What actually makes up a ‘Connected’ or IoT product?
I have grouped together here what I see as the five key components and given some examples of what is contained with each with a short explanation. Each component deserves a full explanation – the purpose of this article is to provide a summary.
Sensors – at the simplest level an IoT device will consist of some sort of sensor, whether this is a button or something more sophisticated like AC current measurement. The sensor generates data, the data is captured and sent to the cloud.
Actuators – another key part of an IoT device is capability to control or otherwise make something happen. This could be turning on/off an electric current, opening a door or sounding an alarm.
Controllers – generally sensors and actuators are ‘dumb’ electro-mechanical or electronic things. Where local control is required then a micro-controller unit (MCU) will read sensor output format to send to the cloud or maybe use the sensor data to command an actuator directly. Such controllers are also increasingly WiFi enabled so that they can send data back to the cloud and receive commands. The benefit of local control is that operation can continue even if internet connection is lost.
Local Administration/User Interface – not all IoT products require this but more sophisticated ones will have a human machine interface (LEDs or a screen and keys or control buttons or touch screen). Such facilities will be managed by the MCU.
Gateways – where a controller or sensor or actuator is not WiFi enabled then a concentrator or gateway device may be used to gather data from several sensors (perhaps battery powered) and using Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) to support communication between the non IP enabled device and the gateway. A gateway may also need to be able to store locally generated events until internet connection is restored.
A distinction needs to be drawn between technologies for local communication (sensors and actuators to controllers and gateways) and communication to the internet (controller and gateways to the cloud).
WiFi – within a home or office environment this is the most common form of data communication to and from WiFi enabled MCU devices and the internet. The ability to be able to easily and securely manage WiFi credentials and use strong security is critical.
Cellular – mobile data networks (3G/4G)
Bluetooth/BLE – if there is a need to go wireless between sensor devices in a mesh or to a gateway then BluetoothTM or specifically BLE will be the best approach rather than use some other radio technology.
Wired – Ethernet to an internet router or gateway may be preferable in certain environments. Sensor and actuator connection to controller or gateway by wire may also be a more economic and reliable solution in a number of scenarios.
Secure Transportation Service – these are the cloud based services and message technologies. Transport (layer) services ensure the secure and reliable arrival of messages and provide error checking mechanisms and data flow controls.
Data Processing and Analytics
Event Stream Processing – the raison d’etre of IoT devices is to collect data and this data then needs to get to the cloud for processing, analysis and taking action. The data is typically sent as a string within an event message. A web application needs to be able to subscribe to events and as they are published receive them and process them. Cloud services providers offer services to receive and process events; store them, take action or ignore them.
Actions and Notifications – if some immediate action upon receipt of an event is required then such monitoring may create notifications; either to SMS, email, alerts screen or a physical alarm. Actions may be to control a device or group of devices.
Data Storage – one of the activities on receiving data from devices is to store that data for reporting and analytics. Such storage is typically provided through a cloud service. The hard part is deciding how long to hold onto data and what to do with it as it gets older.
AI and Analytics – once data has been collected from devices and there is a history of use, analytics and perhaps AI used to drive value and insight from the mass of data.
Presentation and Management Services
Web-based Administration – remote supervisory control, parameter setting and monitoring of devices is a key part of any connected product.
Mobile App – a mobile app to control a device or group of devices and perhaps more critically to support wifi credentials setup (with a form of wifi protected setup) without the need for a screen and means of input on each device. The mobile app has possibly overtaken the PC based browser as a means of managing IoT devices.
Device Management – this is different from administration and supervisory control in that devices need to be managed in the same way that mobile devices (tablets, phones) are managed. The objectives are to ensure devices remain operating and do not breach any corporate policies. Activities include; over the air distribution of firmware and device OS updates, data and configuration settings – password resets, access keys, etc. Provisioning – initial setup and linking to a user account is also a part of device management.
Support and Diagnostic Tools – last but not least, tools to enable remote technical management of the devices by the product developer is key to supporting the products in the field and also to feed back to the product development process.