I’ll admit it. When the phrase “Internet-of-Things” started to gain momentum some years ago, I was pretty dismissive of it. In the world of embedded systems technology that I’ve been covering for decades, the idea of network-connected embedded devices was far from new. At that point, I’d seen numerous catch phrases come and go—few of them ever sticking around. Fast forward to today, and boy was my skepticism misplaced! Market analysts vary in how they slice up the IoT market, but the general thinking puts the gowth range at several trillion dollars by the year 2020. IoT cuts across several market areas with industrial, transportation, smart homes and energy segments growing fastest. Even when you exclude PCs, phones, servers and tablets—concentrating on embedded devices using processors, microcontrollers, connectivity and high-level operating systems—we’re still talking billions of units.
Now that I’m sold that the hype around IoT is justified, I’m intrigued with this question: What specific IoT standards and protocols are really necessary to get started building an IoT implementation? From my point of view, I think there’s perhaps been too much hesitation on that score. I think there’s a false perception among some that joining the IoT game is some future possibility—a possibility waiting for standards.
Over the past couple years, major players like Google, GE, Qualcomm and others have scrambled to come up with standards suited for broad and narrow types of IoT devices. And those efforts have all helped move IoT forward. But in reality, all the pieces—from sensors to connectivity standards to gateway technologies to cloud infrastructures—all exist today. Businesses and organizations can move forward today to build highly efficient and scalable IoT infrastructures. They can make use of the key connectivity technologies that are usable today, rather than get too caught up with “future” thinking based on nascent industry standards.
In terms of the basic connectivity technologies for IoT, the industry is rich with choices. It’s actually rather rare that an IoT system can be completely hardwired end-to-end. As a result, most IoT systems of any large scale depend on a variety of wireless technologies including everything from device-level technologies to Wi-Fi to cellular networking. At the device-level, the ISM 802.15.4 is a popular standard for low power kinds of gear. 802.15.4 is the basis for established industrial network schemes like ZigBee, and can be used with protocols like 6LoWPAN to add higher layer functions using IP technology. Where power is less of a constraint, the standard Wi-Fi 802.11 is also a good method of IoT activity—whether leveraging off of existing Wi-Fi infrastructures or just using Wi-Fi hubs and routers in a purpose-built network implementation.
Another attractive IoT edge connectivity technology is Bluetooth LE (low energy) or BLE. While it was created for applications in healthcare, fitness, security and home entertainment, Bluetooth LE offers connectivity for any low power device. It’s especially useful in devices that need to operate for more than a year without recharging. If cellular networks make sense as a part of your IoT architecture, virtual networking platforms are available via all the major carriers—AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless.
IoT is definitely having an impact in the microcontroller-based embedded design space that’s at the heart of Circuit Cellar’s coverage. Not to overstate the matter, IoT systems today make up less than a tenth of the microcontroller application market. MCUs are used in a myriad of non-IoT systems. But, according to market research done by IHS in 2015, IoT is growing at a rate of 11% in the MCU space, while the overall MCU market is expected to grow at just 4% through 2019.
IoT requires the integration of edge technologies where data is created, connectivity technologies that move and share data using Internet and related technologies and then finally aggregating data where it can be processed by applications using Cloud-based gateways and servers. While that sounds complex, all the building blocks to implement such IoT installations are not future technologies. They are simply an integration of hardware, software and service elements that are readily available today. In the spirit of Circuit Cellar’s tag line “Inspiring the Evolution of Embedded Design,” get inspired and start building your IoT system today.
This appears in the September (326) issue of Circuit Cellar magazine
Jeff served as Editor-in-Chief for both LinuxGizmos.com and its sister publication, Circuit Cellar magazine 6/2017—3/2022. In nearly three decades of covering the embedded electronics and computing industry, Jeff has also held senior editorial positions at EE Times, Computer Design, Electronic Design, Embedded Systems Development, and COTS Journal. His knowledge spans a broad range of electronics and computing topics, including CPUs, MCUs, memory, storage, graphics, power supplies, software development, and real-time OSes.