Technologies behind the Internet of Things

The Internet of Things keeps promising us a smarter future: fridges able to replenish themselves by automatically ordering food at a local grocery store (in-fridge delivery included!), bridges warning the oncoming cars about a frozen surface, or innovative gear that monitors your health and delivers real-time data straight to your doctor’s iPhone. While all of this may soon be within reach of our hands, we still have to be aware of the massive machinery behind the scenes that make dreams become a reality. Without myriads of IoT technologies surrounding us, these dreams would never come true.

What is the IoT technology hype all about?

Computer technology has been with us since the middle of the 20th century. Yet, the technology behind the Internet of Things had already been in the making long before the PCs became available to every Tom, Dick, and Harry. The science of telemetry (Greek tele = remote, and metron = measure), the earliest forerunner to the IoT, has been used to measure and collect weather data or track wildlife over wire phone lines, radio waves and satellite communications already since the second half of the 19th century. Despite all its technical limitations, it laid ground to the concept of machine-to-machine communication (M2M), which, evolving gradually together with the advancements in connectivity solutions, gave birth to the idea of the Internet of Things as we know it today.

The Internet of Things (IoT) is a system of interconnected digital devices, machines, objects, animals, or people provided with unique identifiers and the ability to transmit and share data over the network without the need for human-to-human or human-to-computer interaction. To bridge the gap between the physical and virtual worlds, IoT aims to create intelligent environments in which individuals and societies can live more innovatively and comfortably. Pompous as it may sound, the IoT has already become part of our daily lives, and it will undoubtedly settle there for good. With all this in mind, let us now have a brief look over the machinery behind the IoT world that makes it go round.

What is IoT technology made of? 

It can prove a challenging task if you’d like to find your way through the IoT technological maze, given the diversity and sheer numerousness of the technology solutions that surround it. However, for matters of simplicity, we could break down the IoT technology stack into four basic technology layers involved in making the Internet of Things work. These are the following:

Devices are objects which constitute the ‘things’ within the Internet of Things. Acting as an interface between the real and the digital worlds, they may take different sizes, shapes, and levels of technological complexity depending on the task they are required to perform within the specific IoT deployment whether pinhead-sized microphones or heavy construction machines, practically every material object (even the animate ones, like animals or humans) can be turned into a connected device by the addition of necessary instrumentation (by adding sensors or actuators along with the appropriate software) to measure and collect the required data. Sensors, actuators, or other telemetry gear can also constitute standalone smart devices by themselves. The only limitation encountered here is the actual IoT use case and its hardware requirements (size, ease of deployment and management, reliability, helpful lifetime, cost-effectiveness).

This is what makes the connected devices ‘smart’. Software is responsible for implementing the communication with the Cloud, collecting data, integrating appliances, and performing real-time data analysis within the IoT network. It is device software that also caters to application-level capabilities to visualize data and interact with the IoT system.

Having the device hardware and software in place, there must be another layer that will provide the intelligent objects with ways and means of exchanging information with the rest of the IoT world. While it is true that communications mechanisms are strongly tied to device hardware and software, it is vital to consider them as a separate layer. The communication layer includes physical connectivity solutions (cellular, satellite, LAN) and specific protocols used in varying IoT environments (ZigBee, Thread, Z-Wave, MQTT, LwM2M). Choosing the relevant communications solution is one of the vital parts of constructing every IoT technology stack. The preferred technology will determine how data is sent to/received from the Cloud, how the devices are managed, and how they communicate with third-party devices. For the present article, we will detail some of the present-day communications solutions later in the text.

As mentioned earlier, thanks to the ‘smart’ hardware and the software installed, the device can ‘sense’ what is going on around it and communicate that to the user via a specific communications channel. An IoT platform is where all of this data is gathered, managed, processed, analyzed, and presented in a user-friendly way. Thus, such a solution especially valuable is not merely its data collection and IoT device management capabilities but rather its ability to analyze and find valuable insights from the portions of data provided by the devices via the communications layer. Again, several IoT platforms are on the market, with the choice depending on the requirements of the specific IoT project and such factors as architecture and IoT technology stack, reliability, customization properties, protocols used, hardware agnosticism, security, and cost-effectiveness. It is also worth mentioning that platforms can be installed on-premise or cloud-based. Coyote IoT Device Management platform is an excellent example of such a platform as it can be deployed on-site and in the cloud. The same applies to another IoT platform by AVSystem — Coyote IoT Data Orchestration.

Connectivity solutions within the IoT technology stack

As many possible real-life applications of the IoT technologies, there is no shortage of connectivity solutions behind them. Depending on the specifications of a given IoT use case, each communications option may offer different service enablement scenarios while having tradeoffs between power consumption, range, and bandwidth. For instance, if you’re building a smart home, you may want to have your indoor temperature sensors and heating controller integrated with your smartphone so that you can remotely monitor the temperatures in each room and adjust them in real-time according to your current needs. In such a case, the IP-based IPv6 networking protocol called Thread, specially designed for a home automation environment, would be the recommended solution.

With this multiplicity and diversity of communication standards and protocols in mind, one may question the actual need for developing new solutions. At the same time, some well-proven Internet protocols have been in use already for decades. The reason for this is that existing Internet protocols, such as Transmission Control Protocol / Internet Protocol (TCP/IP), are often not effective enough and too power-consuming to work efficiently within the emerging IoT technology applications. This section will present a short overview of the significant alternative Internet protocols specially dedicated for use by IoT systems.

