As ubiquitous as it has become, it is easy to forget just how far the Internet has come in the last twenty years. From humble modem dial-up-on-demand came broadband, then “Web 2.0” and 4G mobile Internet. The next big thing? Many believe that the networking of everyday objects and devices to allow them to receive and send data will not only be the next big thing but could prove to be the biggest development of the Internet since its inception. The term for this phenomenon of connecting devices, objects, services and systems has become known as the Internet of Things (IoT).
At its heart, the Internet of Things refers simply to this ability to connect almost anything to the Internet. Examples of this are:
As driverless cars become a reality, creating a connected network of autonomous vehicles could provide huge savings from economy of scale while also reducing harm to the environment. Cars could use the Internet of Things to communicate location, speed, remaining fuel, and travel itineraries to fundamentally change our transport network.
- Household appliances
Nearly every item in your home could communicate with the Internet. Security systems, lighting, cleaning, home management systems and heating could all work together to ensure that homes are almost totally self-managing. And yes, your fridge will order your shopping for you.
- City infrastructure
With all homes broadcasting information about utility usage, traffic management systems and cars sending data about congestion, and industry sending data about power usage and waste output a city will become more like a living organism than ever before. Huge cost savings are already being made with early water management prototypes.
- Personal electronic devices
You’re used to your phone being on the Internet, but when your running shoes know how far and where you run a whole new level of “life management” is possible. Nutrition and fitness management, personal finance management, the safety of your family, and our social lives are all things that could benefit from the Internet of Things.
- Industrial machinery
Huge and complex networks of machines that send and receive data from other systems in the process are examples of how industry might use the Internet of Things. Manufacturing systems that automatically communicate with transport and point of sale equipment could produce huge efficiency savings.
The Problem with IPv4
As early as the late 1980’s, it was clear that one of the limiting factors of the Internet was going to be the finite number of unique IP addresses available from the global organisation that managed the distribution process, the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority. The adopted protocol came to be known as IPv4 (or version 4 of the Internet Protocol). To be connected to the Internet, a device needed one of these IPv4 addresses to be able to send and receive data. Due to a massive increase in the number of devices connecting to the Internet however, by 2011 the remaining IPv4 addresses were being registered. Without a larger pool of addresses, it was not possible to keep putting devices onto the Internet.
A new system of unique addresses was needed and as early as 1994 work was being done to create a new system that would pick up where IPv4 left off and allow a near limitless number of devices to access the Internet all at one time. This new system is called IPv6 and is now being used by more and more devices to connect to the Internet.
Because of the staggering number of unique IPv6 addresses there is now no restriction on how many everyday devices and objects can have a direct connection to the Internet. By combing these direct Internet connections with tiny on-board smart sensors, this vast network of devices and objects can not only communicate with each other locally but collect and send vast amounts of data from the environment around them, which can then be analysed in near real-time. While the possibilities and opportunities this creates are almost enough to make your head swim, the risks this new global network will bring are unpredictable and almost incalculable.
A Rudderless Ship?
One of the primary issues with the Internet of Things is that it is currently seen by many industry insiders as a “rudderless ship”. No one system has been agreed on with regards to security, interoperability, sensor management, power management, or data control. These are all key areas for concern. There were 1.5 million monitored cyber-attacks in the United States in 2013. If the number of devices on the Internet was to increase exponentially, and security was not at the forefront of development, then the results could be catastrophic.
When asked how he thought security might play out with the Internet of Things by Tech Republic, digital forensic scientist Jacob Williams of CSR Group said “Security has to be engineered early in the development of Internet-connected devices. We’ve seen too many times that “bolt-on” security after the fact doesn’t work.”
The potential benefits for all of us when it comes to the Internet of Things are huge, as are the risks. When it comes to the nightmare scenarios of security breaches of vital city infrastructure, we can only hope that proper security is built into the system from the ground up.
Gemma Maroney is Marketing Manager at VoIP and Unified Communications Company Solution IP. She has written about many new and exciting developments in the business communications world. You can connect with Solution IP on Twitter or Facebook.