More Than a Matter of Bandwidth
“Generally speaking, it’s fair to say existing networks are ready for IoT traffic, because IoT traffic isn’t all that different from normal IP (Internet Protocol) traffic,” says Xiaofan (Fred) Jiang, an assistant professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and the Data Science Institute at Columbia University. “The current trend is mak‐ ing IoT devices IP-compatible, so I don’t think we’re going to see a sudden change in IoT traffic. We’ll likely see a gradual increase in traffic as IoT devices become more commonly used.”
Jiang’s research covers cyber-physical systems and data analytics, smart and sustainable buildings, mobile and wearable systems, envi‐ ronmental monitoring and control, and connected health and fit‐ ness applications. Although he does not believe network capacity will pose a direct obstacle to IoT growth, there are subsidiary issues that could prove troublesome.
“For example, the number of IP endpoints will increase,” he says, noting that every connected device and sensor on the network will have its own IP address. Upgrading IP networks from IPv4 to IPv6 would accommodate more endpoints, he says.
Additionally, he says, many IoT applications will require real-time data to function properly. That means network providers would have to offer run-time guarantees, which might require further infrastructure upgrades or modifications. “I’m not too worried about the networks right now, because none of this will happen overnight,” says Jiang. “Instead of thinking about the networks themselves, it’s more appropriate to look at the ‘last mile’ links.”
A robust IoT ecosystem includes a wide range of devices relying on various types of links for connectivity. Jiang recommends planning ahead for a variety of wireless protocols. “We already see lots of IoT devices using Bluetooth and not Wi-Fi. Some devices are connected through ZigBee or Z-Wave. Google has released OnHub, a wireless router designed for a diverse set of user access points,” says Jiang. “You need to consider which protocols to support at the link level and at the network level.”
Volatility, Storage, and Special Cases
On the whole, IoT devices will be more diverse and less stable than most of the Internet devices we’ve grown accustomed to using. Unlike laptops and tablets, many IoT devices and sensors won’t need continuous connectivity to a network. “They will connect for maybe two seconds and then disconnect,” says Jiang. “From a temporal point of view, the connectivity of an IoT device is more volatile. So your ‘last mile’ infrastructure needs to support that volatility.”
Environmental sensors, for example, will “sleep” most of the time, and “wake up” only long enough to send short bursts of information. “From a network perspective, you’ll see these devices connect‐ ing and disconnecting very rapidly. That’s a very volatile paradigm and your network will need to handle it,” says Jiang.
Data storage is likely to become an issue since most IoT data will be relatively “useless,” according to Jiang. “You’ll need to create a stor‐ age hierarchy and manage the data based on its value to you.” Organizations will have to learn the best techniques for extracting value from raw IoT data in real time, and then storing the data inex‐ pensively for future use.
Jiang agrees with the general notion that not all IoT data has equal value. But he is wary of creating special systems or protocols for dif‐ ferent kinds of data. “Let’s not group IoT devices into their own little networks. That is fundamentally contrary to the basic principles of the IoT. Instead, let’s rely on the traditional idea of end-to-end relia‐ bility,” he says. “If you’re worried about enhanced security, focus on the endpoint, and not on creating a special virtual local area net‐ work (VLAN).”
In other words, don’t treat the IoT as a special case. “That would be bad for the ecosystem,” says Jiang. “Let’s build on the same principles that made the Internet successful.”
From “Are Your Networks Ready for the IoT?”
By Mike Barlow
Released: March 2016