The overview concerns the most popular IoT radio technologies broken down by radio-frequency range achieved by each: short-range IoT radio solutions, medium-range solutions, and long-range Wide Area Networks solutions.

Short-range IoT network solutions:

As a well-established short-range connectivity technology, Bluetooth is considered the critical solution, particularly for the future of the wearable electronics market such as wireless headphones or geolocation sensors, especially given its widespread integration with smartphones. Designed with cost-effectiveness and reduced power consumption in mind, the Bluetooth Low-Energy (BLE) protocol requires very little power from the device. Yet, this comes with a compromise: BLE may not be the most effective solution when transferring frequently higher amounts of data.

Being among the first IoT applications ever implemented, Radio-frequency identification (RFID) offers positioning solutions for IoT applications, especially in supply chain management and logistics, which require the ability to determine the object position inside buildings. The future of RFID technology goes far beyond the simple localization services, with possible applications ranging from tracking hospital patients to improving efficiency in healthcare to providing real-time merchandise location data to minimize out-of-stock situations for retail stores.

Medium range solutions:

Developed based on IEEE 802.11, it remains the most widespread and generally known wireless communications protocol. Its broad usage across the IoT world is mainly limited by higher-than-average power consumption resulting from the need to retain high signal strength and fast data transfer for better connectivity and reliability. As a critical technology in IoT development, WiFi provides a wide-ranging ground to many IoT solutions. Yet, it also needs to be managed and used in terms of marketing to yield profits to service providers and users alike. A fine example of a WiFi management platform that offers a value-added service empowering public WiFi access points is Linkify. As one of AVSystem’s cutting-edge solutions, Linkify allows for practically limitless guest WiFi customization and marketing options

This popular wireless mesh networking standard finds its most frequent applications in traffic management systems, household electronics, and the machine industry. Built on top of the IEEE 802.15.4 standard, Zigbee supports low data exchange rates, low power operation, security, and reliability.

Explicitly designed for innovative home products, Thread employs IPv6 connectivity to enable connected devices to communicate with one another, access services in the cloud, or interact with the user via Thread mobile applications. The critics of Thread have pointed out that given the market saturation, yet another wireless communication protocol leads to further fragmentation within the IoT technology stack.

Extended Range Wide Area Networks (WAN) solutions:

Narrowband IoT is a product of existing 3GPP technologies; Narrowband IoT is a brand-new radio technology standard that ensures low power consumption (10 years of battery power operation) and provides connectivity with signal strength approx. 23 dB lower than in the case of 2G. What is more, it uses existing network infrastructure, which ensures global coverage in LTE networks and guaranteed signal quality. In many cases, this allows for implementing NB-IoT instead of solutions requiring the construction of local networks, such as LoRa or Sigfox.

LTE-Cat M1 is a low‑power wide‑area (LPWA) connectivity standard that connects IoT and M2M devices with medium data rate requirements. It supports longer battery lifecycles and offers an enhanced in‑building range compared to cellular technologies such as 2G, 3G, or LTE-Cat 1.

CAT M1 doesn’t require the carriers to build new infrastructure to implement it because it is compatible with the existing LTE network. Compared to NB-IoT, LTE Cat M1 proves to be perfect for mobile use cases, as its handling of hand-over between cell sites is significantly better and is very similar to high-speed LTE.

LoRaWAN is a low-power Long Range Wide-Area Networking protocol optimized for low-power consumption and supporting large networks with millions of devices. Aiming at wide-area network (WAN) applications, LoRaWAN is designed to furnish low-power WANs with features required to support low-cost, mobile, and secure bi-directional communication within IoT, M2M, smart city, and industrial applications.

The concept behind Sigfox is to provide an effective connectivity solution for low-power M2M applications requiring low levels of data transfer for which the WiFi range is too short, and cellular coverage is too expensive and too power-hungry. Sigfox employs UNB, which enables it to handle low data-transfer speeds of 10 to 1,000 bits per second. Consuming up to 100 times less energy than cellular communication solutions, it delivers a typical stand-by time of 20 years for a 2.5Ah battery. Offering a robust, energy-efficient, and scalable network that supports communication between thousands of battery-operated devices across areas of several square kilometers, Sigfox proves suitable for various M2M applications, including bright street lighting and intelligent meters patient monitors, security devices, and environmental sensors. Sigfox is currently employed in a growing number of IoT technology solutions, such as Coyote IoT Application Enablement, to name only one.

IoT technology – Conclusion

IoT technology has already made itself comfortable in our homes, public spaces, offices, and factories, and given the breakneck pace of its development, it seems that the hackneyed IoT phrase ‘anything that can be connected will be connected’ is ever closer to becoming our daily reality. Therefore, the real question shouldn’t be about when this will happen but how the connections should be made to achieve the highest possible efficiency while retaining critical features like security and cost-effectiveness. With this approach in mind, a deployment envisaging a significant number of low-power, low-bandwidth devices would require the use of LwM2M, a lightweight protocol designed especially for the management of such resource-constrained machines. Therefore, seen from such a practical perspective, the question of success in the case of given IoT applications seems to boil down to the choice of appropriate IoT technology from the vast array of existing solutions.