The Internet of Things and the consulting-specifying engineer

What considerations should a consulting specifying engineer make for the demands of scale? And should a smart building be its own Intranet of Things, or should it be connected to the larger Internet of Things?

By Robert S. Fish, PhD, IEEE July 1, 2015

The consulting-specifying engineer has by now probably encountered mention of the Internet of Things (IoT). What is this strange new animal and what is its connection to consulting engineers?

The IoT is a very 21st century idea and, though nascent, it has the potential to be pervasive, if not ubiquitous, in the years ahead. No matter what engineering role you play or industry vertical you work in, there’s a strong possibility that the work will somehow be (literally) connected to or affected by IoT.

Thus in this space I’ll define IoT, describe its market drivers, discuss its relevance to the consultant, and tie all this in with the emerging software and network architectures and underlying telecom standards that will form its foundation.

It’s important for the consulting-specifying engineer to understand that the IEEE Standards Association’s work in this realm is a fundamental resource for anyone inclined to inform themselves on the topic, or to even get involved in shaping its future.

One of the IEEE Standards Association’s projects is development of a proposed standard, IEEE P2413, “Standard for an Architectural Framework for Internet of Things.” The IEEE Communications Society (also known as ComSoc) also has groups working on IoT services, IoT communications and networking infrastructure, and IoT architecture. These groups are collectively trying to do technology-gap analysis to pinpoint where additional technology is needed to provide end-to-end IoT standardization solutions.

By monitoring these efforts, consulting-specifying engineers may find insights into how their work and their professional development will be affected by IoT in the future. Direct participation, of course, is a way to gain insights and influence outcomes.

The concept of IoT

The concept of IoT at this stage is grand, if somewhat ill-defined. The notion is that an ever-increasing number of “things” in the world will possess sensors and, possibly, embedded intelligence; and these “things” will be connected to a vast network that enable them to “talk” to each other. This is likely to require an interconnected fabric of sensors, actuators, and data networks, with platforms for data analytics and applications. One commonality may be the use of the Internet backbone and Internet Protocol (IP) addresses for identifying “things.” Telecom networks will provide the means to do this, just as they serve today’s Internet.

Value creation presumably results from coordinating the functionalities of these “things” (i.e., devices, processes, networks, etc.) on behalf of individuals, enterprises, and infrastructure. Analysis of the resulting data streams is predicted to reveal operational efficiency, increase productivity, and potentially create a world with seamless intelligence gathering.

That’s the idea and, clearly, it’s a big one. Already, we’ve seen major commercial/industrial sectors, as well as computing and networking companies, claim to be deeply involved in this area. Yet IoT is nascent. The foundations are still being created. There may be technological commonalities to how IoT is applied to, say, infrastructure (such as power, water, transportation, smart cities, and smart buildings) and verticals (such as health care, financial services, and energy), not to mention consumer devices and services. But to say at this point that every IoT-related device will have the same software stack, the same networking and/or standard application program interface (API) is premature. IoT still faces a number of fundamental challenges, and there may be forks in the road ahead.

From the beginning, we’ve seen hundreds or maybe thousands of companies and consortia saying that they’re involved in IoT. GE says it’s going to use IoT to monitor its jet engines in real time. Google and its subsidiary, Nest, are exploring home-based IoT-type products such as smart thermostats that learn. Intel, Qualcomm, and all the chipmakers say they’re partners for IoT. With such diversity of concepts, niches, and applications, it is probably the case that all these companies and verticals aren’t talking about the same thing. It’ll take some time for everyone to figure out where they will go with IoT.

Moreover, everyone in the market will have to deliberately decide how connected they really want to be. It may be wise to think about the distinction between a single “Internet of Things” and myriad “Intranets of Things.”

Intranets of Things vs. The Internet of Things

Already, we have Intranets of Things in play; analogous-use cases already exist. For an example close to engineers’ work, consider a so-called “smart” building. If your work involves areas such as mechanical, electrical, plumbing, lighting systems, and building automation, you are already familiar with IoT-like systems. For efficiency, motion sensors turn on and off lights in many buildings as people come and go. Climate-controlled offices possess IoT-like qualities when smart thermostats react to ambient conditions and people’s presence to maintain comfort.

As networked environments become pervasive, the engineer may encounter new issues in traversing familiar terrain in office building or physical plant construction. What hardware components and which processes need monitoring and could benefit owners or operators by being networked? What physical characteristics and/or processes in a building are likely to yield insights that aid efficiency, productivity, and competitiveness? What security and access considerations should be taken into account when these networked systems go in? What considerations should a consulting-specifying engineer make for the demands of scale? And should a smart building be its own Intranet of Things, or should it be connected to the larger IoT?

These questions are worth asking. Yet underlying issues remain unresolved as the fundamental architectures and standards for IoT are being scoped and written. In my next blog, I’ll provide insight into that process and report on current developments.

Robert S. Fish, PhD, is vice president, Standards Activities, IEEE Communications Society; member-at-large, IEEE Standards Association Board of Governors; and president, Netovations LLC.