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IoT devices, or any of the many things in the internet of things, are nonstandard computing devices that connect wirelessly to a network and have the ability to transmit data.
IoT involves extending internet connectivity beyond standard devices, such as desktops, laptops, smartphones and tablets, to any range of traditionally dumb or non-internet-enabled physical devices and everyday objects. Embedded with technology, these devices can communicate and interact over the internet, and they can be remotely monitored and controlled.
IoT device examples and applications
Connected devices are part of a scenario in which every device talks to other related devices in an environment to automate home and industry tasks, and to communicate usable sensor data to users, businesses and other interested parties. IoT devices are meant to work in concert for people at home, in industry or in the enterprise. As such, the devices can be categorized into three main groups: consumer, enterprise and industrial.
Consumer connected devices include smart TVs, smart speakers, toys, wearables and smart appliances. Smart meters, commercial security systems and smart city technologies -- such as those used to monitor traffic and weather conditions -- are examples of industrial and enterprise IoT devices. Other technologies, including smart air conditioning, smart thermostats, smart lighting and smart security, span home, enterprise and industrial uses.
In a smart home, for example, a user arrives home and his car communicates with the garage to open the door. Once inside, the thermostat is already adjusted to his preferred temperature, and the lighting is set to a lower intensity and his chosen color for relaxation, as his pacemaker data indicates it has been a stressful day.
In the enterprise, smart sensors located in a conference room can help an employee locate and schedule an available room for a meeting, ensuring the proper room type, size and features are available. When meeting attendees enter the room, the temperature will adjust according to the occupancy, and the lights will dim as the appropriate PowerPoint loads on the screen and the speaker begins his presentation.
On a plant floor, an assembly line machine outfitted with sensors will provide sensor data to the plant operator, informing her of anomalies and predicting when parts will need to be replaced. Such information can prevent unexpected downtime, along with lost productivity and profits.
In the field, such notifications can alert users to what is wrong, as well as the parts needed to fix a problem, preventing the need to send a field service worker out to diagnose an issue, only to waste her time driving to a warehouse, finding the correct part and returning to the site.
IoT device management
A number of challenges can hinder the successful deployment of an IoT system and its connected devices, including security, interoperability, power/processing capabilities, scalability and availability. Many of these can be addressed with IoT device management either by adopting standard protocols or using services offered by a vendor.
Device management helps companies integrate, organize, monitor and remotely manage internet-enabled devices at scale, offering features critical to maintaining the health, connectivity and security of the IoT devices along their entire lifecycles. Such features include:
- Device registration
- Device authentication/authorization
- Device configuration
- Device provisioning
- Device monitoring and diagnostics
- Device troubleshooting
Available standardized device management protocols include the Open Mobile Alliance's Device Management (OMA DM) and Lightweight Machine-to-Machine (OMA LwM2M).
IoT device management services and software are also available from vendors including Amazon, Bosch Software Innovations GmbH, Microsoft, Software AG and Xively.
IoT device connectivity and networking
The networking, communication and connectivity protocols used with internet-enabled devices largely depend on the specific IoT application deployed. Just as there are many different IoT applications, there are many different connectivity and communications options.
Communications protocols include CoAP, DTLS and MQTT, among others. Wireless protocols include IPv6, LPWAN, Zigbee, Bluetooth Low Energy, Z-Wave, RFID and NFC. Cellular, satellite, Wi-Fi and Ethernet can also be used.
Each option has its tradeoffs in terms of power consumption, range and bandwidth, all of which must be considered when choosing connected devices and protocols for a particular IoT application.
To share the sensor data they collect, IoT devices connect to an IoT gateway or another edge device where data can either be analyzed locally or sent to the cloud for analysis.
IoT device security
The interconnection of traditionally dumb devices raises a number of questions in relation to security and privacy. As if often the case, IoT technology has moved more quickly than the mechanisms available to safeguard the devices and their users.
Researchers have already demonstrated remote hacks on pacemakers and cars, and, in October 2016, a large distributed denial-of-service attack dubbed Mirai affected DNS servers on the east coast of the United States, disrupting services worldwide -- an issue traced back to hackers infiltrating networks through IoT devices, including wireless routers and connected cameras.
However, safeguarding IoT devices and the networks they connect to can be challenging due to the variety of devices and vendors, as well as the difficulty of adding security to resource-constrained devices. In the case of the Mirai botnet, the problem was traced back to the use of default passwords on the hacked devices. Strong passwords, authentication/authorization and identity management, network segmentation, encryption, and cryptography are all suggested IoT security measures.
Concerned by the dangers posed by the rapidly growing IoT attack surface, the FBI released the public service announcement FBI Alert Number I-091015-PSA in September 2015, which is a document outlining the risks of IoT devices, as well as protections and defense recommendations.
In August 2017, the U.S. Senate introduced the IoT Cybersecurity Improvement Act, a bill addressing security issues associated with IoT devices. While it is a start, the bill only requires internet-enabled devices purchased by the federal government to meet minimum requirements, not the industry as a whole. However, it is being viewed as a starting point which, if adopted across the board, could pave the way to better IoT security industry-wide.
IoT device trends and anticipated growth
Gartner estimated the total number of IoT devices in use to have reached 8.4 billion in 2017, a 31% increase over 2016. And the estimations for future growth of IoT devices have been fast and furious.
At the high end of the scale, Intel projected internet-enabled device penetration to grow from 2 billion in 2006 to 200 billion by 2020, which equates to nearly 26 smart devices for each human on Earth. A little more conservative, IHS Markit said the number of connected devices will be 75.4 billion in 2025 and 125 billion by 2030.
Other companies have tempered their numbers, taking smartphones, tablets and computers out of the equation. Gartner estimated 20.8 billion connected things will be in use by 2020, with IDC coming in at 28.1 billion and BI Intelligence at 24 billion.
Gartner estimated the total spend on IoT devices and services at nearly $2 trillion in 2017, with IDC projecting spending to reach $772.5 billion in 2018, 14.6% more than the $674 billion it estimated to be spent in 2017, with it hitting $1 trillion in 2020 and $1.1 trillion in 2021.