The Internet of Things – What is it and how does it work?

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The Internet of Things

The Internet of Things – What is it and how does it work?

In a time not far from now..

Imagine a world where everything is connected.

And I mean – EVERYTHING.

Your entire house is connected to the Internet.  Each device, door, window – anything that can turn off and on, or can open and close, is connected.

Your day starts like this: Your alarm on your phone goes off.  It talks to the coffee machine and tells it to make a coffee.  If you hit the snooze button, it tells the coffee machine to wait.  After all, you like your coffee to be HOT.

The TV in your bedroom automatically turns onto your favourite breakfast show when your wristband determines (by measuring your heart rate) that you are now actually awake.

As you head to the shower, the radio takes over.  It’s not really a radio.  It is a device which automatically provides a summary of all of the news that you’re probably interested in, based on your history of Internet searches and online news reading habits.  A sensor in the bathroom tells it when you’re there, and it just starts up.

If you say “boring!”, it moves onto the next story.

As you wander out of the bathroom, it automatically turns off.

As you have breakfast, you use the last of your milk.  That’s ok – the fridge detected it.  Milk was just added to the shopping list for the order that is being placed this morning (automatically of course – billed to your credit card), and being delivered 5 minutes after you get home from work this afternoon.

It usually takes you 35 minutes to get ready, and since it’s cold outside, your car turns itself on 25 minutes after you get up.  The car warms itself up to your favourite heat setting – synchronised with your household central heating.  We wouldn’t want you to have to be cold or anything.

As you sit down, your car tells you that there is an accident on your main route to work – maybe you should take a second suggested direction instead.  Meanwhile, your home alarm detected you leaving, locked the doors and turned itself on.  Your house also switched your devices into a hibernate mode to save electricity.  They’re ready to be woken up again when there’s any sign of network activity.

The car knows that you have a meeting as soon as you’re due to get to work.  Since you’re now going to be a few minutes late, it contacts everyone in the meeting to let them know.

Welcome to the Internet of Things – a world where everything is connected, all of your devices know everything about you, and having to lift a finger to grab a remote control is so.. 2016!

The Internet of Things – a definition

Wikipedia defines the Internet of Things as follows:

“The Internet of Things (IoT) is the network of physical objects—devices, vehicles, buildings and other items which are embedded with electronics, software, sensors, and network connectivity, which enables these objects to collect and exchange data. The Internet of Things allows objects to be sensed and controlled remotely across existing network infrastructure, creating opportunities for more direct integration of the physical world into computer-based systems”.

How does the Internet of Things work?

At a basic level, there are a few components that are needed.  Each device that is connected has the following:

1.      A network connection

This is typically a fixed line connection for large objects like a house, and a wireless or Bluetooth connection for devices like phones, appliances, etc.  Any other common communications protocol can be used including GPS and the mobile phone network

ZigBee, Z-Wave, mesh networks and more

One of the problems with the traditional network approach is that it requires a decent amount of power.  Other network connection methods (including “ZigBee”, “Z-Wave” and others) require much less power and are tailored for managing a large number of devices in close proximity to each other.  The whole IoT field is new at this stage, so various companies and interest groups are scrambling to make their network specification the one to use.

2.      A network address

Each device that is connected to the Internet must have a network address – called an IP (Internet Protocol) address.  In the old days (which in computer terms is more than 5 years ago!), this consisted of a series of four numbers between 0 and 255, for example 61.9.133.193.  This numbering system is called IPv4 (Internet Protocol version 4) and is still widely used today.  This approach allows for a total of around 4.3 billion addresses.

Back in the late 1980s/early 1990s it was realised that this approach did not provide enough addresses if all of the devices in the world were going to be hooked up to the Internet.  At the time, people were already talking about fridges having their own IP address and being connected to the Internet!

IPv6 (Internet Protocol version 6) was created to address the problem.  IPv6 addresses are made up of a series of 8 groups of 4 hexadecimal numbers, for example: 2001:0000:3238:DFE1:0063:0000:0000:FEFB.  Hexadecimal numbers are used since they convert easily into 1s and 0s, which at their core, is what every computer is made up of.  The also take up less room than standard decimal numbers.  If this sounds interesting to you, here’s a nifty IPv6 tutorial that also covers how hexadecimal numbers fit into the picture.

