Analysis The whole industry seems to be going wild about the Internet of Things (IoT), but the hard part about making this bold new vision happen is going to be as much about getting the vendors talking as getting the so-called things talking.
In their separate keynotes at the LinuxCon 2014 conference in Chicago last month, Cisco's Michael Enescu and Intel's Dirk Hohndel seemed to agree on one point right off the bat: a lot of companies don't have the foggiest idea about where this whole Internet of Things (IoT) idea is going.
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Mind you, what Enescu wanted was to get people talking about "fog computing," Cisco's way of trying to commandeer the conversation by coming up with a brand-new buzzword that nobody else really uses yet.
Hohndel, on the other hand, thinks the most important "fog" around IoT right now is that the various industry players can't even seem to agree on terms.
"IoT is whatever you want, because any device connected to the internet is – last I checked – a thing," Hohndel said. "So the internet was mostly made out of things before marketing people got hold of it."
Hohndel's remarks drew applause from the marketing-averse LinuxCon audience, but he had a point that even Enescu had to acknowledge. Lots of companies have offered definitions of what IoT really means – Gartner's being one of the more popularly-cited ones – but the industry as a whole can't seem to settle on just one.
And yet, Enescu said, when you break them down, these disparate definitions do seem to have quite a lot in common.
"The interesting thing is that everybody seems to agree that it is about connectivity," he said. "It is about machine-to-machine interaction. And most importantly, it's about new experiences, operating efficiencies, and new business models."
Hohndel actually concurred. "If it can network, it can communicate, and it can compute, it's most likely part of the internet of things," he said. "Or it should be."
If we can all agree on that much, then Cisco's concept of fog computing – unfortunate marketing spin aside – actually makes a fair amount of sense.
What Cisco means by "fog" is taking functions that today we expect to take place in the cloud – things like processing and analyzing the data that comes from connected devices – and bringing them down out of the cloud and back at the edges of the network. That will inevitably happen, Enescu said, because the sheer amount of data produced by on-device sensors is set to explode in just the next five years.
"Data is an interesting thing," Enescu said. "It's very difficult, very expensive to move around."
By way of example, he pointed out that the typical engine on a jet airliner now produces around 20TB of data per hour. It's impossible to ship all of those bits back to a data center to analyze in real time. Most of the analysis has to take place on the device – the plane – itself.
Here, too, Hohndel agreed, and he added that the same problem that applies to a jet plane today will also apply to the typical warehouse or factory floor tomorrow.
"Today the premise of a lot of people seems to be the solution is that you just connect to the cloud. I can give very a good reason why that is a dumb idea," Hohndel quipped, "because your network is going to be even worse than the network at this conference, and that's saying something."
In other words, as the amount of data generated by on-device sensors increases, the devices themselves have to have the smarts to decide what can be thrown out, what should be passed along to another device, and what should be shipped up to the cloud to be archived.
Wait a minute – so we all want the same thing, then?
One other point on which both men agreed is that however the Internet of Things emerges, much like cloud computing today, it will be primarily driven by open source software, and Linux in particular.
"In my company," Cisco's Enescu said, "I believe 80 per cent of our revenue is based on products and services shipped w/Linux and I believe that number not going down, the number is going to go up."
So that wasn't so hard, then, was it? Both Cisco and Intel agree that IoT is about device intelligence and connectivity, that it's not going to be able to rely on the cloud alone for computation, and what emerges to power the IoT will be based on Linux and open source. Shouldn't we all be able to move forward from here, now that we've got the vision nailed down?
Not so fast. Because for all the ideas that Enescu and Hohndel share in common, their respective companies disagree very much when it comes to next steps.
Intel's Hohndel spent part of his keynote presentation plugging the Open Interconnect Consortium – the industry group that Chipzilla founded in July along with Atmel, Broadcom, Dell, Samsung, and Wind River – the goal of which he said was to do IoT "the right way."
"Let's not add, to the 50 standards that are out there," Hohndel said, "yet another one that is once again just our way of doing thing and trying to get people to do it with our technology and our tools, but let's create a truly open standard."
The trouble is, the Open Interconnect Consortium isn't the only such group in the industry, nor even the largest one. Although Enescu didn't mention it in his keynote, Cisco has signed up with the AllSeen Alliance, a Linux Foundation–backed association that's building an open source IoT interoperability framework using code originally developed by Qualcomm.
The AllSeen Alliance now claims more than 60 member companies, including such prominent premier members as LG, Microsoft, Panasonic, Sharp, Sony, and Technicolor. And yet none of its members are also members of the Open Interconnect Consortium – or vice versa.
Both groups have their reasons why the other's approach won't work. The Open Interconnect Consortium says the AllSeen Alliance has code, but no clear standard to base it on. The AllSeen Alliance, meanwhile, says it has already released two versions of its code, while the OIC hasn't had anything to show so far.
And then there are Apple and Google, both of which seem determined to go their own ways with HomeKit and Nest, respectively.
It seems that while almost everybody seems to agree – once you drop the marketing doggerel – that what's needed is a common, standard way for IoT devices to communicate and interoperate that's based on open source, the one thing that won't happen is for all the major vendors involved to interconnect at the same table. And that is truly ironic. ®