The Internet of Things – network of networks

IoT

In the Internet of Things, objects have a unique identity and are located in a smart environment.

What is the Internet of Things?

She wakes up early in the morning to the smell of coffee, freshly brewed by her coffee machine. Her home is lit just the way she likes it, no matter where she is. Her fridge tells her that she is running low on milk, and that she will soon need to stock up on apples and cheese too. The order for her groceries is sent automatically to the supermarket. She quickly books the next car from her car-sharing service and heads off to work. On her way there, the vehicle automatically avoids traffic congestion. On the dot at nine, she uses her electronic office ID card to check into the premises of a pharmaceutical company, passing various gates as she goes to her desk. She is head of Quality Management and also responsible for automated production of flu vaccines. The system informs her of today's delivery bottleneck in the case of one vaccine and suggests that the production line be used for other drugs over the next 14 days. The Internet of Things makes it possible.

This is what a typical day in the life of a person in the digitised world could very soon look like. Today, more than 17 billion objects are connected world-wide, and by 2020, this figure is set to reach around 28 billion. In addition to being identifiable, these objects can also be located and their current lifecycle phase determined; they can even control their own production process. They are what form the Internet of Things. According to the definition developed by the European Commission in 2007, the Internet of Things is "the technical vision of integrating objects of all kinds into a universal network". The objects have their own unique identity and move around or are located in a smart environment.

Equipped with sensors, microprocessors, software and network technology, the objects carry tiny computers within and are connected to the Internet. This internetworking allows these smart objects to store and exchange data, to monitor processes, to control themselves and, not least, to communicate independently with each other or to act in a network system. They "know" what happened to them in the past, where they are, which other objects are close to them and what to do next. All objects, individuals and processes in the Internet of Things usually have unique identities so that a connection to a "thing" can be established within the network. This is the only way to ensure that all access, messages and actions can be traced and remain transparent.
Many basic aspects are typical of the Internet of Things.

  • It integrates everyday objects, making IT omnipresent.
  • Technology disappears from visual perception, making it invisible.
  • The objects have their own unique digital identities.
  • They can communicate with each other and, if necessary, act autonomously.

The world is getting smart

Today, the Internet of Things is far more than just a technical vision, and has already gained a foothold in some sub-areas.

Retail groups, for instance, are increasingly using self-steering systems for their logistics operations: Pallets are fitted with sensors that use RFID technology and operate without contact. They have digital identities that are captured during goods-in and goods-out inspections. This means that the location of the pallet is always known. Manufacturers, logistics companies and supermarket managers know exactly where the goods they have ordered are currently located.

In the smart home of tomorrow, various functional areas, such as heating, lighting or security, have their own digital identities that are connected to each other in a higher-level system. Depending on the time of day and how bright it is, shutters are automatically rolled up or down, the heating system regulates itself, depending on the temperature, the washing machine recognises when the electricity price is at its lowest and automatically switches on the load. In future, smart electricity grids, utilities and consumers will be connected more, ensuring that interaction between production, storage, grid management and consumption is designed more efficiently in one overall system.

The first vehicles have already been equipped with a digital identity. They are connected to a central system that can perform remote maintenance services or upgrades online. Smart mobility concepts, such as car-to-car communication or carsharing, work on the basis of securely connected identities.

Assistance systems are available in the field of medicine that allow patients' health data to be requested remotely. There are also implanted measuring devices that transmit information by radio, warning patients of any critical change in certain values.

Industry 4.0 has a special role to play in the Internet of Things. In the future vision of a smart factory, each workpiece and each process has their own digital, connected identity. This means, for instance, that production processes can be designed in such a flexible manner that no two jobs have to be the same. Automated production operations in a smart factory are the epitome of the Internet of Things. First pilot plants are currently being set up in Germany where the complexity of the factory of tomorrow will be tested.

Internet of Things: a vision becomes reality

Although the Internet of Things is currently seen as a revolution, it is not a new invention. Back in 1988, US IT specialist Mark Weiser at Xerox Research Institute in Palo Alto, California, was already working on the omnipresence of computers. In his presentation entitled 'Nomadic Interactive', he presented a number of theses on the future of the Internet and, in doing so, anticipated fundamental aspects of the Internet of Things.

In 1991, the Scientific American journal published Weiser's article entitled 'The Computer for the 21st Century'. This is considered to be the starting point for all ideas related to the Internet of Things in the decades to come. At the beginning, Weiser already refers to one essential quality, stating, "The most profound technologies are those that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it."

In 1999, Kevin Ashton took Weiser's ideas further, using the term 'Internet of Things' (IoT) for the first time. Ashton is co-founder of the Auto-ID Labs at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where he is working on developing an infrastructure that would allow companies to identify products using Radio Frequency Identification (RFID). "If we had computers that knew everything there was to know about things—using data they gathered without any help from us—we would be able to track and count everything, and greatly reduce waste, loss and cost. We would know when things needed replacing, repairing or recalling, and whether they were fresh or past their best." Ashton's understanding of the Internet of Things continues to hold true even today and is reflected in the definition developed by the European Commission in 2007.

Big topics: Data protection and data security

Even if there are already many applications rooted in the concept of the Internet of Things, they still lack one essential quality, i.e. the connection of different networks with each other. The Internet of Things is still made up of a bundle of intranets of things. Developing an all-encompassing system calls for technical standards and complex information architectures that create causal cross references and that connect one thing to another in a smart manner.
Huge data volumes are another challenge. This big data must be processed when every object and every product is connected to the Internet. This calls not just for bandwidths that can keep pace with global data transfer, but also for a stable communication network that is both comprehensive and, more importantly, secure.

For the Internet of Things, security is an essential success factor. On the one hand, the digital identities of individuals, objects and processes must be protected against misuse. On the other hand, these smart systems must work reliably without any danger to man or the environment. When it comes to interaction between humans, objects or processes, checks must be carried out to determine whether or not the respective person is authorised to intervene in the process or read out the data.

The legal framework regarding topics, such as data protection and data security, must also be revisited and developed further, by stakeholders both in government and in business. Some of the legal aspects that are particularly relevant for the Internet of Things include protection of company data, liability issues, handling personal data and trade restrictions. Sound identity management is also needed for the Internet of Things so that digital identities and stored product, company and process data can be protected.

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