Internet of Things (IoT): Important Enabling Technologies

horizonwatchingIn my previous posts on the Internet of Things (IoT) topic, we have explored both what IoT is and how an intelligent IoT supports IBM’s vision of a Smarter Planet. While there is still much work to be done before your car ‘talks’ to other cars on the road, the future of the Internet of Things (IoT) is becoming a reality thanks to advancements in underlying technologies. In this post we will take a look at two important enabling technologies that are helping to make the future of IoT a reality today.

Advances in connectivity and networks

Image credit: IBM
Image credit: IBM (Data source – Cisco Visual Networking Index)

To connect all the expected billions of devices to the Internet, more Internet addresses were needed than were available through the IPv4 protocol. In response, the IPv6 was created. The now broadly accepted 128-bit Internet scheme offers about 3.4×1038 (340 trillion trillion trillion) unique addresses to accommodate the requirements of the IoT.

Once connected, all these devices need networks to communicate with other devices and computer systems. There are many different types of networks that are available and each has different strengths for different applications.   These include wire wireless network technologies such as Wi-Fi, Z-Wave, ZigBee, IrDA, Bluetooth, Bluetooth Low Energy, Radio Frequency Identification (RFI), Near Field Communication (NFC) and others.

While all these different wireless communications standards and technologies results in a fragmented approach, each of these networks have strengths for certain applications.   For example, a smartwatch or a fitness tracker needs only a low energy and short range network (e.g. Bluetooth) in order to connect to a smartphone. However, your car needs a higher speed network, something like 4G LTE.   For a large home, you might see a combination of Zigbee and Wi-Fi. This all requires device manufactures and application programmers to embed a variety of wireless protocols into “things”.

Image credit: IBM (Data source -
Image credit: IBM (Data source – McKinsey, Disruptive technologies)

We are seeing a growing functionality and capacity of many of these wireless networks. Some examples of advancements to watch include:

  • 4G LTE: The expanding 4G LTE wireless broadband network has demonstrated very fast data transfer rates.
  • Wi-Fi: Worldwide Wi-Fi deployments reached a total of 4.2 million hotspots in 2013, and will continue to grow at a CAGR of 15.0% between 2013 and 2018, to exceed 10.5 million (ABI Research)
  • ZigBee: ZigBee enabled devices, which enable cost and power efficient wireless networking over long distances through mesh networks, are expected to grow at a CAGR of 67% through 2014. (Research and Markets)
  • Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE):   BLE is sparking an explosion of connected devices. ABI Research has forecasted BLE shipments will reach 60 million by 2019.

Advances in sensor and microprocessor design

Image credit: IBM (Data source - Cisco Visual Networking Index)
Image credit: IBM (Data source – Cisco Visual Networking Index)

Moore’s Law is alive and well. As chip electronics continue to decline in size and cost and improve in performance, the economics of sensor-based applications improve. Analysts are forecasting the market for micro-electromechanical system (MEMS) chips will grow to over $22B by 2018. The following advancements are enabling new types of Internet of Things systems and applications.

  • Smaller, more durable sensors.       New sensors are so small they can be worn or even ingested, and others are so rugged that they can monitor the performance of high-speed rotating machinery such as jet engines and generator turbines.
  • Multi-processor chips. Chip manufacturers, such as Intel (which recently unveiled Xeon processors) are manufacturing up to 15 processor cores per chip. These types of multi-processor chips are giving us more compute power and enabling many more capabilities in smaller form factors.
  • Increasing Processor Performance/Efficiency. IBM is working on new technology called a SyNAPSE chip. At 5.4 billion transistors, this fully functional and production-scale chip is currently one of the largest CMOS chips ever built, yet, while running at biological real time, it consumes a minuscule 70 milliwatts — orders of magnitude less power than a modern microprocessor.
  • Lower costs.  Economies of scale are enabling a rapid decline in price of all types of electronic components, reducing the cost to embed sensors & microprocessors into physical objects.

These two enabling technologies are playing a big part in the acceleration of the adoption of the Internet of Things, creating enormous opportunities at the edge of the enterprise.   Because of increased connectivity, faster speeds and improved sensor design, we will see new types of applications, new types of workflows, and new value propositions for enterprises and also for consumers. Perhaps your toaster and your coffee pot will talk to each other sooner than you think!

Related IoT posts by Bill Chamberlin

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