If not, the important bit to note is that IPv6 allows for approximately 3.4×1038 addresses – as in

340,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000

That should keep things going for a little while.

The devices can also be set up so that they don’t connect to the Internet directly.  A number of companies have produced hubs that link the devices to the outside world.  The devices all connect into the hub, and the hub has the Internet connection.

3.      Communications protocols

For devices to talk to each other, they need to speak a common language.  For example, when you send an email, the Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP) is the language that email servers use to talk to each other.

In the breakfast example above, the phone would need to know how to talk the Hot Coffee Protocol (HCP) (not a real protocol!) in order to turn the coffee on.

Typically, when the technology is new, each major company makes its own software with its own proprietary language.  This (as you would expect) is a bit of a mess. Over time, as a given type of device becomes more common, the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) gets a working group together and defines a common protocol for all companies to use.

4.      Software

A software program is required to handle everything.  Devices at the end of the chain (for example, a door or a coffee pot) tend to have very basic software that just controls the device.  These are usually controlled by a much more sophisticated device such as an Android tablet or iPad, a phone or a computer.  These devices are rapidly becoming much smarter, and much better at putting different pieces of information together.

For example, my phone now tells me how long it will take to travel to work or home, even though I never told it where either location was.

It prompts me about upcoming events in my calendar, shows me news it thinks I’ll be interested in, tells me to update my contact list with new information from an email I received.  It isn’t much of a stretch to think that its alarm could turn on my coffee pot.

5.      Specialised hardware

In a lot of cases, specialised hardware is required, but even this is becoming more common place. It often boils down to a programmable computer chip that is connected into the device itself.  Add in a wireless network (or Z-Wave or Zigbee or..) transmitter and most of the hardware components are in place.

The most common hardware types are sensors (for example, to work out how much water, milk and coffee pods are in the coffee machine), wireless network connections, enough of a computer to translate the Hot Coffee Protocol into basic instructions like “turn the coffee on”, and hardware that can turn the coffee on when an electrical impulse passes along the right wire.

Summary

So that is a very quick intro to the Internet of Things – what it is, and how it works.

What new application for IoT are you waiting for the most?  Add your gadget wishlist to the comments below.

PS – If you found this interesting, please share it with your friends by using the share buttons below.  Thanks!

About the author

Leon Troeth is a Melbourne-based freelance technology copywriter.  Leon loves turning complex tech jargon and concepts into articles that everyone can understand.


8 Comments

Toni O. King

17/02/2016 at 3:10 am

Great article. Where do you come in, in IOT?

    Leon Troeth

    17/02/2016 at 5:03 pm

    Hi Tony, thanks for your comment – I’m glad you liked the article! I’m not directly involved in IoT – I just like writing about technology. The topic was suggested by one of my IT friends who likes to fiddle with gadgets.

Shiraz Mistry

19/02/2016 at 3:46 pm

Thanks for the article Leon. It makes it easier for me to understand such a concept. I have saved this to my Evernote account for referral to it next time I need it.

    Leon Troeth

    19/02/2016 at 7:27 pm

    Hi Shiraz, thanks, I’m glad you liked it!

Jatin

21/02/2016 at 4:57 pm

Very informative article Leon!! Thanks.

    Leon Troeth

    21/02/2016 at 10:52 pm

    Thanks mate

Sean McDermott

22/02/2016 at 12:33 pm

I know this is being picky. But the 4 numbers in an IPv4 address, has a range of 0 to 255 inclusive, not 256. The 4 numbers are actually stored in the device as 8 binary bits with 00000000 equal to the decimal number 0 and 11111111 being equal to the decimal number 255 (I’m sure a friend of yours familiar with the binary system will be able to confirm this).

    Leon Troeth

    22/02/2016 at 5:51 pm

    Hi Sean,

    Oops! Thanks for pointing out the error. The article has been fixed.

    Leon

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