Internet of Things or IoT in short is the next big trend for the IT industry. It aims at transforming the way we perceive connected devices, make day-to-day objects connect to the internet and share data. Naturally it would help create the business opportunities for players striking for gold in this space.
“Gartner, Inc. forecasts that 4.9 billion connected things will be in use in 2015, up 30 percent from 2014, and will reach 25 billion by 2020. The Internet of Things (IoT) has become a powerful force for business transformation, and its disruptive impact will be felt across all industries and all areas of society.”
IoT is definitely getting traction, but behind this flowery picture is the force driving this whole IoT era, THE NETWORK. Robust and secure networking is the single most important need for IoT and that’s where IoT gateways play an important role.
So, what are these gateways? Recently IoT devices have manifested from simple hardware connecting to Wi-Fi to multi-radio controlled distributed sensor networks (using Wi-Fi, Wi-Max, NFC, ZigBee, hardware serial port, etc). Not all devices connect directly via Wi-Fi as they may use different kinds of radio technology to transmit data. Essentially a gateway acts as a bridge between the IoT devices and the Internet beyond. Gateways can connect to the IoT devices that communicate via specific protocols, store and parse the information and then send them over to cloud servers for processing and analytics.
"The IoT highlights the tight linkages between information security, information technology security, operational technology security and physical security like never before. Executives now face a decision regarding the future of security in their enterprise and who governs, manages and operates it. Gartner said that by the end of 2017, over 20 per cent of organizations will have digital security services devoted to protecting business initiatives using devices and services in IoT."
With networked IoT devices comes the need for a robust and secure medium of information exchange. IoT gateways not only abstract the medium of communication but also provide the secure channel required for the transmission of this data. Gateways usually run real-time operation systems (RTOS) or a form of Linux to drive their systems. Hardware and software level encryption is built right into the gateway to provide a secure channel for communication.
Also as mentioned, a gateway needs to abstract the communication protocol of a connected device. Gateways have provisions for either hard-wired interfaces like SPI, I2C, USB, X-LINE or wireless interfaces like ZigBee, SA100.11, WirelessHART, IrDA, Wireless USB, Bluetooth, Body Area Network, MiWi, Wi-Fi Direct, NFC, Z-Wave, EnOcean, KNX, XRF, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, RFID, RFM12B, IEEE 802.15.4. This makes it easy to connect any supported device to the gateway and start transmitting data generated.
Companies have gone far and beyond providing the right tools for setting up robust Gateways. Intel and ARM based gateways have gained lot of traction in recent times. While Intel promotes the x86 based ATOM peripherals chips for IoT gateways, ARM fights with its own set of partners to provide solutions for IoT gateways. Partner chips such as Freescale iMX6, Qualcomm’s Internet Processor, Nvidia Tegra X1 have all gained a lot of interest from gateways manufacturers and we should see them in enterprise grade gateways in the near future.
While the Intel platform provides the raw computing power of the trusted x86 architecture, they fall short on thermal efficiency and cost per hour of operation. ARM chipsets lacks the former, but definitely provide cost effective solution. With the release of the ARM 64 bit processor into the mainstream market, we wouldn't be surprised if they become the go-to solution.
The Essentials for IoT Gateways
All of the above seem easy, but it's actually pretty difficult to achieve. To illustrate, we can break this function down into the some important things every IoT gateway needs to do to perform its primary function.
Be Secure. (Don’t spill the beans!)
That’s easy to say. Network security is only as strong as the weakest link. Security should be provided to both the communicating channel and encryption/decryption of the IoT payload being transmitted.
Provide a Backup Transmission Medium for Outbound Data. (Have a plan b!)
Its natural for a transmission medium to fail in critical conditions. Connectivity via mediums like SMS, satellite links, etc. should be provided as a backup plan to communicate the data during the loss of the primary channel.
Provide an Efficient Medium for Communication. (Check on the bill!)
Data is money, but sadly so is the channel of communication. When networks provide enough bandwidth and low cut-down time, the picture is all rosy and beautiful. The gateway should plan for when you have a low bitrate connection and/or are being charged big bucks for every byte that passes between your gateway and the cloud. Consider leveraging one of the highly efficient protocols like CoAP or MQTT, and also protocols such as UDP instead of TCP.
Prepare for Intermittent and Dynamic Connectivity Issues. (When networks become a yo-yo!)
You will never be able to predict or control the condition of your Internet connection. Sometimes, if you are on a cellular connection, it will disappear altogether. In all cases, the software in your gateway needs to be able to re-establish the connection without intervention. Also, gateways should prepare themselves in cases where the connection may be down for extended periods. Here caching and queuing of data would help the gateways provide loss-less transmission of mission critical data after connectivity is re-established.
Enable Remote Updates (Even if its the middle of nowhere!)
It's imperative for the underlying firmware to be updatable to their latest releases to provide feature sets, bug fixes, security patches, etc. Operating systems like Linux provide the necessary infrastructure to support these kinds of over-the-air (OTA) updates.
Tolerate Power Conditions. (Getting buzzzzed!)
Yes, Power. You never known when the devices with get buzzed with a shock or run out of juice. Every IoT gateway must survive unpredictable power cycles and be able to restore itself to at least a minimum functional level afterward. At bare minimum, they need to be able to talk to the cloud to convey status and accept basic commands to restore.
There’s more to gateways than meets the eye. With increasing numbers of connected devices, gateways are becoming all the more imperative in the world of IoT. In our next blog we will discuss IoT frameworks and how they provide the software integration and analysis of data derived from connected devices.