already surfacing, but nothing earth-shattering has caught on yet.

IoT looks to be a real thing, with the potential to have a significant impact on how software and hardware are engineered. Are you ready?

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